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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical / fiction

All Happy Families

Hervé Le Tellier

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To purchase All Happy Families

Title: All Happy Families
Author: Hervé Le Tellier
Genre: Novel / memoir
Written: 2017 (Eng.2019)
Length: 173 pages
Original in: French
Availability: All Happy Families - US
All Happy Families - UK
All Happy Families - Canada
Toutes les familles heureuses - Canada
Toutes les familles heureuses - France
All die glücklichen Familien - Deutschland
  • A Memoir
  • French title: Toutes les familles heureuses
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fully engaging account of growing up in an odd family

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 26/11/2018 Cornelius Wüllenkemper
L'Obs . 3/10/2017 Jérôme Garcin
TLS . 29/3/2019 Sheena Joughin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hervé Le Tellier (...) literarisiert in seinem neuen Roman ganz ungezwungen, oft ironisch, nie hämisch, mal wütend, mal nachdenklich den Fehler im System Familie. (...) Hervé Le Tellier zeichnet mit hintersinnigem Humor in geistreich plaudernden Kapiteln ebenso eingängige wie lebendige Personenporträts. Zugleich eröffnet er Einblicke in die französische Gesellschafts- und Mentalitätsgeschichte der letzten siebzig Jahre. (...) Unglückliche Familien bieten eben den besseren literarischen Stoff, zumindest in diesem Sinne hatte Tolstoi Recht. Hervé Le Tellier hat darüber einen Roman geschrieben, der das Lebensthema Familie sehr charmant vom Kopf auf die Füße stellt." - Cornelius Wüllenkemper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Bref, à une époque où, en littérature, le malheur est devenu une posture, on applaudit l'art et la manière avec lesquels le billettiste de «Guerre et plaies», qui fut auxiliaire à la morgue de Cochin, flasheur à «Libération» et gardien de nuit en clinique psychiatrique, tourne son enfance désastreuse en dérision et sa parentèle en grand-guignol." - Jérôme Garcin, L'Obs

  • "(T)here is no emotional excavation here, no retrospective compassion or attempt to understand. (...) (H)is adversary is finally tame, but his concluding boast of escape rings false. His obsessive resentment remains unresolved, and we are left with a queasy feeling." - Sheena Joughin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Presented in French (e.g.) and, for example, the German translation (right on the cover) as a novel, the English version of All Happy Families is being marketed as A Memoir: Americans (and perhaps the English) definitely prefer life-stories presented as true(-to-life) -- regardless of how made-up and literarily embellished they are -- while elsewhere readers are apparently more comfortable embracing the fictionality of even (especially ?) the personal account. Regardless of how one prefers to see/take it -- though surely fiction is always better --, All Happy Families is an autobiographical story, written in the first person.
       Le Tellier takes his title from the famous Tolstoyan quote, the opening of Anna Karenina -- translated here as: "All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" -- but of course he's not going to offer a story of one of those identically happy families. And already the opening paragraph makes fairly clear where he's coming from:

     So, apparently it's scandalous not to love your parents. Scandalous to wonder whether you should be ashamed because -- despite your youthful efforts -- you failed to find in your heart such a commonplace feeling as filial love.
       Le Tellier certainly has difficult relationships, with rather hard to love parents, but it's not quite as bad as this suggests: for all the strains and personality-clashes, his family and their behavior to one another doesn't seem that out of the ordinary -- or rather, only peculiar in some of its specifics (unhappy in its own strange ways). For all the alienation and times of estrangement, there are also rapprochements (of sorts); if not really close, and certainly lacking in heartfelt love, there's enough sense of filial duty, obligation, and family that, for example, Le Tellier sees to his mother when she goes completely off her rocker (descending into dementia -- though arguably forms of mental illness were long simmering (and occasionally bursting forth), to judge from her behavior). So also, Le Tellier apparently worries enough about the feelings of his parents to wait until they can't be hurt before writing (much less publishing) this book:
     My father and stepfather are dead, my mother is mad. They won't read this book, and I felt I finally had the right to write it.
       (The contrast to American tell-alls with their 'openness' that includes (if not outright means) writing/riding roughshod over the living is striking.)
       Le Tellier's parents are, indeed, pieces of work, readily summed up by him:
There was too little father in my stepfather, no father at all in my father, and too much fakery and unhealthy love in my mother.
       Le Tellier's parents were divorced when he was an infant; he saw relatively little of his father growing up, and barely got to know the considerably younger half-sister who his father (mostly) raised. His mother soon remarried, and Le Tellier eventually took his stepfather's family name -- hilariously engineered (it's not easy to change a family name in childhood in the French system) by his mother.
       His mother and stepfather were a fairly isolated couple: they had basically no friends, and social interaction was largely limited to family -- strained, in part (mom was always jealous of her sister), but also dutifully routine (dinner with the grandmother, etc.). An only child, Le Tellier seems to have been left mostly to his own devices -- as, for example, the parents didn't notice for several months when he stopped going to school (and indeed amusingly only discovered it thanks to a slight (though perhaps subconsciously intentional ?) oversight on his part). With his mother a supreme egoist, his stepfather entirely weakly deferential, Le Tellier found escape in books and, eventually, farther afield -- but even the occasional ruptures were eventually healed (in a manner of speaking): if not close, at least contact is maintained and there's a variety of mutual dependence over the years and decades. Certainly no happy family, Le Tellier's nevertheless hardly seems more dysfunctional than any number of others.
       The domineering figure of the mother seems at the root of the family dysfunction, some mental illness that is exacerbated over the years making life increasingly difficult (a highlight includes her ... looking up her son when he's at university), until finally there's nothing to be done but put her away. From childhood on, Le Tellier's efforts hit a solid wall as far as mom goes; set in her ways -- and firmly opinionated -- there's no bending or breaking her will, or strange shell. Her second husband seems to have understood and accepted his place, making for a marriage that baffles Le Tellier but seems to have been, on some level, functional (if hardly happy): they were, as Le Tellier puts it: "a loveless codependent couple". (Hey, whatever works, right ?) Not a great environment for the kid, but he seems to have navigated it as healthily as one might.
       Le Tellier presents his family story in chapters focused on different bits and aspects, a fascinating tour across the years. Writing from a present-day perspective, his own son Melville -- to whom the book is dedicated -- is a sometime presence, suggesting Le Tellier has managed slightly better with the next generation (and kudos to him for naming the kid 'Melville'). A chapter is devoted to his first great love, Piette (a name she adopted when she was four, refusing to respond to her given name of 'Rachel'), and though the chapter-title makes clear where this is going, it's no less moving getting there, a briefly constructed family-structure -- an actual healthy and happy relationship with someone ! -- tragically collapsing (with, again, mental illness playing a significant role). Entirely differently, there's the money his stepfather eventually inherited, and the Swiss bank account Le Tellier gains access to when his stepfather dies -- a tidy undeclared sum that used to be even tidier, with Le Tellier unable to figure out (or explain to the tax man) how his stepfather had been spending his fortune these past years.
       A loose biography of growing up and family history -- including the decline of the Le Tellier family, from once-impressive heights --, All Happy Families is a breezy, far-ranging little chronicle, neatly built up in its chapters with their different foci and anecdotes.
       Le Tellier doesn't feel too sorry for himself, and is often amusingly self-deprecating:
     I was an average student at high school, happy simply not to fail. I was and still am naturally lazy, but my brain had all the qualities of a sponge. Given my facility with certain subjects, some people might have wrongly concluded that I took an interest in them. I wasn't bad at languages. I'd been familiar with English since my childhood in Surrey; I started German in sixth grade, and Russian in eight grade. Whoever won the next war, I'd be ready to collaborate.
       His early family life certainly seems to have been pretty sorry, but Le Tellier doesn't really wallow, or indulge in much self-pity. He's come to terms with it, and so is able to relate it in a fairly neutral way -- though admitting to still being baffled by a great deal, and not in the clear with much of it. The time with Piette stands somewhat apart, yet ultimately is effectively tied into the story as a whole, including through his revealing (in the sense that they just continue to confirm everything prior) interactions with his parents during that period; amazingly, he doesn't allow this black hole -- the truly tragic tale in this account -- to overwhelm the rest of the narrative, showing a delicate craftsmanship in his writing, a remarkable sense of balance (which, in fact, is on display throughout).
       This is a very well-written life-account, by turns amusing, sad, and baffling (in the ways others' behavior can remain inexplicable to us). It is a different kind of miserable-family tale, with a lot still left unsaid and not described, but in not wallowing in his family's strangeness, and moving beyond and away from it, Le Tellier has written a very engaging work.
       Well worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 March 2019

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All Happy Families: Reviews: OuLiPo: Other books by Hervé Le Tellier under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Hervé Le Tellier was born in 1957. He is a member of the Oulipo.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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