Christopher DiRaddo's The Family Way

The famous installation that marked the Village Gai in Montreal from 2011 (the year the novel opens) till 2019. 

 

Instead of the usual MiniReview, I’m writing a longer piece here that is not exactly a review but mostly an explanation of why I find it difficult to obtain any objectivity to do a proper review of this novel, much as I admire and recommend it.

Christopher DiRaddo’s The Family Way is what I think of as a “the way we live now” kind of novel. That is, it’s a wide-ranging tale with many characters and multiple plotlines that attempts to paint some kind of representative portrait of a particular society at a particular time, or (if that’s too large a subject, which it generally is) of a particular subset within a society. This is what Victorian writers did fairly reliably, with their huge novels that ranged widely over the various layers of society (think Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot). I love these kinds of novels.

            So, the subject here is the lives of gay men and women in the urban North America of the 21st century, and of course I ate it up. The main character, Paul, lives in Montreal with his anxious boyfriend, Michael. They have an assortment of friends, who range from the randy Gus, who wants meaningless sex with the largest number of guys, to Danny, who wants a meaningful monogamous relationship (and isn’t finding it), to Wendy and Eve, who want a baby and ask Paul to be the sperm donor (i.e., father but not Dad).

            But of course gay people don’t only know gay people. We have families too. So there is Paul’s father, now happily remarried after the death of Paul’s mother and living an apparently solid domestic life with his new wife; and Kate, Paul’s sister, exiting a long-term relationship that may have been doomed by her inability to conceive a child.

            What’s interesting is that the lives of the two groups—the gays and the straights—aren’t that different in many ways. Ultimately, almost all the characters are looking for domestic happiness—a happy family. And this is what distinguishes this novel from much LGBTQ writing: the gay lives here seem normal, tranquil even. There are problems, yes, but we’re not talking problems on the level of AIDS, institutional discrimination, violent homophobia, mental anguish, the ongoing effects of trauma. The problems these characters have are ones that are human rather than specifically queer: the search for love, home, community.

            I decided not to write my usual review because although I can answer the main questions (Is this well written? Yes, like DiRaddo’s previous novel. Is it worth reading? Definitely. Is it enjoyable? It’s a delight, one of those books you just want to keep going back to. This is a book that DiRaddo’s characters would devour whilst taking in the sun on the beach in Provincetown before heading off to the Tea Dance), I feel utterly unable to answer what is perhaps the central question: If this is a “the way we live now” novel, does it succeed in offering up an accurate portrayal of queer lives in a generally gay-friendly North American city in the 21st century?

            And here, I can only be totally subjective. And my subjective response is: As a queer man myself, living in Montreal in the 21st century, I didn’t really relate much to this story on a personal level. I will admit, gay novels in which the characters are largely happy always seem more like fantasies to me; and even as I enjoy the portrait of queer folk getting on with their lives without unusual impediments to the pursuit of happiness, and even as I would like to believe this is possible (and I believe it is possible, and that many queer folk are currently living these lives), my own queer journey has been other. And so, yes, gay novels that end tragically, or at least with a peace that is fragile and likely transitory, always strike me as more “real.”

            At the same time, I don’t think I’m “right.” I have no way of knowing the degree to which queer people in 2022 are getting on with their lives with a level of difficulty that doesn’t exceed that of the straight population, and how many are struggling, to a greater or lesser extent. For that matter, how many queer folk see their identity as founded in a fundamental rejection of societal norms, and thus do not aspire to the kind of peaceful, stable, in some respects unremarkable lives portrayed in this novel? Again, I’m in no position to say.

            The Family Way provoked me in the way good writing does. It provoked me with its suggestion that queer folk are rather like “normal” folk, a point of view that gets my hackles up. But there’s the rub: it’s a point of view I don’t personally share, but my point of view is born out of my own experiences and is not necessarily remotely in line with the reality of most queer folk’s lived experience. Curiously, for a novel that is, among many other qualities, cozy (this is not a word I use disparagingly; the one writer who never lets me down is invariably described as cozy), reading The Family Way was destabilizing to me, holding up a mirror to life that reflected a world I don’t recognize (do other gay men really have that much sex? are there gay men who actually want children? do gay men really talk like this? why do these characters not seem to have any straight friends? do other gay men go to this many parties? do gay men really like Madonna?).

             I’ll put my individual reaction in a nutshell: If, as I said at the outset, I would describe this novel as one that portrays a specific community—and I suspect it is a pretty accurate portrayal—then I feel even less a part of that community than I did before I read it. And given that the community is gay people (and largely gay men), that is sobering for me. The characters in this novel wear their queerness lightly, and this is something I have never known.

            But it takes nothing away from the novel, the fact that I was moved—and sometimes provoked or bemused or angered or saddened—by it. After all, isn’t that what art (in contrast to entertainment) is for?

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