Harper Perennial: 280 pp., $14.99 paper
Dysfunctional small-town families are the low-hanging fruit of American literature. You just reach out and grab a ready cast of familiar figures, give them a few meaningful quirks, then let them wrestle with the dour commonalities of modern life, from romance-less marriages to dead-end jobs to dreams that dissipate far short of a near horizon.
They are books of a type, and Elizabeth Crane has delivered one here with her debut novel, "We Only Know So Much," about an extended family living in a small Midwestern town. But the novel also breaks type, primarily through the force of Crane's voice, part omniscient narrator, part reader's confidant and part droll comedian.
Crane's ensemble is the Copeland family, four generations living under one roof. The widowed matriarch is Vivian, who at age 98 has perfected the subtle art of using words as knives and holds deep disdain for most everything that has come about since 1935. Her son, Theodore, 75, is on the losing end of a battle withParkinson's disease, though he still has a penchant for dismantling can openers and other small appliances, never to reassemble them again.
Gordon is the third generation, and his family forms the center of the novel. The Copelands ran a jewelry and optometry store in town, which became strictly an optometry shop once Theodore took over. Gordon opted out of the family business and is a midlevel manager for a regional chain of grocery stores. His wife, Jean, cares for the home and their two children, Priscilla, 19, and Otis, 9.
There are no gripping plots to follow. Rather, Crane tells us what's going on in the family members' lives, and their dreams both big and little. Gordon is a few years older than Jean, and they married after he swept the impressionable college girl off her feet with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from cooking to far-flung destinations. As their marriage matured, Jean realized that the man she had once found dazzling was an irritating know-it-all. She suffers in silence, but also finds the missing spark of romance in a man from her book club, who in short order hangs himself just before their weekly tryst (she finds the body).
Grief and guilt nearly immobilize Jean, but Gordon, with whom she hasn't had sex for longer than either can remember, doesn't notice. He has his own existential crisis to navigate after he fails, while waiting in line at a deli counter, to recognize a former lover from his own college days, a glitch he is sure means he is losing the memory he so cherishes.
Daughter Priscilla is oblivious to everything except her own shallow life. An airhead community college student with a streak of nastiness, she's convinced she's destined for celebrity as a reality TV show figure. Only Otis, who is wrestling with his first romantic crush, senses the shifts underway in his family, but he's too young to understand the subtext of his mother's ramblings about the dead lover.
As the novel progresses through a few months in the life of the Copeland family, Crane is right there, narrating it all with an engaging, omniscient voice that occasionally jumps off track with first-person plural asides to the reader, as when she talks about Gordon taking some online quizzes that suggest he's not the person he thinks he is, planting a seed of doubt. "Let's see if he reaps it," Crane writes.
Crane is at her best in describing the young love of Otis, and in her depiction of Jean as a long-suffering wife who can't really figure out why she's suffering. For obvious reasons, she can't fully share her grief over the suicide of her lover, one's usual port of solace, which makes her isolation nearly absolute. Seeking an outlet, she attends a grief-counseling group and makes up a story about the death of her husband, rather than her lover. Though the scene rings a bit hollow — in a small town, such lies are easily found out — the scene is also poignant. Subconsciously, she's choosing her dead lover over her husband.
We think. As the title says, we know only so much, an observation that applies to what Crane tells us of the Copelands and their lives, but also what the Copelands understand about each other, and themselves, making this a wry evocation of modern life, at once familiar but also revelatory.
Martelle is the author of "Detroit: A Biography."