In an astounding debut, Tracy Barone’s first novel Happy Family, portrays a collage of familial relationships that are anything but happy. The year is 1962: the place, Trenton, New Jersey. A young girl walks into a health clinic and gives birth to a baby girl with mismatched eyes. Billy Beal is a volunteer orderly at the clinic, and the young mother has made an impression on him. When she escapes from the hospital and leaves her baby along with a handmade charm behind, Billy cajoles his mother into fostering the child until an adoptive family is found, with the secret hope of meeting the dark haired girl again.
Solomon and Cici Matzner, recently shattered from a tragic loss that threatens to pull their marriage apart, adopt the little girl and raise her as their own, in the hope that this will somehow give them closure and another chance at having the perfect family. This is the beginning of this extraordinary novel.
Forty years later, Cheri Matzner is that abandoned baby. She has lived her life sassy, bold and unapologetic, a rebellious and angry spirit who turns to academia in an attempt to put a difficult past behind her when her career as a police officer for the NYPD comes to an abrupt end.
Suffering through a failing marriage and a long strain of unsuccessful fertility treatments, Cheri feels that her life is falling apart. Years ago, she distanced herself from her adoptive parents in an attempt to ward off her overbearing mother and a father who Cheri is certain never really wanted her in the first place. As Cheri tries to do away with anything that ties her to Cici and Sol, and as her marriage slowly starts to unravel under the strain of a shocking revelation, she learns that in order to move forward, you must first make peace with the past.
Barone’s novel pulls you in from the very first page and doesn’t let go, masterfully playing with multiple points of view. First, the young dark haired girl, who we later find out is Cheri’s birth mother. Then the story is told from Billy Beal’s perspective, moving on to Solomon and Cici Matzner’s inner voice until finally, it settles on Cheri. From her, we will learn what exactly happened to that abandoned baby and how she became the woman who sports tattoos, multiple piercings, and the brazen attitude like a second skin.
Her firm stand against her parents is confusing at first, because it is difficult to discern why Cheri seems to dislike and even at times hate her adoptive parents. But as the truth about her family and about Cheri herself is revealed, it is difficult not to feel empathy not only towards Cheri, but also her parents who amid their mistakes, have tried to love her as their own child.
It’s surprising that Happy Family is Barone’s first novel. She brilliantly presents a powerful and gripping story, that will resonate with anyone that has ever thought their family less than perfect, while simultaneously illustrating the various decades in which the novel takes place in the style of a much seasoned writer. Barone knows how to get in touch and expose the raw emotional and psychological traits of her characters, developing their voices and their personas to the point of making them incredibly real.
The way Barone ends the novel is a feat in itself, an ending that is completely astoundingly real as it is beautiful. Happy Family is a glorious life lesson in relationships. This book reminds us that no matter how dysfunctional and complex, family can define who we were, who we are, and perhaps who we’ll be, even if we didn’t choose to be a part of it.