We Only Know So Much

By Elizabeth Crane

Harper Perennial
June 2012

Reviewed by Leah Tallon


Let's face it. We probably romanticize the meaning and function of family. We'd like to think of them as solid webs of support, each member forever connected by blood and the love that keeps it flowing. We like to think that's enough to hold us permanently together. But deep down we know it isn't that simple. Elizabeth Crane's debut novel We Only Know So Much tells the great ugly truth about family and life in general: sometimes people change and our ties to each other unravel, sending us floating away in opposite directions.

Crane begins the book sometime after the first threads are pulled from the seam:

At the moment, the Copeland family is a bit at odds.

That's it. That's the first line. From that sentence on, Crane balances all the unique voices of an entire family. No one character is the center. She brings all of them to life separately and allows their differences to define how they interact (or don't interact) as a group.

Gordon Copeland is a rambling encyclopedia of everything who is suddenly worried that the thing he is proudest of—his memory—is slowly slipping away. This distracts him enough to keep him from fully recognizing that his wife, Jean, is destroyed after the sudden death of her secret lover, which sends her on an emotional hunt for the ever-elusive "something more." Their precocious nine year old, Otis, is dealing with his very first experience with love, trying to piece together his mother's tidbits of over-share into advice on how to handle his own schoolyard crush. Otis's self-involved older sister, Priscilla, tries out for a spot in a reality TV show, which she is sure is her destined profession.  In another part of the house, Theodore, Gordon's father, is slowly losing his mind to Parkinson's but still determined as ever to complete his most important unfinished business, even if a squirrel bounding across the yard becomes a serious distraction. Then there's Theodore's sharp-as-a-tack 98-year old mother, Vivian, still struggling to overcome certain fears she's had for most of her life. The one thing they all have in common is their search for some kind of meaning within their private chaotic worlds.

We Only Know So Much is a book of unsaid thoughts and feelings, and Crane proves herself to be a master of the unspoken. The Copelands live on each other's periphery, most of the time only speaking out of a sense of obligation. Each is unaware of what the others are really going through, and, although there are moments when two family members could connect, the opportunity is usually allowed to fade. In an awkward mother-daughter moment, Priscilla lets it slip that she was recently dumped via status update:

"That's horrible! Why didn't you tell me this?"

Priscilla doesn't do much to conceal her look of "Do I ever tell you anything?" She's also not in the mood to get into the fact that her mom has obviously been somewhere else for, like, a while—definitely since before the Kyle thing.

"I'm very sorry that happened to you, Priscilla. I wish you felt you could tell me things."

We know you see the moment that could be here. But it's just not going to happen right now.

Focusing on one character at a time, the all-knowing "We" narrator steps in to show us what the Copelands won't show each other. "We" is blunt and tells us exactly what we, the readers, need to know, when we need to know it, with a humorous and engaging personality of its own. If it weren't for "We," none of us would have a clue and, trust me, "We" holds nothing back for fear of offending feelings:

First of all, Priscilla is a bitch. Or at least a brat. An extreme brat. Look, we're just reporting what we've heard. Maybe bitch is too harsh. Let's say it this way: her attitude is often poor. The reasons are currently unclear. For one thing, her parents might have done better to rethink that name. Right?

The unique narrator is our ticket into each brain in this family. It knows that Gordon has reached a turning point, that Jean is too lonely to function, that Priscilla is walking the tightrope of self-awareness, that Theodore's waiting period is almost up, that Vivian is tired of out-living but not really living and that Otis is just a third grader, only concerned with the types of jelly beans the girl of his dreams likes to eat. It gives us the distance we need to judge and the introspection to realize that we probably shouldn't be judging.

Sounds heavy, right? It could be. We're talking about adultery and suicide and death and first love and disease and fear and old age and questions of identity. None of these things set light as a feather. But to see the way Crane picks the comedic and heart-warming bits out of the ugliness of reality is like watching a street performer successfully juggle eggs and a mallet. She's colorful, charming and funny, modernizing the age-old idea that tragedy can be comedy.