Every Happy Family – Book Review

Overall Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“The closer you are the more damage they do.”

It only took this one book to make Sarah Stovell one of my new auto-buy authors. I’m absolutely blown away by this story! Such a powerful, heart-wrenching and engrossing novel filled with emotion, and I loved every page. I’m so happy to be sharing my review of Every Happy Family on release week! 🥳

About the book:

Minnie and Bert are over the moon to have their three grown-up children home for the first time in a decade. But having Lizzie, Jess, Owen and the grandchildren under one roof isn’t without its dramas.

Lizzie is off the alcohol (although mulled wine doesn’t count), Jess is juggling a toddler and a newborn, but it’s Owen who has the power to throw a grenade into everything.

It all goes back to something that happened when Owen was a teenager and it involves Nora Skelly – a name you don’t mention in front of Minnie.

With Nora also back in town, the past is about to come crashing into the present. And what better time to revisit old secrets and resentments than around the family dinner table?

The beginning

First of all, I’m here for family drama. I’m here for a book set at Christmas. And I’m absolutely here for unique characters with heaps of personality. This book instantly gave me all this and I was sold only a few pages in! Family gatherings don’t happen often with this tribe (it’s been 10 years since the last, and probably for good reason) but now, Minnie’s children and grandchildren are all travelling to her house for the holidays. We meet Lizzie first, and we not only learn so much of her family dynamic and those closest to her, but the author introduces us with a humorous edge – and it was absolutely my kind of humour. I loved it! The chapters alternate between the adult children and Minnie, and hearing the early drama from different perspectives was so insightful and juicy. I already had questions about Owen and Nora. Why did Owen always seem to cause the drama? Why was Nora a taboo subject? A really exciting start to the book and I already knew I’d love this!

Minnie craves a Christmas without drama, with all her family under one roof. But with Jess’ new baby and Owen opting to stay in a hotel with his daughter (and strangely, minus his wife) it was looking more and more unlikely that she’d get her wish. Minnie was such a wonderful, motherly character. She warmed my heart every time we read the chapters from her perspective and I loved how she saw the world. At times, I felt as though I was sat around the table with herself and Bert, absorbing their lives yet observing from afar. I wanted to join in their conversations about anything and everything! I also really enjoyed hearing about Minnie in the past, and I thought she seemed like a whole different person. Revisiting scenes from the past to really understand the stories of these characters and where they’d come from was such a crucial component in this book, and it was executed perfectly. Everything we learnt felt so important to the bigger picture, and I was loving every moment, every detail.

“It would be nice if one of her children could be normal for once. That was all she asked. It didn’t even need to be permanent. A phase would be fine. A phase of being normal. Imagine that!”

As the characters are so important in a book like this, it’s always exciting when we hear about a new one, someone with a bit of history. Nora was exactly what I’d been hoping for. We know a little about her by now, but not too much. There are already things to think about, things for the family to gossip over after Minnie returns from her unexpected run-in. How no one had seen Nora for years and years, but she’d been keeping in touch with Owen on and off since it happened… (I needed to know what it was!) I loved how we’re always back and forth in time, from present day, back to 1995 when Lizzie and Nora are good friends and Owen and Nora start to speak and develop their relationship. I thought Nora was completely fascinating and such a wonderful character. Her tragic story kept me gripped and made me desperate to read more of it, about where things went wrong. I also loved how her life and her past gave her something in common with Owen, how they could talk freely about their experiences and build on their relationship.

Dialogue in this book was so absorbing; the way different characters converse with one another and discuss so much made me forget about real life for a while and completely forget about my surroundings. Even the little details as we read about 1995 instantly transported me back in time. Nora’s mother leaving her life is explored in such a deep and emotional way. It saddened me learning of how her peers turned their backs on her and how she grew up to be a bit of a loner, someone who was forced to develop her own strength and independence. But at the same time, it also opened up so many opportunities, the start of relationships that would be hugely important in time. The immense detail we read from the past really makes the present day chapters stand out, even though, to be honest, there aren’t that many chapters set in the present day at this point. I felt this book was mainly learning about past events that led all these characters to a single point in time, a crucial point that I couldn’t wait to explore later on!

The middle

Owen and Nora’s relationship becomes such an important chunk of this story. Owen always had it in his mind that he wanted to move far away from his home town and his family (he’d even applied to Scottish universities, the opposite end of the country) but since he’d met Nora, he wanted to spend every waking moment with her, and she him. Although, there was no way she was cancelling her summer trip volunteering in India. I loved the inclusion of first love in this book, and the author has perfectly captured the feelings and emotions associated with this. It was also heartwarming to see just how Nora’s presence in his life had grounded Owen, given him goals and aspirations. It was so clear how important it was that we knew about the early days of Owen and Nora’s relationship, and I guessed there’d be so much more to this relationship and their lives later on that I was desperate to read about.

Hearing from the points of view of Ruby and Layla (Lizzie’s and Owen’s daughters) in the present day was excellent and really gave the story a fresh look. It shows just how much a child takes in from their surroundings and their views on what’s going on in their family lives. Their discussions revealed a little more information we didn’t know, the delivery of this making me more curious about what lay in the past! The pacing of all this created the perfect amount of suspense and intrigue, the layers of each character’s experiences creating something unique and addictive to read. We finally get a reveal, a big shock for Owen and Nora that would change everything. I predicted that it was the start of something bigger, a huge learning curve, a hurdle they had to overcome. The secrets, the feeling that something isn’t right worries Minnie. Why on earth would her son change his mind about university after working so hard? When she finally learns the truth, what would happen to their mother/son relationship? Their family?

“Everything felt so important and so fragile. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she failed at this, if she didn’t deal with it perfectly, their happy family would fall apart.”

Owen reuniting with Nora after reading about their journey back in ’95 was exciting, even though their lives shouldn’t align anymore. But were they always meant to be in each other’s lives? The way Owen still feels about her after so much time had passed really tugged at my heart, even though he had a whole new life now. After being invited back to Minnie’s house for Christmas after so many years, I had a feeling it would be such a memorable scene, especially with so many opinions from so many different characters. How would Layla take it? This mystery woman, this stranger joining them for Christmas while her mother was stuck in Australia? How would Lizzie take it, Nora’s old best friend? What about Minnie, who thought she was such a lovely, ambitious girl full of wonder all those years ago? And Owen, after everything they shared, everything they went through? I could picture two very different possible outcomes; a sweet reunion, or maybe the ultimate catfight. But either way, it’d be an exciting ride.

Past Minnie reveals some of her own true fears which was unexpected and made me really feel for her so much more. There’s more to this character than what we see on the surface, and I thought the author had developed her character so well. We finally hear from Jess’ point of view, (Minnie’s youngest child alongside Owen and Lizzie, and how life is with her newborn) and a few theories started to form in my brain. She was a lot younger than her siblings and it wasn’t long before we hear the thoughts I was thinking through Jess’ words. Even though I thought this direction was a bit too obvious to be a ‘big reveal’ (or maybe it was a red herring?!) I thought it was revealed to the reader at the right moment and left enough of the story to explore this further, rather than revealing it too late. So many characters were very important at this part of the story, at the very heart of the drama. Each of their stories were woven together effortlessly.

The end

When I first started reading this book, there was no way I’d have expected a plot like this, but everything we learn, everything these characters go through made it such an unforgettable, heart-wrenching journey. Owen and Nora’s lives changed so quickly, so unexpectedly that I was worried for what came next. Even though we read about both of these characters in the present day, I was still worried and nervous about everything they endured together in the past and how it would affect their lives from that point on. Minnie also had the potential for her own life-changing story, and how her life intertwined with her son’s and Nora’s lives was something I couldn’t stop thinking about. I loved all the characters all the way through, but it was this point in particular that they really came alive for me. I adored these three characters and I was constantly questioning where they would all end up, and if all their secrets would eventually be out in the open.

There was a layer of sadness and uncertainty at this point in the book and the author absolutely nailed it. The atmosphere, the whole tone of the book had been taken down a notch, and certain chapters were filled with a kind of darkness which made me question so much. I put myself in the shoes of various characters, wanting to reach out to them and comfort them in different scenarios and I wanted nothing but happiness for all of them. I loved how we explore the past, it made me feel so much more appreciative of the whole storyline, their lives, the difficult journey and sacrifices made. It was a work of art! Admitting you need help is one of the hardest and strongest things anyone can do, and Owen brought a tear to my eye when he tries to do what is best. Character development at its finest! The lessons he’s learnt along the way and the things both he and Nora have had to try and overcome were just too big to comprehend for such a young couple.

“They’d been expecting softness and for their lives to be suffused with tenderness. It wasn’t like that. This new world felt not gentle, but cruel and unforgiving.”

The author’s description of a busy Christmas morning was perfectly written and managed to put a big smile on my face. This was a part of the book I’d really been looking forward to (because CHRISTMAS!) The reunion of all these characters I’d read about in their pasts just made me exceptionally happy and I couldn’t wait to see how things played out. Would there be raised voices? Would decades old secrets be revealed? Would the drama (finally) stay away after everything that had happened over the years? I did detect a tense, on-edge kind of feeling between some characters which I was looking forward to exploring, and the closer we get to the end, the more I fell in love with the book. There is, in fact, plenty more unexpected drama, some emergency situations, but also some deep and meaningful conversations that I adored. This book just seemed to have everything! The unpredictability of the ending was also a huge plus. I love to be kept guessing from start to finish!

I haven’t held my breath and wished for a happy ending as much as I have with this book – the ending chapters were intense. Postnatal depression has been explored so much in the final part of the book, but the final few chapters made me feel so incredibly sad. It was powerful and heartbreaking, and the author has written these scenes with such attention to detail. It couldn’t have been easy to write, never mind read. The conversations, making sure all family members were on the same page about what happened all those years ago had me glued to the pages and I felt the ending was so incredibly strong. An absolutely excellent finale. I loved how the final chapter doesn’t tie everything up – we are left with positive words and plenty to think about regarding the futures of the characters we love. It was, in my opinion, the perfect ending. I can see myself thinking and dreaming about this one for weeks! My first read from this author, but it certainly won’t be the last. True perfection!

Overall thoughts

I don’t think I could love this book more if I tried. It was absolute perfection! Such a powerful story of family, drama, secrets and quite frankly, life’s ups and downs, sometimes in the most saddening and terrifying ways. Every Happy Family covers a lot of ground in its 366 pages, and I was hooked from the very start. Despite tackling the tough subjects of domestic abuse, drug abuse and postnatal depression, the author has done this in a respectable way and balanced these dark elements with light-hearted humour and positivity. Character development is some of the best I’ve seen and I’m confident their journeys will stay with me for a lifetime. An absolutely flawless read and an unforgettable ride.

HUGE thanks to the author, Sarah Stovell, and the HQ Publicity Team for my beautiful copy of this book! Every Happy Family releases on March 30th. You can grab your copy from Amazon or wherever you buy your books! Make sure you’re following the author on Twitter for more updates.

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