Skip to main content

The Misfortunes of Family


The Misfortunes of Family

Combining an innate talent for writing family dramas with her background in politics, author Meg Little Reilly presents THE MISFORTUNES OF FAMILY, the thought-provoking and ambitious story of the Bright family, led by retired Senator John Bright, and the tumultuous summer when he decides to return to politics after a terrorist attack.

JJ, Spencer, Charlie and Philip are all Bright boys: all-American, handsome, but not too handsome, and wildly ambitious. Comfortable in any circle and just charming enough to move between social classes, industries and settings, they seem to have it all --- and yet they are falling adrift. THE MISFORTUNES OF FAMILY begins as they and their loved ones are heading to the family lake house for their annual reunion. Fueled by beer and G&Ts, maintained by matriarch Patty, and bolstered by their WASPy inability to touch upon delicate subjects, the summer promises to be equal parts fun, awkward and functionally dysfunctional.

Adding to the suspense is the fact that John has agreed to let a documentary filmmaker, Farah, record their summer antics as part of a series dedicated to exposing the home lives of career politicians. Everyone is on their best behavior, but even so, the summer promises to be a life-changing one for all of the Brights --- and their spouses, partners and children.

JJ, the eldest brother, is arriving at the lake house with his beloved wife, Mary-Beth, and their twin sons, Lucas and Cameron. Though JJ is outwardly successful, he has plateaued at work, and his home renovations are burning through his wallet much faster than anticipated. Next in line is Spencer, and his husband, Ian. Spencer’s sexuality does not seem to bother the family, but his inability to secure a publisher for his next book does. After him comes Charlie, the free spirit of the group, who has --- unbeknownst to his family --- just lost his job at an international development company. Though he’s soothing the blow with his attractive girlfriend, Chelsea, it seems that his life of jetting around the world might be coming to an end. And then there’s Philip. We’ll get to him in just a bit.

"Reilly’s exploration of the shockwaves of guilt and horror are so thoroughly compelling that you will not care if the Brights are somewhat unlikable.... Reilly is a careful and thoughtful writer, and the Bright family is not one you will soon forget."

Alternating perspectives between the Bright boys’ partners, or “extras” as they affectionately call themselves, and Farah, Reilly explores what it’s like to be part of this family and how, despite having access to seemingly unlimited funds and resources, the boys are sorely lacking in self-awareness.

The reunion kicks off with the dramatic return of the youngest brother, Philip, who makes a shocking announcement that only serves to increase the distance between him and his family: he is foregoing his planned future of a wife, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence to join the seminary --- a seemingly honorable choice, but one that is too exotic and final for his family’s taste. With their reunion set off-kilter, it is up to the extras to help keep the Bright boys together.

Then, when a terrorist attack threatens their safety, John throws himself into high gear, revealing that, while the family may seem perfect, there is little substance behind their warmth and sense of closeness. Every move is carefully plotted, business deals are referred to as “kills,” and, despite each of the boys having families of their own, there is an intense focus on maintaining the core family, rather than growing from it.

When John announces that he’s planning a return to politics, the family is thrust into the spotlight, and though it is the extras who are most uncomfortable with it, it is the Bright boys who suffer the most. The return of Philip only adds to the boys’ confusion, even as he begins to form careful and compassionate bonds with the extras, including Farah. With tensions at an all-time high and the cameras rolling, long-held family secrets begin slipping through the cracks, exposing hidden rifts, uncomfortable betrayals and surprising alliances.

It would be an understatement to describe the Brights as larger than life, yet Reilly makes a brilliant choice in depicting them not from their own perspectives but rather from the viewpoints of the extras. Though Mary-Beth, Ian and Chelsea have been appropriately welcomed into the family, there is a distinct distance between them and the Brights, and it is one that Reilly works her way into perfectly. Writing as Ian, she explains, “Most families…were bound by some combination of genetics, shared experiences, loyalty and the mutually destructive threat of their own secrets. The Brights had all those things, but they had something else as well: an unwavering belief that life was so much better as a Bright.” It is an appealing misconception, but it is a misconception nonetheless.

Only Philip seems unmarred by his family’s perfection, and yet it is his ability to see reality that prevents him from a close relationship with his family. Playing into this dissonance, Reilly is able to explore all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the Bright family --- and that’s before she starts dropping secrets left and right.

It is not surprising that any supercharged WASP family --- particularly one engaged in the world of politics --- would have a few skeletons in their closet, and though Reilly does not fully shock with her reveals, it is the repercussions that carry the most weight. Tracking these ripples through the extras, she paints a fully fleshed portrait of the Bright family; in fact, her portrayal of them is so well-rounded and explored that you almost feel sorry for them, despite their privilege and wealth. As Farah explains, “These men weren’t victims. These men were the lucky winners in a rigged world…. And yet the shame on their faces was real. The Bright men weren’t archetypes in some abstract class war…. The Bright men were small, soft humans.”

I cannot say that THE MISFORTUNES OF FAMILY is entirely unpredictable, but I can tell you that the predictability does not matter. Reilly’s exploration of the shockwaves of guilt and horror are so thoroughly compelling that you will not care if the Brights are somewhat unlikable. At its heart, the book is about pride and vulnerability, and how easily “normal” is defined by whatever our families tell us it is --- even when it’s the furthest thing from it. Reilly is a careful and thoughtful writer, and the Bright family is not one you will soon forget.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 20, 2020

The Misfortunes of Family
by Meg Little Reilly

  • Publication Date: February 4, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Mira
  • ISBN-10: 0778369420
  • ISBN-13: 9780778369424