Family Pictures: A Novel

Family Pictures: A Novel

by Sue Miller

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A masterful, engrossing novel about the life of a large family that is deeply bonded by the stranger in their midst — an autistic child

The whole world could not have broken the spirit and strength of the Eberhardt family of 1948. Lainey is a wonderful if slightly eccentric mother. David is a good father, sometimes sarcastic, always cool-tempered. Two wonderful children round out the perfect picture. Then the next child arrives — and life is never the same again. Over the next forty years, the Eberhardt family struggles to survive a flood tide of upheaval and heartbreak, love and betrayal, passion and pain...hoping they can someday heal their hearts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060929985
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/09/1999
Series: Harper Perennial
Edition description: 1 HARPER
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

Sue Miller is the bestselling author of While I Was Gone, The Distinguished Guest, For Love, Family Pictures, Inventing the Abbotts, and The Good Mother. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

November 29, 1943

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A., Radcliffe College, 1964; M.A.T., Wesleyan U., 1965; Ed.M., Harvard U., 1975; M.A. Boston U., 1980

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

It's my brother Mack's birthday. He's fourteen. We're all sitting at the table in the dining room. The curtains are drawn, though you can see the glint of summer evening light through the cracks. When my mother rounds the corner from the kitchen with the glowing cake, we burst into ragged song.

Heaped next to Mack's place on the table are his opened presents — odd homemade things from me and my younger sisters; but a nice sweater my mother gave him on behalf on my other brother, and three Roy Orbison forty-fives from my older sister, Liddie. You can also see the neck of the guitar my parents have bought him, leaning against the table's edge. It seems to me that color rises to Mack's face as we sing to him, though perhaps it's just the soft light from the candles that makes him look this way — young, and suddenly sweet and shy. When my eyes meet his, I'm embarrassed; I feel a catch in my voice.

The moment we've finished the song, Mack leans forward and blows the candles out. In the silent twilit aftermath of our applause, my other brother — my autistic brother, Randall — speaks. "Happy birthday, dear Mackie," he says.

We are all silent, and then Liddie, the oldest, laughs, "My God!" she says. "Did you hear him? My God!"

"I wouldn't get excited, Lydia," my father says. "That's about his annual quota of words, isn't it?" And my mother's face, which has turned in astonishment to her younger son in the dim light, instantly drops. My father changes the subject; someone gets up to pull back the curtains on the windows, to let what'sleft of the daylight in.

This is the way I remember it. But I'm wrong.

My mother tells me he never spoke after the age of four or so. My sister Liddie says it's her memory, her story, one she told me much later. I've appropriated it, she says, the way I do with everything in our family's history. I've changed it to suit myself — made myself older, an observer, when in reality I was an infant when it happened, and Mary and Sarah weren't even born.

And yet. And yet it seems as clear to me as a picture I might have taken. I could swear this was exactly what happened.

But that's the way it is in a family, isn't it? The stories get passed around, polished, embellished. Liddie's version or Mack's version changes as it becomes my version. And when I tell them, it's not just that the events are different but that they all mean something different too. Something I want them to mean. Or need them to. And of course, there's also the factor of time. Of how your perspective, your way of telling the story — of seeing it — changes as time passes. As you change.

Now, for example, I see that we must always have known, my younger sisters and I, that we hadn't been wanted or planned, that there was something complicated and painful for our parents in our very existence. But what we would have said then was just that there were too many of us, too many children in our family. So this might be one place to start my version of our story: how we felt about ourselves, in our world, where every house spilled kids into the Chicago street.

Most of them spilled two or three, though. Four was a little excessive. Five absurd. And there were six of us. Six meant something different, a special case in some way. Catholic. Or a man who couldn't keep his hands off his wife. A neurotic breeder of a woman. People would ask, "Six of you?" and yes never seemed a sufficient answer. Occasionally I would say of myself and my younger sisters, "Well, we're the extras," passing along one of our father's nicknames for us without understanding it — as though it might answer the question. And sometimes it seemed to. "Oh!" the questioner would say. "Yes."

Certainly even then we thought of the family as neatly divided down the middle. The first three, Macklin, Lydia, and Randall, were the special ones. Even those names, we thought, showed greater imagination, greater involvement on our parents' part, than ours did: Nina, Mary, Sarah. Clearly by that time they had run out of gas.

But we didn't necessarily connect any of this with our father's nicknames for us. These were embarrassing not because of what they meant — which none of us stopped to consider then anyway — but because they existed at all. Not because they pointed to some quality we shared, but because they pointed to us. He called us "the unexpected guests," or "the surprise party." He would lower his book and watch us as we pal passed his study door, the three of us always together. Under his high, narrow forehead, his blue eyes had the trick that eyes in certain portraits or photographs do, of seeming to follow you while actually remaining steady, unmoving. "There they go, the extras," he'd say. Or, "Ah, the fleet's in. The Nina, the Pint-sized, the Santa Maria." We were "the little pitchers of health," "the coup de grace," "the last straws." We complained and laughed and whined about it, we told our mother, but it only made him worse.

"Pay no attention to him," Mother said when she was in a good mood. But when she was in the dumps, her mouth went tight. She would turn away from him quickly in anger. She'd pick up again whatever she was drinking — cold, milky coffee, flat beer, an inch or two of something brown and sticky in the bottom of a glass.

Family Pictures. Copyright © by Sue Miller. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Family Pictures 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
CatieN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Story of the ups and downs of 40 years in the life of the Eberhardt family of Chicago told mainly through the eyes of fourth (out of 6) child Nina, Mac (#2), and mom Lainey, and dad David, who is a psychiatrist. Their lives are shaped by the fact that the third child Randall is severely autistic and not much is known about that in the '50s and '60s. The author also places the characters very realistically in the social and political times of the different eras they live through during the course of the book. Great writing, lots of detail, and the reader becomes very invested in what happens to each one of the family members
lilyfathersjoy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm left breathless by Sue Miller's ability to tell a story from many different viewpoints - female, male, very young, very old - reflecting attitudes of five different decades. This covers the timelines of several members of one family whose scars radiate out over many years from the autism of one brother. I don't think this is a spoiler, but the final pages detail an idyllic evening just before the birth of the autistic child. We see the family, still small, as yet unwounded, ready to welcome the new child. We the readers have been privy to the years of guilt and consequences, and the poignancy is razor-sharp and achingly beautiful.
dickmanikowski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Highly eclectic novel told from the perspectives of every member of a family except for the son who turns out to be the axle around which everyone turns--the autistic son.
Bookmarque on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Once again Miller feeds our voyeuristic hunger. Up close and personal is a barely adequate phrase when describing her family sagas. This time there is no one looming disaster on the horizon. It¿s more the disintegration of a family over time. Partly it is because of the roles each of them were forced into. Most obvious is Mack; the `good¿ son. The healthy son. The hope. He cracked under the pressure and while he didn¿t completely fail in the grand scheme of things, he failed to be the shining example of perfect manhood that his father wanted. Lainey seemed more removed from his life than David. Out of the six siblings, only Mack, Nina and Randall are the focus; Mary, Sarah and Lydia are in the periphery.As a family they are very close in the sense that they are involved with the surface of each other¿s lives. They are each, however, adept and successful at hiding a secret life. Mack smokes pot and becomes disaffected with what his parents want from him. Nina is briefly promiscuous as she embarks on a creative life. David has numerous affairs with neighborhood women as he tries to distance himself from his defective son and the system that supports him.Then ending was a little surreal and I think it was a fiction within a fiction. For a book with essentially no plot, it was a fair way to tie things up.
blueeyedgoover on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hated this book...can not believe i pushed myself through it. i have enough family drama on my own, certainly did not need to read about another family. i truly could not find a purpose for this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read many positive reviews of Sue Miller and expected this to be a well-written entertaining book. Unfortunately, it was neither. The story jumped around and forced the reader to make many assumptions since the character development was sketchy. I waited 448 pages for the story to grab me, but it never happened. I was extremely disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I was gone was a great read. When I picked up this book I expected the same. Family pictures was boring and drawn out. A real struggle to read and stay involved.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While I was Gone Was a much better story. This one went nowhere...slowly! Kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was such a disappointment after reading While I was Gone and others by Sue Miller. It just rambled on and on and never took you anywhere. There wasn't any kind of 'plot' with a beginning, middle and end - especially no end. I kept waiting for something more, but never found it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would have like to know more about the families experience with Randall. He has autism and was forgotten about through most of the book. The other characters were well developed and interesting to follow. I also has a hard time with the spelling errors in the book....drove me crazy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love Sue Miller's style and how she gets right into the heart and mind of a female character. I don't think this book lacks that either. She does tell you things about a character that make them real and lovable. The book could have been great if there was more of a structured plot. I felt like I was being led down a path that never went anywhere. I also like to be shocked, so if you are looking for just a relaxing, realistic story about a family, this book might be for you. One thing that the book does do well is give us a glimpse of what it might be like to be in a family with an autistic child.