Back in April (May?), I won an ARC of Grant Ginder’s The People We Hate at the Wedding as a Goodreads Giveaway. Because I am, as always, somewhat behind in my reading, I didn’t get a chance to read this until a few days ago.
If one only looks at the cover image – the headless figures of a bride and groom atop a wedding cake, you would guess that the novel centers on the a bride, a groom, and preparations for their wedding. You’d be wrong. The groom actually doesn’t figure into the story much at all – The People We Hate at the Wedding centers around the bride, Eloise, her mother, Donna and her half-siblings Paul and Alice in the lead-up to the wedding.
Paul and Alice have always had a particularly fraught relationship with Eloise, caused by the fact that Eloise has always lived a life of privilege, thanks to the her father’s wealth. Alice and Paul’s childhoods were far less lofty and there’s always been a wedge between them and Eloise, no matter how Eloise has worked to bridge it. Additionally, Paul has been icing Donna out of his life since his father’s death a few years prior due to her attempt to erase him from her life. He also has an iffy relationship with his boyfriend, Mark. On her end, Alice is still reeling from a tragedy which occurred five years prior and is currently carrying on an affair with Jonathan, who’s entirely unavailable to her.
There is no one – no one – in The People We Hate at the Wedding who is a particularly good person, other than Eloise’s fiancé, Ollie. He’s really the only wholeheartedly decent person in the bunch and is really kind of a non-entity. Mark, Jonathan, and Henrique are genuinely monstrous human beings. The others are more completely drawn – there’s good and bad in each of them: Eloise comes off as a caring person, though it appears that much of her benevolence is part of a ruse to make her seem like a good person. It is apparent, though, that she does care for her siblings and, at the end, there’s a scene with Paul which illustrates how much it truly bothers her that they aren’t a closer family. Donna did protect Paul from his father’s bigotry, but you do get the impression that Paul and Alice are, to her, part of the life she regrets living. Alice, I think, wants to be a better person and is an alright sibling to Paul, but has no idea how to be a better person. They each have periods in which they are truly awful people but they’re awful people you for whom you do feel some sympathy. You also want them all to get some therapy, too.
The novel’s an interesting look at an extremely dysfunctional family – and the wedding setting is inspired: what other event can make even the most put together families fall into pieces quite like a wedding?
Some reviews have claimed that the disdain Paul and Alice have for Eloise is unrealistic – I don’t think so. I think it makes perfect sense. When there can be this animosity when half-siblings are in two completely different economic classes – there’s a jealousy and anger at one person’s life being so much more streamlined than the other; a feeling that the other always gets what they want or has life all taken care of for them. While money may not buy happiness, you’re a complete liar if you don’t recognize that money and financial stability can affect the options that people have and brings certain advantages. I was born 22 years before my half-brother and my mother and stepfather are far more financially stable than my parents were when I was a kid. He has had advantages and experiences I never dreamed of his age and does not at all really understand what it means to be “poor”. When I was told of my mother’s pregnancy, I remember that I was slightly bitter that my half-sibling would never have to struggle as I did or have to take out student loans to cover what scholarships did not. I was 15 the first time I left the county – he was 5. He’s never known what it was to want to do some activity and be told that you can’t due to financial issues. This anger abated, in part, I think because there’s a significant gap between us and because I help with raising him (he calls me his Second Mother). But it was there, however briefly, so I can understand Paul and Alice’s feelings.
Eloise is the most interesting character to me. She seems, on the surface, to be this entirely upstanding person, but honestly, in her, I see someone who does the “right’ things because she thinks it will make her look better publically, not because she actually cares. She works for a non-profit organization because it looks good. She upgrades Alice’s hotel suite because it makes her look like a better sister, one who’s trying to bridge the gap. But, when Alice had a serious personal tragedy five years prior to the events of the novel,, she didn’t fly out to see her the way Donna and Paul did. This is, of course, one of Paul and Alice’s primary problems with Eloise – that when it really matters, she’s not there.
Of course, by the end of The People We Hate at the Wedding, the primary characters wrangle themselves into some approximation of an adjusted family. The ending isn’t definite and it’s a bit messy, but it’s a fun mess to spend a few hours with.