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Island bookshelf: An unplanned memoir

Island Bookshelf

Whether it’s something in the water, the opportunity for peace and quiet or the inspiration of our own local characters, Shelter Island has no shortage of gifted writers. This column will highlight current books by Island authors, beginning this week with a memoir, “All Happy Families,” by Jeanne McCulloch.

The book is just out this month and the author will be featured at a book signing on Sunday, August 12 at Finley’s Fiction in the Heights. Although most of the book is set in her family’s former home in East Hampton, Ms. McCulloch said she treasures Shelter Island as a sanctuary where she can write in peace.

“I wrote quite a bit of it on Shelter Island,” she said. “Last July I finished the final draft sitting on my porch on West Neck Creek. Then when I was going through the final revision, I found myself on Shelter Island in a mid-winter snowstorm. It was fortuitous. I could just keep a fire going in the fireplace and work.”

In 1983, Ms. McCulloch and her fiancé were driving to East Hampton for their wedding when they learned that her father had suffered a massive stroke. While he lay in a coma in Southampton Hospital, her mother declared to the doctor, “We have to get these kids married now.”

Her father suffered from alcoholism, and in fact, his stroke stemmed from his wife’s effort to sober him up cold turkey.

As surprised as she was at her mother’s insistence that the festivities go forward, Ms. McCulloch came to realize that her father’s alcoholism had ruined many family events and her mother was not going to allow his condition to stand in the way of her daughter’s wedding. “While I was getting dressed for my wedding,” Ms. McCulloch remembered, “I heard my mother dial the phone and tell the doctor, ‘Whatever happens today, do not call this house. We are having a party.’”

In her memoir, Ms. McCulloch traces the family dysfunction leading to this pivotal moment, and relates how this surreal wedding weekend led to repercussions for both families who had thought their children were about to live happily ever after.

“My husband and I were very young,” she said, “and we were married and divorced by the time we were 29.”

While weaving through the family history, Ms. McCulloch also provides an elegy for a place that has disappeared. “My East Hampton doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “It’s become part of  The Hamptons.”

She added, “In my book I recall the low-key, country feel of the place. When we sold the East Hampton house, we moved to Shelter Island and found peace. It has such a New England-y feel. And I’m only a ferry ride away from my sisters.”

Although she teaches the art of memoir writing, she didn’t plan to write this book.

Offered a contract to develop a book based on an essay she wrote, she struggled to make her memories into a coherent story, she said: “You’re creating art out of chaos.”

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