splendid things we planned book coverReviewed by Alyssa Katanic

Burck Bailey was a young man of great promise whose hard work fulfilled that promise. He had earned a scholarship to NYC’s School of Law, a beautiful, young bride, fresh from Germany, and a young son. After school, he returned to his hometown, worked his way up as a lawyer, gained the appropriate 2.2 kids, beautiful homes, great cars, and assorted animals… Life was definitely looking “Splendid”, but issues always arise to ruin those “Splendid Things We Planned,” don’t they?

Author Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait is written by Burck’s youngest son and tells the story, as he sees it, of their family life and experiences with a main focus on the eldest son’s, Scott’s, tragic life. The title was pulled from a recording of Ray Clark’s song, “Yesterday When I Was Young,” an excerpt of which Bailey includes in his book. This song was played on the radio show that Scott Bailey hosted during his time in the Marines. The words of the song seem poignant to Scott’s own life as it speaks of the dreams the young man had for his adult self, which became lost or wasted due to his spending of his “young man’s years” on a party life, rather than working towards his adult life’s goals, as Burck Bailey had done.

Blake Bailey shows his brother Scott’s life as the better looking child, bright, entertaining around adults and friends, though cruel to his brother in many ways. He tells of Scott’s tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana use from a young age, the fights he would pick with their mom and others, and how he tried to pull Blake into drug use with him. There were numerous car accidents (mostly high end models gifted to him by their father), fights, failed job and school opportunities, and many questions as to what is wrong with “poor Scott”?

Throughout The Splendid Things We Planned, Bailey seems to be trying to seek out the answer to this question, himself, but the term “poor Scott” has always bothered him. Didn’t Blake Bailey share the same parents, household, and opportunities, for the most part, as “poor Scott”? Yet, Blake Bailey, despite his own alcohol abuse and a few failed starts when it came to a career and life path, did not have nearly as tragic a history of drugs and other sordid details of life that defined Scott’s. Was it not Scott’s own decision making that brought him the consequences he received despite second chances and helping hands?

Often, Bailey will allude to his father’s hard work and the family life he got in the deal. It almost seems unfair that someone who worked so hard in his “young man years” would have to deal with some of the things that Burck endured from his first wife and his sons. Where did everything start going off track? Who was most at fault? Was there a degree of mental illness involved? It is a tough call to read Bailey’s account and to try, with him, to understand how his family turned out as they had despite all their careful planning for their future.

As far as what kind of read The Splendid Things We Planned is, I would say that it is a rough one. The writing skill and the way that Bailey works through the story is amazing, but the language is often harsh (read: they swear a lot) and the details of drug use, violence, and sex (heterosexual and homosexual) adds to that roughness. This is not something I want to keep on my shelf, personally, for my sheltered kiddos to find (we can deal with all of these issues with gentler conversations in our home), but it is surely real life in full color for more families than just the Baileys I am sure.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Alyssa Katanic is a wife and homeschooling mother of 7 children under 11 years old. She loves reading and collecting great books to share with others and knows that one can never have too many!

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W.W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.