FAMILY ALBUM by Penelope Lively

Book Quote:

“The kitchen was the heartland of Allersmead. Of course. That is so in any well-adjusted family home, and Allersmead was a shrine to family. The kitchen was huge; once, some Edwardian cook would have presided here, serving up Sunday roast to some prosperous Edwardian group. Now there was – no, not an Aga but a big battered old gas cooker, a dresser cluttered with plates, cups, mugs, a scrubbed table that would seat a dozen. There were children’s drawings still tucked behind the crockery on the dresser, a painted papier-mâché tiger on a shelf, alongside a row of indeterminate clay animals that someone made earlier. There were named mugs slung from hooks: Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger, Clare.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (FEB 11, 2010)

British novelist Lively, winner of the Booker Prize (Moon Tiger) and an expert in the darkish art of domestic wit, celebrates big, happy families in her twenty-second book, Family Album. To matriarch Alison, family is, simply, what she lives for, even now that her six children have dispersed to distant parts and seldom return.

The novel opens with one such return, however. Gina (second oldest), 39, brings her new boyfriend, Philip, to meet her parents and see her rather larger-than-life childhood setting, Allersmead. The house is a rambling Edwardian pile with seven bedrooms, presided over still by Alison, husband Charles and the Swedish au pair, Ingrid, who arrived 40 years before and has never left.

Philip is intrigued, even a little envious, impressed by the many photos and mementos, the large garden, Alison’s wonderful and abundant food, the idea of the family teeming over the place.

“Gina continued to hear voices, her life was still flashing at her. It seemed odd that Philip could be impervious to this, that a person with whom one had become so absolutely intimate could be so perversely ignorant. Not know. Not see and hear. One is sealed off, she thought. So is he. So’s everyone. No wonder there’s mayhem.”

Her father, Charles, however, has made an art form out of sealing himself off from the mayhem. “Charles is immersed – in his train of thought, in the organization of words, of sentences. Time passes – but, for him, it seems to stand still. He looks out the window occasionally, unseeing, thoughts tumble in his head. He is elsewhere, inside his mind, in pursuit of an argument, a sequence.”

With the help of a small private income, Charles has devoted his life to writing books on any subject that captures his interest. The books are (or were) accessible and widely read, although not by anyone in his immediate family. His study seems an alien, sacrosanct territory inside the fecund chaos of the family manse.

He emerges for meals, engages newcomers (like Philip) in arcane discussions, handles the finances. Alison does everything else. With Ingrid’s somewhat implacable assistance. No one seems to know what Ingrid thinks, or ever thought, about anything, yet she is such an integral part of the family Allersmead cannot be imagined without her.

Naturally there are secrets. What family doesn’t have secrets?

These begin to emerge after Gina and Philip depart for home and the novel proceeds from various points of view at various times over the last forty years. Gina’s 8th birthday, “of which everyone will remember something different.” A summer holiday in Cornwall, which Katie remembers as “one commotion after another,” and Roger remembers as “amazing.” “I had that kite. I got seriously into marine biology.”

There were the cellar games, which excluded adults so completely that they knew nothing about them. The sibling rivalry between cerebral Gina and pretty Sandra. Paul’s youthful binges, which have somehow never stopped.

And there is the greatest gulf of all. “…their parents seemed to hover – presences that are entirely known, familiar and also unreachable, enigmatic.” As adults the children wonder about them to each other. The six children were obviously Alison’s raison d’etre, but what about Charles? Did he want that many? Did he want any?

Alison works hardest at keeping unpleasantness at bay. It’s more than sweeping things under the carpet. Alison will do almost anything to preserve her happy family.

And this family has one very big secret, known to all. “Not that there were conversations, exchanges, comments. No one has wished to discuss it; if ever the facts of the matter seemed to smolder dangerously, there would be a concerted move to stamp out the embers, to move away, to find safe territory elsewhere.”

This secret comes out fairly early in the novel, the biggest among other, smaller crises that have been dealt with and set aside. With her sharp wit and sympathetic understanding of human nature, Lively explores the ways families conspire in their secrets, the way memories inform a life and each life makes different memories of the same experience, the way one “happy family” is eight individual people all sequestered inside their own heads, all striving after their own interests.

For the reader Alison and Charles emerge as both repellant and sympathetic characters. To their children they remain, determinedly, enigmas.

An absorbing, witty portrait of family in all its warts and warmth, Lively’s latest will please her fans with its sharp characterizations and absorbing narrative path.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 20 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (October 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Penelope Lively
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:



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February 11, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Contemporary, Family Matters, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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