Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Family Album by Lively

Family Album / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, c2009.
261 p.

I can summarize this book very succinctly: Brilliant!

I've been reading a lot of Lively lately, but this new novel really impressed me. It has a contemporary feel to it, it's clever and deceptively simple, and I really think she is just getting better with every book she writes.

Family Album is the history of a house, and the family which inhabits it. Allersmead is a big house, well suited to the Harper family of two adults, six children and an au pair. The tale is told by an omniscient narrator, but with sections focused on each of the various characters. Lively provides glimpses into the family dynamics via succinct moments, from childhood to a time when all the children have left home. Her precise eye captures a scene, a statement, a personal habit which sums up a character, allowing you to extrapolate further in imagination. There are family secrets here, but nothing horrific, no "child called It" in this tale. With the cover intimating something awful, and dark hints thrown in all along about something not quite right, I expected the eventual revelation to be a little more shocking. Not that I wanted something awful to appear, it's just that it did seem to be suggested. But that is one small quibble in a fully enjoyable reading experience.

The story circles around Charles and Alison who marry quite young, a seemingly mismatched couple, but with their first child on the way there wasn't much choice for them. Alison is completely and utterly focused on home and children; Charles sometimes feels incidental to her life plan. Charles, meanwhile, is an independent academic, writing popular books about topics such as "Youth Culture around the World". He is independently wealthy thanks to a prescient ancestor who invented household products such as Vim and Dettol. Alison, though, is most proud of the fact that she has six children: "none of the other mothers have so many". Her sister-in-law Corinna has no children, by choice, and is eternally grateful for it, especially after spending time at Allersmead. I was impressed by how Lively creates two such different women with drastically opposite viewpoints on children and family life; yet neither is condescended to or presented as having made the "right" choice. All the characters are flawed in some way -- being human with no pretensions to perfection. Eldest son Paul turns out to be a bit unmotivated in life, Gina is brisk and investigative, Sandra is unusual (she loves fashion and matures early), Roger and Katie are a unit of two within the family, and youngest sister Clare is lithe, blond, and only interested in dancing.

In a story with such a large cast, a couple of the characters inevitably get short shrift, and in this book, the fourth and fifth children, Roger and Katie, are the least detailed. Still, they move to North America in adulthood, Roger to Toronto and Katie to the US and this allows for some discussion of Canadianness -- which of course I loved! Roger marries a Toronto girl who is of Chinese descent, and the first time she meets Roger's clueless parents Charles wants to know where she is from, to place her. He asks if she's from Hong Kong or Taiwan; Susan, being thoroughly Canadian, calmly replies, "Toronto."

The book is centred in Allersmead; Charles and Alison bought it when they were first married, and the story carries us through the family trials and tribulations until such time as, perhaps, with children all scattered around the world, it is time to move on. The chapters are brief but as usual with Lively, full of telling moments. Family dynamics are front and centre, and it is next to impossible not to have a favourite (for the reader as well as for the mother in the tale). I must admit Alison drove me a bit batty, but I found it very interesting to wonder why she irritated me. And why Gina was my favourite.

It's a fantastic presentation of family life in a large group of siblings, with eccentric parents, and an au pair who stays for thirty years. I really can't describe much more of a plot; that's about it. But it is in the telling that this story shines; Lively captures the essence of suburban middle class living, all the petty things you remember about childhood and sibling relationships. Some of her regular preoccupations show up here -- family, the vagaries of memory, the history of a house (with resultant past and present existing side by side), academic characters -- but somehow this book feels more open, fresher and very modern, with new fascinations arising. Gina is a journalist who travels the world; Sandra ends up in Italy; Clare travels the world with her dance troupe. The final chapters are emails between the siblings, which feel so realistic yet are not vague or wordy filler but a brilliantly obvious usage of modern communication. The last page of the book I loved so much I can't even express it. It reminded me of a favourite Canadian novel, David Helwig's Saltsea, in its use of a house to express passing time and the ever changing nature of time and circumstance.

Anyhow, I am going on a bit about this really quite brief book, but I loved it. A favourite out of all the Lively I have read so far, I am going to buy my own copy so I can read it again and savour all the nuances. It's her voice that captivates me, and I very much enjoyed the way she told this story.


  1. so happy to see you loved this one as I have it on my list as well; great review.

  2. I've never read any of Lively's work, but you certainly have me interested now! This sounds great!

  3. I'm a fan of Penelope Lively generally (The Photograph being my favourite up until now). I will definitely get hold of this one as soon as I can. Thanks for the great review!

  4. Diane, Andi - I really enjoyed this one. I've seen strong opinions by people who disliked it; but as a Lively fan and I guess, as a non-Brit, I didn't have the same issues. I was very impressed by it.

    Litlove - good to know -- I'll pick up The Photograph next. :)

  5. I've only read one book by Lively so far (The Photograph) but liked it well enough. After reading your review of Family Album I went immediately to my library catalog, only to discover we don't have it - and neither, seemingly, do the other area libraries I've checked. Bummer. I'll look for it at the bookstore this weekend, then. It sounds great - thanks for the review!

  6. Ooh, this sounds good. I have only read one Lively and loved it (Consequences). I own others, but I am kind of savoring them, I don't want to finish them too quickly--I don't want to run out of Lively.

  7. "I was impressed by how Lively creates two such different women with drastically opposite viewpoints on children and family life; yet neither is condescended to or presented as having made the "right" choice."

    Well, this alone makes me want to read it. I definitely want to read more Lively, and this is the book I'll be picking up next.

  8. Lesley - I should remember to check when books are out in the States; often the UK ones appear earlier in Canada than the US. Hmmm.

    Thomas- I'm scared of the day that I run out of her books... guess I'll have to start over when that happens.

    Nymeth - both the women are focused on their own choices, but they are both, very humanly, equally irritating and interesting!


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