November 2009

Penelope Lively’s family affair

By Penelope Lively
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“One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them—a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a fish kettle and a set of Sabatier knives. She has all of these things, and knows that she is lucky. Oh, so lucky.”

When I was a teenager I planned on having six children: three girls, three boys. I wasn’t nearly so offhand about the husband as Alison, and I wanted more than one dog, as well as several cats. By the time I hit my mid-20s, I was off the idea of having children and wasn’t keen on marriage either. But those early yearnings—so true and so deep at the time—all came back while reading Penelope Lively’s wonderful new novel, Family Album.

With an established author such as Lively, readers expect graceful prose, astute insights and deft characterizations. All are present in Family Album, in which we visit matriarch Alison and her husband Charles, their six grown children and the former au pair, Ingrid, via snapshots of past and present occasions, daily life, games and holiday trips. With a delicately wielded scalpel, Lively opens wide this family with quiet precision.

You don’t have to come from a large family to recognize the turbulent dynamics. Eldest daughter Gina (once told by Alison that she was never her favorite child) and her siblings are widely flung and largely successful, but not one of them has escaped the challenges inherent in being part of a large family. Yet, despite their differences—and there are many—this dynamic group is first and foremost a family, and when a loss and a troubling discovery require their cooperation, they band together and do what we all hope our own families will do in times of trouble: whatever needs to be done. Through these efforts, the clan regroups, forming a new, more understanding kind of family.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

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Family Album

Family Album

By Penelope Lively
ISBN 9780670021246

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