Saturday, August 20, 2011

A family and a house

Family Album, Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of Family Album back in January of last year, and I read the first couple of chapters before I got distracted by something else and set it aside.  I don't know why it took me so long to pick it up again, when I've read and enjoyed so many of her other books this year (Perfect Happiness, Oleander, Jacaranda, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Road to Lichfield, and Cleopatra's Sister).

Family Album is, as the name suggests, the story of a family, the Harpers, Charles and Alison, their six children, and Ingrid, originally an au pair and now engrafted into the family.  It is also the story of their home, Allersmead, a large and rather shabby Edwardian house.  As the story opens, Gina, the second child and eldest daughter, is returning for a weekend visit with her partner Philip.  This is Philip's introduction to both the family and the home, and he is curious about both.  Though Alison, who chatters like Miss Bates, is happy to tell him all about their years in the home and their large happy family, Gina is more evasive.  The narrator takes us on a tour through the house, sketching out relationships and hinting at complexities, before the story returns to Gina and Philip.

This pattern is repeated through the book, as we are introduced to the family members in sections that alternate between the omniscient narrator and the different characters' points of view.  The story moves back and forth in time, as people remember and reminisce, and their discussion reshapes our understanding of what happened and of the characters themselves.  In both the present of the story and in the remembering, we return always to Allersmead and to Charles, Alison and Ingrid.  Two family secrets are revealed, with varying effects on the people involved.  Gradually we come to see each person, in his or her own right, which may differ greatly from the self-perception of each; but also how they fit together into the family.

I enjoyed this book, though I think it lacks the emotional weight of Lively's best books.  With the constant shifts in perspective, there is no central character to follow, though we spend the most time with Gina.  Some of the POV sections are shorter than others, which is understandable when there are nine characters to follow, ten if you count the house itself.  The title is apt; this book does seem like an album, with snapshots of the family members at different times in their lives, pictures that tell a story of their lives, of the family's life, but can never completely capture its complexity.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!