Thursday, June 24, 2010

Family Album

I've always had a soft spot for author Penelope Lively as my review of her book Heat Wave, which knocked my socks off, was the first published review I ever had. Back when the library and the local newspaper had a good relationship, when the News-Press actually thought to publish more than local murders and rapes, several librarians were asked to write weekly book reviews and I was among them.

It was a heady experience, seeing my name in print for the first time, one that I'll never get over. I'll also never forget the power of that novel and how I marveled at Lively's ability to zero in relentlessly on the basest of our human emotions, Jealousy, with a capitol J, in a practically Shakespearean way.

Now, in her latest novel, she takes a vicious swipe at that most protected of all institutions, parenthood. A cursory look at the cover of the book could easily mislead a reader hoping for a light, easy read. This is a cutting, realistic look at a couple brought together by the commonality of an unplanned pregnancy but little else.

Charles is a bitingly sarcastic, unsympathetic character who hides from life and the ever increasing family (6 kids at last count) that he seems to take no responsibility for - ever heard of vasectomy Charles? He sequesters himself in his "library" writing books and living in the world of the mind. Nothing wrong with that but have the guts, please, to eschew parenthood. We aren't all cut out for it and Lively writes it as if she's lived it.

Meanwhile, we have Alison, Charles's wife, putting on her game face, polishing her reputation in the English village as the earth mother personified, but disrespected by her kids cause she's never read a book, flaunting her non-literary side deliberately in a passive-aggressive slap at her husband.

The family's story is told, alternately by all of the players, the children who couldn't wait to leave the stifling confines of the family abode, Allersmeade, and even by the eldest son Paul, who, because he was his mother's favorite? continued to half-heartedly search and fail and return to the nest again and again and again.

Throughout the telling of the family's story there is an undercurrent of something just this side of sinister that permeates the atmosphere and readers will likely guess at its source before Ms. Lively tells us the facts straight out. That's ok. It still works. In every family there are these underlying secrets and odd whisperings that the children are left to their own devices to decipher. If we could all do it as well as these kids, we might end up ok. It's when we don't speak out that we're in trouble.

I know, this may not sound like an appetizing novel but do give Penelope Lively a try. Trust me, she has the literary skills to dissect the nuance of family life, lay it out like a corpse on the table, and then tidy it all up and tuck it away until you ask, "so, is she saying it's all worth it?"

That brings me to the irony that I just happened to be reading this book while on my vacation that began with a family wedding in Ohio, probably the last of three in the past three years, as my brother and sister-in-law are the only ones who had the courage to raise a family - no easy task in this day and age so kudos to them!

I've often thought of my family as perfect fodder for a novel, regaling friends at work with our oft-told stories of typical family dysfunction. Now that my sister, brother and I are middle-aged - am I being kind with that description? - I find that each time we get together we are more and more prone to treat each other as equals - friends on the road to the next adventure - my "baby" brother having retired and me wishing I could afford to (don't ever get divorced, it'll do you in financially), my sister seeming to have found her niche, the three of us, hopefully, letting go of childhood resentments and misconceptions (think Smothers Brothers' "mom always loved you best!")

OK, no more philosophising on family - I've got an early morning flight and dinner waiting.

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