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Mainly my reading list follows a few genres only changing slightly as I get older. My early love of horror and science fiction/fantasy has given way to thrillers and drama with some chick-lit and historical fiction in the mix. I never read a great deal of the 'family' genre but recently I've seen a few books by Penelope Lively in my local library and wondered about this author. Was she indeed as good as her many novels suggested? I decided to take the plunge and chose one of her latest novels; though it's possible I've read some of her earlier ones over the years and forgot them.
I imagine her life to be as interesting as her books must be. She is a very prolific and still writing at the age of 78. Born in Cairo, Egypt her family moved to England when she was twelve. She married a professor, the late Jack Lively and has two children and six grandchildren. I wonder how much 'Family Album' reflects her own life; there are certainly some comparisons.
I read Family Album rather than choose an earlier book, as I wanted to see how a mature woman reflects today's society in her writing. I didn't expect a great deal as the blurb suggested a family story across the years with little in the way of plot. At just 259 pages I thought it would be a light and quick read. I was pleasantly surprised.
Allersmead is a large, rambling Victorian house set in it's own grounds and home to a large family. Charles the father is a writer of obscure non-fiction books and keeps mainly to his study. Alison, his wife is a motherly woman who loves her home, her six children and her cooking. Ingrid, the au pair came to the family with the first child born and has stayed on since, becoming more a part of family than anything else. The children are Paul, the eldest and the most difficult. Then there are Roger the clever child, Gina, the argumentative, Sandra, the family beauty, Katie, the peacemaker and finally baby Clare, the flighty.
The house has seen them through their formative years, the rows and squabbles of childhood, the large family parties and picnics, the secrets and the lies. The hopes and the fears of the children as they grow to adulthood in the turbulent age of the 1970's.
Now they are grown and the early promise of each has come about. Paul is still difficult, an ex-addict with a background of too many jobs. Roger, the doctor, lives away as do all the other siblings. Gina is a journalist, Sandra a boutique owner and living in Rome, Katie studying English at University and Clare became a dancer.
The story opens with Gina bringing her fiancé Phillip to meet her parents and then goes back in time to her birthday party as a child. Subsequent chapters tend to follow this pattern so the reader gets a glimpse into the lives of all the characters. Each voice speaks either of their own life or generally of an episode in childhood that somehow defines them. As adults there are no grandchildren let for Alison and is seems there will be little likelihood of any in the future.
Observations on a theme.
Normally I would comment on characterization, which is superb in this book, but the story is about characters with no other main theme, unless it's a look at life in the 1970's and how people's attitudes are defined by childhood. With this novel family is all to Alison and Ingrid, while Charles stays very much in the background. Even for the times the family is an anachronism, large houses are not the norm and families tend to go abroad for holidays, not as this one does to Devon and Cornwall. Each child has a special birthday party with treasure hunts, huge feasts and games as entertainment. The house becomes the playing fields of adolescence and each child has their own rite of passage.
Reading this by chapter you think you are taking in the story and making your own judgments on the characters. For some there will be a person who they can emphasize with and it's interesting to see the grown-up in the child. You'll think it's the other way around until you come to read it. There are surprises but the family skeletons are rather obvious almost from the start. Still, this doesn't distract from the narrative but throws up some questions about the characters. If, like me, you come from a large family you will perhaps pick up on the way that the author draws the reader in. I'm one of five siblings and although my early childhood was the 50's and 60's the background was similar in as much that the mother was the nurturer and the father largely absent. The difference in background (we lived in cramped rental accommodation), made some difference to me but I imagine it would to most people.
Without spoiling the plot too much the reader knows that a time will come when the children (now mostly in middle adulthood) will fly the nest, but these children have gone out of the way to fly even from the country. Does this mean that the idyllic childhood was nothing more than a forgotten dream or that the siblings didn't bond, as they should? What about Alison and Ingrid, where are they now in terms of getting on with their own lives? Is Charles still locked in his study and if so, what impact did he have on the children's lives?
This isn't a gripping book so not one I'd give five stars to. I much prefer some suspense in my reading or something to keep the pages turning. What did surprise me is that once I put this down I was quite eager to read it in-between doing other things, so it gave me something other books haven't done. The story and the background crept up on me and I saw that the simplistic way I was reading was actually much deeper and one I remembered after I finished reading it. I felt like the house itself was being abandoned towards the end and although this is not a weepy story I did feel some sadness that a certain way of life has now gone for good.
Whether that is because I'm older and have a grandchild could be some of it. I did like reading a book by a more mature person and marveled at the subtlety of her writing. She uses words with a certain grace lacking in modern books yet she is still a much-read author. This book is a pleasure to read and one I'd take with me on holiday. It was nominated for the 2009 Costa prize and as far as I know is her latest book.
Certainly worth a read.
Publisher Penguin Fiction. RRP £7.99. Amazon price. £4.49.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.
This is the first book of Penelope Lively's which I have read.
It is about a one particular family who grew up in a large Edwardian House and garden. We are introduced the family individually and their own take on their upbringing the effects it had on them while growing up in the family and now when they are grown ups. How they cope with their relationships etc.
We see how the relationship between Charles and Alison are somewhat disfuntional where Alison mainly runs the home while the husband works and has very little input in the family as he spends majority of his time in his office.
The coming together when Charles passes away and what does become of Alison is wife, Ingrid Au Pair and the house.
It was set in 1960s perhaps earlier where growing up was certainly simpler and it did remind me of my own upbringing in some way.
I found the style of writing a little different to what I am used to so it did take me a little while to get used to the style but it certainly was an enjoyable read.It is divided in managable chapters which are the family members of Allsmead and after each chapter you can see how that family fitted in.... ..
Family Album is a story about a family of six children who have now all grown up and made their own way in the world. The story centres around Allersmead, the large house where they spent their childhood, and the story is written from the points of view from several members of the family in turn. There are plenty of flashback to events from childhood as well as updates about what's going on in the lives of the family now. The first half of the book leads up to a revelation about the family, which none of them have ever discussed, and the subsequent way in which they have dealt with it emotionally - if they have even dealt with it at all, that is.
This is my first Penelope Lively book and I have to say that I wasn't terribly impressed. I found the whole thing a bit boring, to be honest. There just wasn't enough plot for my liking, and I didn't really take to any of the characters because the story jumped around too much to be able to really get to know any of them properly. And for those that we got to know more than others, they didn't really have much in the way of likeable traits. There are no nasty characters, but everyone's just a bit self-involved.
The family secret that is revealed halfway through the book really isn't that dramatic, and I was a bit disappointed when I discovered what it was (although there were hints leading up to the 'big reveal' so some readers may be able to guess anyway). And apart from the big secret, it felt like nothing much else really happened throughout. There is far too much talk of "Allersmead" and "the family" and it starts to get a bit samey. I started to get the feeling that Lively was simply fluffing the story out a bit.
Much of the rest of the story revolves around the head of house; the father who places his writing above everything. The grown-up children refer back to their relationship with him many times and make it clear that the family was always a bit disjointed and perhaps not as happy as their mother tried to make them believe. The mother is also made out to be a strange woman and I found it hard to understand or appreciate where she was coming from.
All in all this is a story about family life and the relationships people have with one another. I can't say that I really enjoyed it, but it might appeal to people who like more slow-paced stories about family ties.