Review

Family Album

by Penelope Lively

Six children, two parents and one nanny are all living together
on a rambling British estate in the bucolic Thomas Hardy-esque
countryside: nine different personalities and nine different ways
of telling a story about one single family unit. FAMILY ALBUM
illuminates the bold, forthright, secretive and sacred parts of
life at Allersmead, where this clan has been seated throughout its
entirety and the history that is about to change all their lives
once it’s revealed.

Penelope Lively is a lovely British author --- and by lovely, I
mean she is gentle with a turn of phrase, elegant in her
descriptions and pointed but diplomatic towards all her characters,
regardless of whether or not they are behaving themselves.
Beginning at a later family get-together in which the eldest, Paul
--- who has returned to the roost to work at a local garden center
after disastrous attempts at being a drugged-out loser and a
willing suicide victim --- smashes Alison’s Limoges plates.
As her complacent and seemingly zoned-out husband mutters dark
words from one end of the table, Alison finds a way to overlook
these sleights, these accidents, as she has spent decades
overlooking everything from infidelity to drug use to bitter
contempt and anger from any one of her offspring. And yet the
entire book, mired as it could be in these nasty emotional climes,
manages to move along in just the way you know Alison would like it
to --- one thing leads pragmatically to another; one thought, one
emotion, to another; one long elegant steppe of the little things
that make up the larger family dynamic, years down the road.

Lively’s style is masterful not only in its literary
sophistication but in its pointed use of narrative variety in
telling the story. We do eventually get to peek in on each of the
family members, getting a sense of how much they knew about what
family secret at a particular time and how these past indiscretions
or episodes shape or continue to shape the protagonist at hand.
When Sarah moves to Rome to design and flip apartments to the rich
and richer, she realizes that Italy’s intense dedication to
the family as an unbreakable unit helps her remember exactly why
she has no interest in creating one herself --- her memories of her
mother as a self-righteous housemarm is almost despicable to her,
so she cannot see herself in this light at all.

If there is a villain in the book, it would have to be Alison,
the erstwhile career mom who tucked her offspring into this little
place in order to keep them safe but control them as well. Lively
does not make Alison the villain, but the secrets she kept and the
choices she made reverberate in her children’s lives in a way
that they cannot help but express anger --- although they often
express gratitude for her being there and for their general care as
well. FAMILY ALBUM is a truly beautiful book about how the ways in
which we grow up affect the ways in which we live as grown-ups. It
is a classic story, told with great skill and emotion, that should
find its way onto many award lists as we near the end of the
year.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 21, 2011

Family Album
by Penelope Lively

  • Publication Date: August 31, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0143117874
  • ISBN-13: 9780143117872