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The best of all possible families

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By Ron Charles
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

FAMILY ALBUM

By Penelope Lively

This Story

Viking. 224 pp. $25.95

Penelope Lively's new novel comes wrapped as a celebration of old-fashioned domestic joy, with its heartwarming title, "Family Album," elegantly embroidered on the dust jacket. But be careful; she's left her needle in the cloth. It's a typical move for this old master, who frequently writes about sharp objects buried in our sepia-toned past. Although this little book can't compete with her Booker-winning "Moon Tiger" or her fictionalized anti-memoir "Consequences," it's another winning demonstration of her wit; every wry laugh is the sound of a little hope being strangled.

The story opens in the almost-present and revolves around a family raised in an English house called Allersmead. "A big house," Lively tells us. "A house from the days when people -- a kind of person -- assumed a big house." The six children are grown and, mostly, gone now, but Charles, their scholarly father, remains along with Alison, their indomitably cheerful mother, who still maintains the house as "a shrine to family . . . happy, smiling faces preserved on mantelpieces and windowsills, on the piano, framed on walls."

The family's "au pair girl" still lives in the house, too, which seems odd if you think about it, because there haven't been any children in the house for years, and this au pair is hardly a "girl" anymore.

But this is largely a story about not asking those awkward questions. It's about the way a large family races along with all the business of growing up and getting everybody fed and clothed and through school and then off to lives of their own. Except for the eldest, of course -- "Things so often haven't worked out for him" -- but best not to ask about that, either.

In 16 distinct chapters, from various, smoothly spliced points of view, Lively moves back and forth through the family's history, filling in events that explain apparently casual references: that faint scar on Sister's face, the time Dad's manuscript got cut to ribbons, that scary game in the cellar. "Inevitable glitches," their mother says lightly. "You remember the good times only." But that, it turns out, isn't really a pleasant observation so much as a command that requires constant vigilance to enforce. "Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth," Lively notes, and this uber-mother "is its guardian."

The success of these chapters is uneven, but several of them are brilliant, full of glancing humor and spot-on truths about the way families maintain the peace through a process of willful ignorance and disciplined forgetfulness.

"There was something stalking around," thinks one of the now-grown siblings, "something uncomfortable, like shadows outside the window on a dark night, but not that, something inside the house." We recognize that ominous language: It's what we get just before a classic Suddenly Unrepressed Incest Flashback (SUIF). But it's a feint: No one was raped in the cellar; the girls weren't cutting themselves; the boys didn't skin a homeless man alive. Lively is interested in far subtler, more universal tensions of family life.

There is one deliciously shocking sexual transgression, and it leaves a permanent effect on the family, but Lively refuses us any details, and for the longest time it floats outside the boundaries of the novel. In a sense, she turns us into another family friend who can't quite believe they're all going about their lives as though nothing incredibly weird happened here. One of the siblings explains, "It was never mentioned." Yes, it was a fact, "but a submerged one."

"The important thing was for people to grow up in this lovely big family and a lovely home," their mother almost screams during Christmas dinner, "and that always came first, whatever, one's own concerns were neither here nor there."

Allersmead has been a stage upon which Alison's happy vision could be acted out -- no matter what. A masterful early chapter called "Gina's Birthday Party" never deviates from the usual goings-on: a "garden running with children," "tiny iced cakes in frilly cups," a treasure hunt in full play. But how slyly it reveals the withering disagreements and loneliness that lurk beneath the surface of this marriage. Alison's husband "stands beside her, looking somehow entirely detached, as though none of this were anything much to do with him, as though he had merely strayed upon the scene." Snobby and distant even to his wife, he's not an easy character to like. His lovely children recognize his familiar "expression of contained endurance." The closest Alison comes to telling him off is when she dares to enter his study and observes, "I have children. And you have books."

This seems at first like a scathing feminist critique of family dynamics in the 1970s, but Lively doesn't take sides, and there's something repellant about Alison's happiness, which grows like kudzu over the whole house, threatening to choke out any other mood. In later years, she offers classes in "Mothercraft." Could you live, forever, with a woman who "wakes thinking about a recipe for baked lemon chicken"?

Short as the novel is, though, it flags toward the end. Of the six siblings, only the eldest -- tragic Paul, chronically unemployed, alcoholic, poisoned by his mother's favoritism and his father's sarcasm -- is fully engaging. And the final chapter, a rather too-hip dialogue of e-mail messages, sounds false in a way that nothing else in "Family Album" does.

But as the holidays approach, this might be just the novel to inoculate yourself against all the maniacal gaiety of the season. As one character notes, "Any family is intriguing, if you look closely." Lively knows that the way families avoid looking closely is intriguing, too.

Charles is the fiction editor for Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/roncharles.



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