Family Album: A Novel

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All Alison ever wanted was a blissful childhood for her six children, with summers at the beach and birthday parties on the lawn at their family home. Together with Ingrid, the family au pair, she has worked hard to create a real "old-fashioned family life." But beneath its postcard sheen, the picture is clouded by a distant father, Alison's inexplicable emotional outbursts, and long-repressed secrets that no one dares mention. For years, Alison's adult children have protected her illusion of domestic perfection ...

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Family Album: A Novel

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Overview

All Alison ever wanted was a blissful childhood for her six children, with summers at the beach and birthday parties on the lawn at their family home. Together with Ingrid, the family au pair, she has worked hard to create a real "old-fashioned family life." But beneath its postcard sheen, the picture is clouded by a distant father, Alison's inexplicable emotional outbursts, and long-repressed secrets that no one dares mention. For years, Alison's adult children have protected her illusion of domestic perfection - but as each child confronts the effects of past choices on their current adult lives, it becomes evident that each must face the truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
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 Washington Post
Dominique Browning
In [Lively's] haunting new novel, Family Album, the act of forgetting is as strange and interesting as the power of remembering…The real sadness at the heart of the story, the event no one faces for years, isn't meant to be a mystery that's dramatically revealed. Instead, it's the sort of thing everyone in the family knows about, in that vague, just-beneath-consciousness way that one knows what one isn't supposed to know. It's either ignored or denied or manipulated. It doesn't ignite a cataclysm, and that gives it its terrible power. It's contained, and smolders. It comes to light midway through the novel, as everyone circles around the truth—no, not the truth, just a truth, one among the many in any family's life. I don't think Lively intends for the secret to provide narrative tension. Rather, it's the slow, inexorable way everyone comes to acknowledge the event that makes it quietly devastating.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Employing her trademark skill at honing detail and dialogue, Lively (Moon Tiger) delivers a vigorous new novel revolving around a house outside of London, the sprawling Edwardian homestead of Allersmead, and the family of six children who grew up there. By degrees—in shifting POVs and time periods cutting from the 1970s until the present—Lively introduces the prodigious Harper family. There's Alison, the frazzled matriarch, who married young and pregnant, and persuaded her historian husband to buy Allersmead; distracted father Charles, who writes recherché tomes in his study and can't remember what ages his children are; and the children, who range from the wayward eldest and mother's favorite, Paul, to the youngest, Clare, whose parentage involves a family secret concerning Ingrid, the Scandinavian au pair. Lively adeptly focuses on the second-oldest, Gina, a foreign journalist who planned her life to stay far away from home until, at age 39, fellow journalist Philip goads her to contemplate settling down for the first time. With its bountiful characters and exhaustive time traveling, Lively's vivisection of a nuclear family displays polished writing and fine character delineation. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Alison wants the world to know that she presides over a large, happy, close-knit family. She and her distracted, uninvolved scholarly husband, Charles, have a brood of six who, along with Ingrid, the au pair, fill Allersmead, a somewhat worn, sprawling Edwardian English manse. Through the masterly use of emotional intricacies, Lively gradually reveals the simmer beneath the surface that belies the image of unity Alison has insisted on for decades, both within the family framework and without, to the world at large. Tradition and a sense of duty compel the adult children to return to Allersmead over the years, and it is through the mature observations of their childhood traumas (along with those of Alison, Charles, and Ingrid) that one learns the true cost of the shared and separate secrets that have informed their grownup lives as well as their relationships to one another. VERDICT No doubt frazzled mothers of much smaller families will find comfort in Lively's probing, challenging take on large family life and maternal competence. Lively's 17th adult novel is a wonderful follow-up to Gil Courtemanche's A Good Death. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Beth E. Anderson, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Lively (Consequences, 2007, etc.) anatomizes a sprawling but not especially enthralling middle-class clan. A lifetime of writing is evident in the author's capable handling of her character-heavy scenario, although there's a lackluster quality to this faceted family portrait. Alison and Charles Harper reside with their six children and live-in nanny at Allersmead, an Edwardian mansion and idyllic refuge that is itself a character in the story. Eldest child and family black sheep Paul, the target of his father's sarcasm and his mother's preference, grows up inclined to drugs and drink, almost unemployable. The other four girls and one boy successfully fly the nest and find their niches and/or preoccupations: Clare as a dancer, Roger a doctor, Sandra in fashion, Katie struggling with fertility and Gina, the high-achiever, with a career in TV news. The novel's title is reflected in its flashback structure, the narrative interspersed with snapshot scenes of significant interactions at birthday parties, anniversary dinners, seaside holidays, etc. The characters' contrasting perspectives and a fairly obvious secret at the heart of the family supposedly lend momentum, yet there's little dynamic to this chronicle of development and atomization as the children grow up different from their mismatched parents: he a disengaged intellectual/dilettante; she a gifted cook and earthmother. No member of this extended family emerges as three-dimensional. Cool, anticlimactic storytelling, lacking the Booker Prize-winning author's customary delicacy and depth.
From the Publisher
"Exquisite.... The writing is slick and deliberate, with a keen observation of middle-class domestic life." ---Chicago Sun-Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021246
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/29/2009
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Lively
British actress and narrator Josephine Bailey has won ten AudioFile Earphones Awards and a prestigious Audie Award, and Publishers Weekly named her Best Female Narrator in 2002.

Good To Know

In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:

"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."

"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"

"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."

"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."

"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 17, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cairo, Egypt
    1. Education:
      Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

In Penelope Lively’s subtle, observant novel Family Album, the history of the Harper clan unfolds in a series of evocative scenes and conflicting memories—much like the pages of an old photo album. Behind each snapshot of the large, boisterous English family—a devoted mother, an absentminded scholarly father, a Swedish au pair, and six happy children—lies a darker, more complicated truth.

When we first meet the family, the children are grown and scattered around the globe. Gina is a successful television journalist, Roger is a doctor in Canada, Katie is struggling to start her own family, Sandra is the manager of a fashionable boutique in Rome, Clare is a touring ballet dancer, and Paul, the oldest, washes up at home between dead-end jobs and stints in rehab. Their parents, Alison and Charles, along with the aging au pair, Ingrid, still live at Allersmead, the sprawling Victorian where all the children grew up. The Harper children have mixed feelings about the house and the three adults who raised them. They feel smothered by Alison’s vision of the perfect family, and they all know, without ever being told, that Clare’s mother is actually the ever-loyal Ingrid.

The novel is told from the perspective of each character in turn giving us his or her private thoughts and his or her own versions of events. Paul, the eldest and acknowledged favorite of his mother, relates in painful detail his slow stagnation in adulthood, while Gina contemplates her choices to live a life as different from her mother’s as possible. Even the flighty, hysterical matriarch, Alison, who maintains her central place in the family through emotional outbursts and carefully coddled fantasies, reveals herself to readers in an intimate reflection on her life and family.

In this quietly provocative novel, Penelope Lively elegantly shows how a family shapes its own myths and creates its own disasters—and ultimately saves itself.

ABOUT PENELOPE LIVELY

Penelope Lively was born in Cairo, Egypt, studied at Oxford University, and received the Booker Prize for her novel Moon Tiger. She is the author of twenty-five children’s books and sixteen adult novels, including The Photograph and Consequences. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in London.

A CONVERSATION WITH PENELOPE LIVELY

Q. Did you envision this family first as a complete unit or did you begin with one character and work your way out from there?

My original concept was a novel about a large family. I knew there should be six children. So the characters emerged gradually but also more or less simultaneously, until all were clear enough for me to work out the dynamics of their relationships and how the family functioned—or did not function—as a unit.

Q. The family manse, Allersmead, seems to symbolize an old-fashioned (even anachronistic) idea of a certain kind of British family. How important was that setting to you in terms of developing the theme of your novel?

The setting was important from the start—Allersmead, a large late-Victorian house. The house is old, the family could be said to be anachronistic, but I see it rather as individual—as indeed are all families. This one could be said to excel in individuality, perhaps.

Q. Alison, the matriarch, seems for most of the novel to be a fragile woman who exasperates her husband and children with her ideas of how family should be. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we get some insight into her personality. Why did you decide to hold her perspective back for so long?

As the novel progressed, Alison emerged as the pivot of family life. It seemed right that she should be seen through the eyes of the children before being given the opportunity to speak for herself. For children, parents are simply there—an inescapable fact. When the fact speaks up, that is, and should be, a bit startling.

Q. This is a very female-dominated world: in their own ways, Gina, Alison, Ingrid, and Clare are all active, driving forces while the main male characters, Paul and Charles, are quite passive. Was this a conscious decision on your part? If so, why?

The preponderance of women is accidental, I think. I never meant that to be significant; it just happened that way. I was less conscious of gender than of personality.

Q. The chapters are each told from the perspective of different characters so intimately that it feels as if we’re getting first-person narration, but in fact it is all in the third person. Why did you decide to maintain that degree of distance, instead of having the characters speak to the reader directly?

First-person narration is necessarily solipsistic. Biased, indeed. I wanted a more detached and rounded presentation of each of the characters. I wanted them seen aslant, as it were, as well as directly.

Q. The childhood events and games that the siblings reflect on are ultimately the kinds of mundane things that happen in every family of children, though they are presented in a disturbing and mysterious manner here. Why did you choose to cast a shadow over ordinary life rather than invent a traumatic past for this family?

Most families have their shadows. This family is more dramatically shadowed than most; the family lives with the shadow as best it can.

Q. Clare and Ingrid never discuss their secret bond with each other and neither does the rest of the family. Do you think this approach is distinctively British? Or is it specific to the Allersmead clan?

I don’t see reluctance to discuss crucial things as specifically British. That can happen anywhere, and within any family. Sometimes it can be the most expedient course to take, though that is not necessarily the case with this family.

Q. Corinna, Charles’s cousin and the children’s aunt, gives us an outsider’s perspective on the Harper family. Why did you decide to include her voice in the novel?

Corinna arrived almost uninvited near to the start of the story. I had not planned on a voice from without the family, but when she appeared, full-fledged and opinionated, it seemed best to allow her to stay.

Q. Do you have a favorite or least favorite character in this novel? Was it more or less difficult to write from the perspective of one character?

I have no particular favorite, though I have perhaps a soft spot for Charles, maybe because the others seem to dislike him. He certainly arrived on the page very easily, but I found it a positive advantage to be moving constantly between so many and so varied characters. The contrasts served up an energy, as indeed contrasting personalities give energy to a family.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Why do you think the truth about Clare’s parentage was never discussed in the family until she herself brought it up as an adult?
     
  2. What do you make of Alison’s decision to keep both Clare and Ingrid as “part of the family” after she discovered her husband’s infidelity?
     
  3. Paul’s problems with work, addiction, and depression seem linked to his mother’s particular attachment to him. Do you think her influence on him is a viable explanation for his difficulties?
     
  4. When they were young, the children play “the cellar game,” in which they enact their own visions of the ideal family. They keep it secret and seem to feel some shame about it, or at least a need to keep the truth of the game from their mother. Why do you think this is?
     
  5. The children in this family grew up in an unusually close and carefully maintained unit. Why have they drifted so far from one another and their parents as adults?
     
  6. Alison and Ingrid might have been rivals for Charles’s affection, or at least enemies of each other, given that Ingrid sacrificed her own future to that of the Harper family’s and that Alison’s fantasy world was marred by Clare’s birth. But at the end of the novel, Charles has died and the two aging women find a new home together. Why are they able to maintain a lifelong friendship?
     
  7. Alison’s vision of the perfect family seems to have paradoxically resulted in dysfunction and distance among her grown children. How do you think that might have been avoided?
     
  8. Gina still has a scar from a birthday party scuffle with Sandra. What is the significance of this incident and its legacy in the family? How does it affect the relationship between the two sisters and between Alison and Charles?
     
  9. What role does Charles’s sister, Corinna, play in the novel? How did her perspective influence your opinion of Alison and her family?
     
  10. What does this novel suggest to you about the nature of family in general, beyond the specifics of the Allersmead clan? Does it make you rethink the dynamics and legends or myths in your own family?
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 19 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    It was a miss

    Didn't really care for this book at all. Everyone in the family really were not likeable or interesting. Read entire book, although I almost just gave up on it, but I stuck through it with hope that it would suprise me with some form of entertainment. I was never suprised.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 6, 2011

    Price

    This book is only $5.99 in store!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2011

    Excellent

    very intriguing and complex. can't wait to see how it ends!!

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