Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

The Family Tree: A Novel

The Family Tree: A Novel

3.6 3
by Carole Cadwalladr

See All Formats & Editions

When Rebecca Monroe—married to Alistair, a scientist who doesn’t believe in fate, but rather genetic disposition—discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to question what makes us who we are and whether her own precarious family history will play a role in her future.

For Rebecca, the wry and observant narrator of The Family Tree, simple


When Rebecca Monroe—married to Alistair, a scientist who doesn’t believe in fate, but rather genetic disposition—discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to question what makes us who we are and whether her own precarious family history will play a role in her future.

For Rebecca, the wry and observant narrator of The Family Tree, simple things said over breakfast take on greater meaning: a home-improvement project foreshadows darker things to come; the color of one’s eyes, the slope of a forehead are all missing pieces to the truth behind the family tree.

At once nostalgic and refreshingly original, The Family Tree is a sophisticated story of one woman and the generations of women who came before her and whose legacy shaped her life and its emotional landscape.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Nature or nurture? It's a dilemma that plagues Rebecca Monroe as she tries to make sense of her own flawed, highly dysfunctional, yet utterly ordinary family. Her mother, Doreen, locked herself in the bathroom of their home on the occasion of Price Charles' marriage to Lady Di, never to emerge. Her grandmother, Alicia, caused a stir when she married her first cousin after her real love was thrown in jail.

Are we genetically doomed to repeat the bad choices, errant ways, and unhappy lives of our forebears? Alistair, Rebecca's scientist husband, believes that one's genes control one's destiny and nervously begins to eye his and Rebecca's marriage -- and the whole unhappy Monroe family history -- with equal parts dispassion and dismay. But such an analytical view reduces humanity to science, and love to a formula; this paradigm Rebecca finds unacceptable.

Shifting from Rebecca's childhood in the Thatcherite 1970s to the present-day unraveling of her marriage, The Family Tree lays bare, with wit, compassion, and an unsentimental generosity, the intricate architecture of one family's calamitous history. And it offers readers a heroine, not unlike themselves, who insists that answering the question of who we are is a much messier but more satisfying proposition than science will allow. (Spring 2005 Selection)

Susan Adams
Full of wry observations about pop culture and British life and class, many passages seem designed to elicit belly laughs from British readers, while Americans less informed about life in the United Kingdom will manage only a titter. Still, Cadwalladr has written an inventive, touching book that offers a new take on the debate between nature and nurture.
— The Washington Post
Patricia T. O'Connor
The wacky English family is a venerable literary institution, and this first novel from a gifted British writer has all the makings of a farcical romp. But eccentricity is one thing and dysfunction another. The laughs in ''The Family Tree'' -- and there are many -- have a way of becoming uncomfortable. It's soon obvious that what Carole Cadwalladr has begun as a comic novel isn't going to end that way.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The ease with which British journalist Cadwalladr spins three generational tales in her debut is outdone only by the grace and wit with which she delivers each one. Set in late-20th-century Britain, the novel is narrated by Rebecca Monroe, a pop culture researcher who tells of her marriage to Alistair, a behavioral geneticist; her childhood leading up to her mother's suicide; and her grandmother's doomed biracial romance with Cecil, a Jamaican immigrant. In an effort to better understand herself, the child she can't decide whether or not to have, and the people she still can't believe make up her family, Rebecca considers both sides of the nature/nurture debate, with any romantic notions she might be on the brink of reaching debunked by her husband's passionless scientific postulations. Cadwalladr explicates her tale with a slew of definitions, scientific charts and graphs, detailed family anatomies, examples of deductive fallacies and footnotes expounding on such essential '70s pop culture references as Dallas and The Sale of the Century. Her mastery of time and place, wry humor and sporadic bouts of self-doubt will endear her to readers, while her fascination with the choices people make combined with a morbid curiosity about her own fate add depth and texture to this utterly winning tale of one lovable, dysfunctional family. Agent, Deborah Schneider. (Jan.) Forecast: This book rolls the pleasures of Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and David Sedaris into an "as told to" by Margaret Mead package that's sure to find a large and very enthusiastic audience. To judge from bookseller blurbs, this'll be a hot handsell and a natural for reading groups. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Genetic predisposition figures prominently in this tender coming-of-age novel in which Rebecca Monroe, a Welsh sociologist, struggles to understand her troubled family history. Three situations intersect-Rebecca's sterile marriage to Alistair, a geneticist who employs her as a test subject in his research on hereditary mental illness; her Seventies childhood, in which her youthful misunderstandings were as dangerous as they were innocent; and, in the more distant past, her grandmother's scandalous love affair with a young Jamaican. As she worries about her grandmother's slide into Alzheimer's disease, Rebecca begins to make sense of her mother's unhappiness and instability, an understanding that culminates in a spectacular flame-out at the family celebration of the marriage of Charles and Diana. Chapters begin with dictionary definitions, contain footnotes explaining Seventies cultural signposts such as Love Story and Dallas, and make use of diagrams and charts. This promising debut, which effortlessly combines pathos and humor, is recommended for public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-While working on her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, Rebecca Monroe, the wry narrator and central character in this engrossing debut novel, grapples with the nature versus nurture debate. Her husband is a behavioral geneticist who is certain he knows the answer-it's in the genes. But as Rebecca explores her grandparents' relationship, her findings take off in surprising directions. She interweaves the stories of three generations of her relatives from the 1940s, the 1970s, and the present to show a bleakly funny, unsentimental view of an English family unraveling and then coming together. Rebecca gives insight into her childhood by sprinkling her story with cultural references such as the TV series Dallas and Charlie's Angels, explaining them with hilarious footnotes. She uses charts and graphs to show aspects of genetics and kinship, giving a sense of order and tidiness to the unreliable and sometimes messy world of human relations. The novel is well paced and the story is compelling, with vivid characters, especially the women. The author makes sense of the tangled ties among the generations and navigates them with humor and compassion, as she does the themes of racism, mental illness, marriage, and, of course, nature versus nurture.-Susanne Bardelson, Kitsap Regional Library, WA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British journalist Cadwalladr's debut, structured as a graduate thesis on pop culture in late-20th- century Britain, explores three generations of family relationships, beginning in WWII. Narrator Rebecca moves back and forth between her present life of marriage to Alistair, a behavioral geneticist who doesn't want children, and her childhood as the daughter of manic-depressive Doreen. Although Rebecca's father comes from a higher social class than Doreen, his limited income is a source of great irritation. Cluelessly striving for upward mobility (readers will be reminded of BBC's Hyacinth Bucket), Doreen is permanently jealous of her wealthier sister Suzanne. To salt the stew, Doreen dated and rejected Suzanne's husband when he was an adolescent hippie in the '60s. By 1979, he's an uptight but successful doctor, and Suzanne is a trendy feminist who scorns Doreen's affectations. Digging back further, Rebecca bonds with her maternal grandmother Alicia, seemingly a simple working-class woman, who has never recovered from the violent termination of her life's great love affair with a black man from Jamaica. Cadwalladr's use of charts and footnotes is clever enough and will win attention: she brilliantly captures the different decades in all their silliness. But what sets the book apart is the richness of Rebecca's family history. The tragedies that befall her relatives begin as small details-an appreciative whistle, the color of Rebecca's sister's eyes, a snatch of conversation overheard-that lead to great misunderstandings. The misplaced guilt and accusation that inform much of the story come to a head when Doreen commits suicide after her manic preparations to celebrate Princess Diana'swedding go awry. Meanwhile, in the present, Rebecca finds herself pregnant just as she realizes that Alistair is having an affair. Miraculously, The Family Tree never falls into melodrama. Despite Rebecca's light, self-mocking tone, this isn't chick-lit. It's women's literature ready to take on the men-and a wonderful read at that. Agent: Deborah Schneider/Gelfman Schneider. UK rights with Jonny Geller/Curtis Brown
From the Publisher
"A fast read that might be described as Helen Fielding meets Zadie Smith—takes an unusual spin on the nature versus nurture debate." —The Wall Street Journal

"[Cadwalladr] has a careful, nuanced sense of place and purpose . . . She is fearless, wry, and compassionate." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Poignant and amusing . . . While some have labeled The Family Tree chick lit, don’t be fooled: In fact, this is lit that happens to be written by one very clever chick." —People

"Carole Cadwalladr blends several generations of love stories with an examination of genetics, family and pop culture as she attempts to get at the heart of why we are the way we are." —Publisher's Weekly

"[A] loving, spot-on portrayal of a late 1970s childhood.... Cadwalladr has produced an ambitious book, packed with funny, likeable characters.... [A] lively, rangy, and thoroughly entertaining novel." —Entertainment Weekly

"This is a poignant and intelligent first novel, in which vivid characters engage the reader to ponder the timeless themes of fate and choice in light of the science-influenced sensibilities of the twenty-first century." —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Sales rank:
File size:
729 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Part One

beginning n 1 : time at which anything begins; source; origin
1.1 fate n 1 : power predetermining events unalterably from eternity
2 : what is destined to happen
3 : doomed to destruction

The caravan entered our lives like Fate. Although from the outside, it looked like a Winnebago.

It appeared one morning in our driveway, an alien spaceship from a planet more exciting than our own. Inside, there was a miniature stove with an eye-level grill, and a fridge that was pretending to be a cupboard. Tiffany and I, experienced sniffers of nail-polish remover, stood on the threshold and inhaled the slightly toxic smell of new upholstery and expectation. I was eight years old and susceptible to the idea that technology could change your life. They said so in the TV ads.

I have a photograph from that day. We’re standing in the driveway, smiling, certain, shoulders locked together in a single row. It reminds me of one of those Soviet posters from the thirties: the Family Monroe, brave pioneers of a new type of holiday, proudly facing the future together. The sun is making me squint, and my mother must have blinked, because her eyes are shut, but otherwise I’d say we looked happy.

The caravan itself is blurred in the picture. A hazy beige outline that befits its semi-mystical presence in our midst. As a family, we’d never been that keen on the outdoors, generally preferring indoor activities such as playing cards or bickering. But we stood in thrall to the brave new world it represented. We’d all read the accompanying brochure and knew that the caravan allied the power of progress with the concept of free will: we would Travel in the Modern Way and Go As We Pleased. Although we never did. We went where our mother told us, which turned out to be Norfolk.

There she is now, breaking free from the frame of the photo and walking back inside. There is a joint of pork that requires her attention, a hall carpet that must be vacuumed, a freezer compartment that needs defrosting. She tip-taps her way back up the driveway, her hairsprayed curls bouncing up and down, a small, contented smile playing at the corners of her lips. I’ve never been much good at divining what goes on beyond the net curtains of her eyes, but my guess is that she is thinking about the new fitted kitchen that will one day be hers. I can sense beige Formica units and a built-in oven hovering just beyond the field of my perception.

Am I exaggerating the role of the caravan in our family history? Or embellishing it? I’m not sure. Alistair’s the one who believes in fate, although he calls it “genetic predisposition.” But then he has his reasons for this. I’m more skeptical, I’ll admit. But then, as you’ll see, I have my reasons for this too.

Alistair’s my husband. But perhaps you’ve heard of him already. Alistair Betterton? The author of Destiny’s Child: Nature Versus Nurture in the Age of the Genome? If you look on page seven of the first edition, you’ll find me. “To my darling wife,” it says. I didn’t make the second edition, but apparently this was due to lack of space.

If I wasn’t married to Alistair, I suspect that I’d tell this story differently. But I know what I know. He showed me a gene map once. It was like a temperature chart or a rainfall map, with Europe portrayed as colored contours. It showed how populations have merged and blended, how you can track the passage of people across continents by the DNA left behind in the cells of their descendants. That’s you, Alistair said, and me. We are a sum of the past. Don’t you mean we are the sum of our past? I said. No, he said, we’re the sum of other people’s pasts. We’re made up of other people’s genes. We’re the bits they leave behind.

And it’s true, I have my grandmother’s skin (sallow) and my mother’s hair (mouse). But I can’t blame them for what happened. I can’t blame anybody. Or at least I can’t blame anyone other than myself. I, Rebecca Monroe, take full responsibility for most of what happened. And the rest? I put it down to chance. Poor timing. Bad luck. It’s not a fashionable theory, but then this was the seventies. It’s probably best to try and leave fashion out of it. 1.2 family n 1 : a fundamental social group in society typically consisting of one or two parents and their children

“Missionary position,” said Lucy. “Name given by amused Polynesians, who preferred squatting to the European matrimonial. Libel on one of the most rewarding sex positions.”

We were lying on her parents’ bed, leafing through the pages of our latest discovery.

“Who’s Polly Neezhuns?”

Lucy looked up, her dark hair swinging around her face, and shrugged.

“Croupade. Any position in which he takes her squarely from behind; i.e., all rear-entry positions except those where she has one leg between his or is half turned on her side. See Cuissade.”

There was a pause as we both tried to configure this in our minds.

“What does it say under Cuissade?”

We both pronounced it Cue-is-aid. They didn’t teach French at Middleton Primary School.

“Cue-is-aid,” said Lucy, enunciating the words carefully. She was using her newsreader- announcing-the-unemployment-figures voice. “The half-rear entry position, where she turns her back to him and he enters with one of her legs between his and the other more or less drawn up: in some versions she lies half turned on her side for him, still facing away.”

We stared at the picture accompanying this particular passage in the book. The illustration was smudgy and drawn by hand, but there was definitely a man with no clothes on. He seemed to be holding some sort of broom pole. It was rude, that much was sure. Possibly very rude. Poor Lucy. I felt a pang of pity for my cousin, for it was in her parents’ bedroom, specifically her father’s, Uncle Kenneth’s, sock drawer, that we had found the book. She didn’t seem to mind though. She was already flicking to the next section on “Coitus à la Florentine.”

“Loooooooooooooooooooooooocy!” Aunty Suzanne had a good pair of lungs on her, and although we were two flights up and separated by several doors, we jumped up, covered our find with Argyle wool socks and sprinted downstairs, arriving breathless in the kitchen.

“Yes!” We appeared under Aunty Suzanne’s elbow.

“Ooh, you startled me. Do you want some milk and cookies?”

“Yes please!”

Aunty Suzanne arranged a liberal quantity of chocolate-chip cookies on a plate and poured us a glass of milk. I couldn’t help thinking that America was probably a lot like this. At our house they were called “biscuits” and kept in a tin that was strictly off-limits.

“So?” said Aunty Suzanne, who was always trying to take an interest in her daughter’s development. “What have you girls been up to?”

We looked at each other.


“Oh! Nothing at all?”

Aunty Suzanne looked at us expectantly through a pair of large round glasses. She had the same long dark hair as Lucy, although she covered hers with an orange silk scarf, tasseled at the edges. Of all the different kinds of mothers who waited at the school gates, Aunty Suzanne was by far the most exotic.

“Just playing,” said Lucy. “Ripping stuff!”

Aunty Suzanne narrowed her eyes.

“I hope you haven’t been reading those books again, have you?”

We looked at each other guiltily. How did she know?

“You know I don’t approve of all those old-fashioned boarding school tales. They’re terribly reactionary.”

“No,” said Lucy, although of course she was lying. Aunty Suzanne had a blacklist of authors that included Rudyard Kipling, Enid Blyton and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Lucy, naturally, had made it a point of honor to read them all, acquiring a devotion of the kind that I suspected only samizdat literature could inspire. I had been weaned on The Jungle Book and The Secret Seven and had never once been tempted to say “ripping.”

When we’d finished our milk, we played our new favorite game: studying the dictionary.

Missionary n 1 : one who is sent on a mission, especially one sent to do religious or charitable work in a territory or foreign country 2 : one who attempts to persuade or convert others to a particular program, doctrine or set of principles; a propagandist.”

We looked at each other blankly. What did that have to do with anything? We returned, again, to the well-thumbed entry for “sex.”

Sex n 1 : the property or quality by which organisms are classified as female or male on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions 2 : females or males considered as a group 3 : the condition or character of being female or male 4 : the sexual urge or instinct as it manifests itself in behavior 5 : sexual intercourse.”

Lucy cross-referenced to “intercourse n” although we’d done this before and knew it wasn’t going to get us anywhere. “1 : dealings or communications between persons or groups 2 : sexual intercourse.”

What a ridiculous concept a dictionary was! It was a wonder we knew the meaning of anything. We spent hours cross-referencing between entries but, somehow, the truth always eluded us. It was six o’clock and time to go home.

“Bye-bye, Lucy! Bye-bye, Aunty Suzanne!”

“Just a minute, Rebecca.” My aunt caught me by the door and licked shut an envelope. “Give your mother this, would you? And say we’d be delighted if she and your dad could make it.”

“Yes, Aunty Suzanne. Bye, Aunty Suzanne.”

“You can just call me Suzanne you know.”

“Yes A— Suzanne.”

I turned and ran off down the driveway.

“Bye, Aunty Suzanne. Bye, Lucy.”

When I arrived home, Tiffany was hanging around the kitchen looking moody. Her sulk, now in its second full day, was showing no sign of diminishing. We’d been getting ready to go to school the day before when our mother called us excitedly. I had my toothbrush in my mouth and Tiffany was combing her hair, but we followed her into the lounge, where the television set was switched on. This was in the days before breakfast TV, so we knew immediately that something was up.

“Look, girls!” Our mother was waving excitedly at the television. “It’s an Historic Occasion!”

A woman in a peacock blue jacket was talking to the camera. Her blouse was tied into a big bow at the neck, and she spoke very slowly, a bit like the way Mrs. Price at school talked to Steven German, who came from what our mother called a “broken home” and had once wet his pants in PE.

“It’s Britain’s first ever lady prime minister!”

We both gazed solemnly at the television.

Tiffany stamped her foot. Her Clarks sandals sank silently into the pile, her protest thwarted by the orange and brown swirls of our lounge carpet.

“But I wanted to be Britain’s first lady prime minister!”

I looked at her, impressed. I hadn’t even realized that Britain had lacked a lady prime minister.

“A lady prime minister!” said our mother. “Who ever would have thought it?” She sniffed. “Of course, it’s the children I feel sorry for.”

Tiffany marched out of the room and slammed the door. She was tall for her age and had a habit of throwing her head back that made her seem taller still. I followed her up the stairs and onto the landing.

“You could be the second lady prime minister,” I pointed out. She glared at me.

“Shut up, Rebecca! Who’d want to be second?”

She stomped into the bathroom. I shrugged my shoulders and went back to my room. But then, I was a youngest child. I was used to coming second.

My mother was toiling over her frying pan when I handed her Aunty Suzanne’s envelope and we opened it together.

Dr. and Mrs. Kenneth Edwards
At Home
Saturday June 16, 1979, 1pm
The Old Parsonage

It was printed on thick cardboard, and the words were engraved in golden ink with curlicues and baroque squiggles, the A in “At Home” its finest swirl. At the top, in brilliant blue ink, it said, “Mr.&Mrs. James Monroe&family.”

“Well! It’s all right for some!”

But she hummed and smiled and tried to pin it to the cork notice board (ousting a timetable for upcoming PTA meetings). She struggled for a moment trying to pierce the card with a pin, but it was simply too thick and had to stand on the breakfast bar instead, propped up against the sugar bowl. There was a sudden hiatus in the preparation of our dinner (frozen beef burgers and chips, it was a bit of an off night for my mother, and she wouldn’t be happy if she knew this particular menu was being recorded for posterity).

“Whatever am I going to wear?” she exclaimed.

I looked around but there was only me in the room. It was hard to imagine that my mother was really soliciting my advice. Nevertheless I gave the matter careful consideration before replying.

“Why don’t you wear your red dress with the silver buckle?” My mother had what Granny Monroe called a “tidy” figure, and in her red dress with her hair up, she looked like one of the efficient secretary types they had on ITV sitcoms. She narrowed her eyes at me.

“I don’t think so, Rebecca.”



“Mum? Do we have to send out cards when we stay at home?” I stood waiting but she’d turned her attention back to her frying pan. The reply never came. But then when did they ever?

“Coitus à la Florentine,” said Lucy. We were sprawled across the genuine New England patchwork quilt of her parents’ bed and I was seeing how long I could hold my legs in the air. Lucy stumbled over the words, but there was no mistaking that at least half of them were rude.

“Intercourse with the woman holding the man’s penile skin forcibly back with finger and thumb at the root of the penis and keeping it stretched all the time,” said Lucy. “Excellent way of speeding up ejaculation, and greatly boosts intensity of male sensation if you get the tension right.”

She paused for breath and I swallowed hard. I understood only one word in ten, but it was enough to remind me of my only previous encounter of a sexual nature: when I’d watched Love Story on the television and Ryan O’Neal’s woollen hat had rubbed against Ali MacGraw’s in a provocative manner.

Lucy, because her father was a doctor, but mostly because she liked to be right, claimed to have superior knowledge in all matters pertaining to everything. “Kenneth told me,” she’d say if I tried to dispute one of her more unlikely claims, such as the assertion that if you swallowed chewing gum it stuck to your heart or that the sun could give you cancer. Lucy didn’t call her parents Mum and Dad. She called them “Kenneth” and “Suzanne,” which I found bizarre and unnatural. Lucy did know a lot, though; this was undisputable. She’d garnered certain information from her cousin Elsa, on the other side of the family. Elsa had told Lucy that if you hit her in the chest, her breasts felt like two sharp stones; that there was no such thing as Santa Claus; and that Suzanne and Kenneth enjoyed the benefit of an open marriage.


“Elsa says Suzanne says she doesn’t want to succumb to the constraints of petit-bourgeois morality.”

“Oh.” I looked at Lucy, impressed.

Naturally we studied our reference materials, poring over the pages of the dictionary together. We looked carefully at all the entries under “open” but it didn’t make any sense.

“Open to suggestions?” said Lucy.

“Open all hours?”

“Open or shut?”

“Open sesame!”

In the end we gave up and played Connect 4 instead.


It was a Saturday morning and we were sitting around the breakfast bar. My mother seemed to be trying to ignore me. She was reading Woman’s Own and I jiggled up and down in my seat in front of her, but she turned her head the other way.



Finally, she turned a page in her book and said, “Hmm?”

“What’s an open marriage?”

My father rustled the paper. My mother hesitated then lifted her head.

“I beg your pardon?”

“What’s an open marriage? Is it different from a closed marriage?”

She was wearing her Reactolites, and as she turned her head, her face moved from shadow to sunlight. The glasses darkened. Her eyes vanished.

Who on earth has been putting such ideas into your head?”

“Nobody. I was just wondering.” I was beginning to suspect this wasn’t such a good idea after all. In our house there was a general rule that questions weren’t given a direct answer if an indirect one would suffice.

“Aunty Suzanne and Uncle Kenneth have an open marriage.”

My father dropped the Daily Mail

“Well!” said my mother.

I hesitated.

“Aunty Suzanne doesn’t want to succor petty morality.”

Was that right? I was suddenly unsure.

“Doesn’t she now? Well that wouldn’t surprise me! A leopard doesn’t change its spots!”

My mother liked her proverbs, trusty family heirlooms handed from one generation to the next, made shiny with use. She took off her Reactolites and started cleaning them with a piece of paper towel.

“She’s got a nerve. I’ll say that for her.”

My father coughed, picked his newspaper back up, and from behind her copy of Woman’s Own, I saw my mother raise her eyebrows at him. What neither of them realized was that this exchange of information cut both ways. Lucy, at that moment, was informing her own mother that Aunty Doreen wore a Playtex twenty-four-hour girdle in bed.

1.3 annotate vt : furnish with notes

I watched Love Story* again the other day. I wanted to remember how we thought falling in love was meant to be. The sex, I have to say, was disappointing: all soft lighting and cut-away camera work. I’m an academic now (of sorts), so footnoting is what I do. To understand my story, you need the cultural references—the historical circumstances—you need to remember what the late seventies were like. It wasn’t all wearing moon boots down to the disco and driving Ford Capris. But people tend to forget that. They forget the silent Sundays, the early closing hours, the fat unfunny comedians cracking racist jokes while your dad sharpened the knife to cut the Sunday roast. Maybe that wasn’t the seventies. Maybe that was childhood. Or the suburbs. I can’t say. I’ve never been back. My seventies—The Long Seventies, I think I’ll call them—ended on July 29, 1981. The day my mother died. Do I need to annotate Alistair and me? Probably. We’re one of those couples you meet and think, Well I’d never have put them together. I don’t think there’s much of a resemblance to Erich Segal’s Love Story, all things told, but I’m going to borrow the structure anyway. Love stories, after all, follow certain conventions. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy and girl live happily ever after. You know the kind of thing. Love Story (2) Part 1

What would the award-winning musical score be? The Happy Mondays, perhaps? Or Jimi Hendrix? It was a student party, so it could have been anything really. For we were star-crossed lover-students too. And Alistair was drunk.

The party was being thrown by Alistair’s friend John, in a student house with posters of James Dean on the wall and Indian bedspreads across the ceiling. I’d brought a bottle of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon and was drinking it out of a plastic cup, clenching my teeth and trying not to notice the metallic edge.

Alistair was standing in the corner of the room. I noticed him because he seemed to be staring at me. I saw him take a swig of his wine and then he walked over.

“I could smell you from the other side of the room,” he said. I looked at him. I’d vaguely seen him around before but we had never actually met. He was doing some sort of science, I knew that. The party was full of them. Scientists. The type that got up early to cycle off to their labs.

“That’s not the greatest of lines, you know.”

“It’s your pheromones. They’re saying that you want to have sex with me.”

I changed my mind. It was quite a good line.

“You must have mistranslated. They actually said, ‘Oh God. I can’t believe you’ve brought me to a party full of scientists.’”

He came closer, swaying slightly, and looked down my top.

“You’re ovulating.”

His face was only inches away and I could see his freckles, the pores of his skin, his eyelashes, the flashes of yellow in the pupils of his eyes.

“Your body is saying you want to have sex with me; it just hasn’t communicated that fact to your mind yet.”

Actually, it had. Alistair was tall, with rumpled sandy-colored hair. When he smiled, his lips actually turned up at the corners. More importantly, he appeared to fancy me.

“Man is the only mammal who conceals ovulation,” he said. He sounded so sure of himself. That was attractive too.

“I thought it was women who ovulated generally.”

Alistair wouldn’t be put off. He had a point to make.

“Chimps, baboons, apes, they all advertise it. They show that they’re ready for sex. Their vulvas swell up or their bottoms go red. In man, ovulation is concealed. Paternity is therefore always in doubt. It’s a way of making men stick around just in case the child is theirs.”

“And I thought scientists were boring,” I said. “When actually they’re such good conversationalists.”

He’d laughed at that. Although he’d laughed even more when I’d told him I was doing Cultural Studies.

The funny thing was that he was right. I must have been ovulating. Otherwise how would I have got pregnant?

1.4 Theories of Relativity (1)

We’re all linked. Connected in some way, although sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how. Take me and Tiffany.

Tiffany is my sister. My older sister. I’ve always considered that significant, although Alistair says it makes no difference. He says that the idea that birth order influences personality is pseudo-scientific hogwash, so perhaps it makes no difference. Apart from the fact that she always gets her own way and always has.

I’ve been married to Alistair for nearly a decade, so I’ve absorbed certain information over the years. He’s a behavioral geneticist. Deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, that’s his thing, but also alleles, exons, introns, ribosomes, eukaryotes, transgenic mice, dyzgotic twins, nematopoietic stem cells and recombinant clones. It’s his secret language. LUCA—the Last Universal Common Ancestor—Jansky’s nomenclature, homologous chromosomes, the Kruppel gene, the huckebein gene, the Wolf-Hirschhorn gene. Find a gene and you can name it. Unravel a fragment of life and it’s yours forever.

There are people who spend their whole lives looking for genes. They’re the big-game hunters of our times, although they use microscopes rather than double-barreled shotguns. Alistair has a tendency to sneer at them, but I suspect that’s a professional thing.

How to Find a Gene for a Trait 1. Take a fruit fly.
2. Expose it to an X ray.
3. Mate it with another fly.
4. Study the defects of the progeny.
5. Isolate the mutated gene.

He’s described the process for me. From the mutations of the offspring, you have to track back to find the mutated gene. The child is father to the man. You hunt for the gene that’s been changed, distorted, knocked out.

We were in a park at the time. And he tried to illustrate the idea by pulling petals out of a daisy.

“Say that is a gene you’ve knocked out.” He pulled out a cluster of petals to leave a hole.

“I know that game,” I said. “‘He loves me, he loves me not.’ Lucy and I used to play it when we were children.”

He frowned at me and placed another daisy over the top of the first. “And pretend this is the progeny of the daisy with a hole.” He began to pull out petals at random. I was trying hard to follow.

“Can you see?”

“I think so,” I said.

“You see this other flower, the ‘child,’ has a mutation. But you can work out what’s missing, what should be there, from the ‘parent.’ It’s not really like that, but do you get the idea?”

I nodded although I didn’t, not really.

“It’s not a very good example,” he said. “But you have to work in reverse. It’s the science of the missing gap. You can see a thing clearly only by the shape it leaves behind. From the effect that is produced by it not being there.”

“Like my mother?”

I watched him pulling petals out of the daisy and waited for a reply.

“That’s different,” he said eventually. I caught the edge of exasperation in his voice. “It’s science, not emotion.”

I shrugged my shoulders and watched him pull out the last remaining petal. He loves me not. Although possibly I’d miscounted.

1.5 family n 2 : two or more people who share the same goals and values

My mother needed a party outfit and had spent days planning a solo shopping expedition before deciding, at the last minute, that it would be “fun” if Tiffany and I came too. It was uncertain, at this point, what form the “fun” would take. Her preparations were as thorough as ever. She was wearing her comfort-fit Scholl’s with the bobbles on the sole, and the same grimly determined expression she used for bleaching the toilet bowl after Grandpa Arnold had been to visit.

We followed her through five boutiques and one department store, were told off for loitering, and reprimanded for fiddling with the hangers, all before we’d even entered our first changing room. My mother was carrying a stack of different clothes and had started to look agitated. It was already 2.30 p.m. The first outfit she tried on was an Indian print cotton dress, with two tassels at the neck, and a thin floaty skirt that came almost to the ankle. Tiffany and I exchanged uncertain glances. It was hard to imagine its existence in Beech Drive. She was making strange expressions with her lips in the mirror and checking out her reflection from several angles.

“Is that...‘hippie’?”

It was a new word and I used it hesitantly because my mother had a habit of saying, “That’s a long word, what does it mean?” and if you couldn’t answer precisely and immediately, you were scorned and mocked and thrown to the family wolverines (Tiffany and, if she was around, Granny Monroe). There was no interrogation, however. She shrugged off the dress, glared at me, then decided to let it go.

The next outfit was a long-sleeved purple dress, belted tightly at the waist and buttoned to the neck.

“It’s very with-it, of course,” she said, twirling in front of the mirror and making pouty faces at her reflection. She had a small, pert nose that wrinkled uncertainly as she scrutinized herself. “I don’t know. It’s not very sexy, is it?”

I may have been only eight years old but I wasn’t born yesterday. It was the sort of question that only a fool, or possibly my father, would have attempted to answer. I took refuge in the communal changing area instead, poking my head under the heavy gray curtain that separated the cubicles.

I’d stumbled into Hell. It was an inferno of heaving, quivering humanity that smelled of armpits and hormones and fear. I regarded the body parts with horror: there were legs and arms and bottoms and bosoms in every corner. Everywhere there were women struggling into clothes, struggling out of clothes, pinching stray pieces of flesh, sucking in their breath to make their stomachs disappear, sighing in disappointment as zips failed to zip and buttons pinged. Portions of dimpled flesh were pinioned into strange and unnatural positions by a multitude of straps and elastic. There were a bewildering variety of undergarments on display. One woman was wearing a belt that looked like a medieval torturing device I’d once seen on a visit to Warwick Castle. And there was a smell of something in the air that I recognized from Beech Drive but couldn’t place at first. It was anxiety, I think. Or, possibly, Cacharel’s Anaïs Anaïs. As I turned my head, a woman in a petticoat grimaced at the mirror, her face hollowed out by the fluorescent strip lighting. It was an expression I’d not see again until much later in my educational career when Mrs. Howarth put a transparency of The Scream by Munch on the overhead projector.

I ducked back into the cubicle and lay on the carpet and stared at the ceiling tiles while my mother struggled into a two-piece beige safari suit that she teamed with a sheer viscose orange shirt that had long rounded collars.


She swirled for Tiffany (I suspected I was being boycotted on account of the hippie remark).

“You look lovely!” said Tiffany, who had already computed that the likelihood of her acquiring a new dress was in some way related to what passed behind the curtain of the cubicle.

“It is rather marvelous, isn’t it?” said my mother, sucking in her stomach and standing on tiptoe. “Of course, I’ll have to think very carefully about accessories.”

“Of course,” said Tiffany, flashing her most winning smile, a near-clone of the one my mother would use later on my father as she deposited her shopping bags on top of the breakfast bar.

After a flurry of activity at the cash register, it was off to the children’s department, where in an ecstasy of indecision, Tiffany eventually chose a long maroon skirt that came with a matching sleeveless jacket (that my mother called a “gilet”) and hung down to the floor, giving her a commanding air, as if she was about to host a television show or throw a dinner party. I, on the other hand, headed straight for a floor-length purple polyester dress with smocking and light pink frill that cost £9.99 and refused to countenance any alternatives. The dress was placed between layers of tissue paper.

We were on a roll now and my mother was starting to pick up speed. She bought a pair of sunglasses that made her look like an owl, an orange hat with a large floppy brim, and in a last sprint through Stead&Simpson (“Quick! They’re closing!”), she made a lunge for a pair of tan open-toed high-heeled sandals without trying them on. We returned home, triumphant, buying fish and chips en route because my mother said she was too tired to cook, and besides, the day had a celebratory feel that no one wanted to end. Even my father looked happy to see his wife flushed and excited and talking him through the trials of our day in town: the exigencies of the new multistoried car park, the desperate hunt for a matching orange lipstick and the panic when she thought she’d run out of checks.

“But we didn’t buy Dad anything!”

I looked up at my father.

“Don’t be silly!” said my mother, rounding up sauce bottles and pieces of cutlery. “He’s got plenty of things he hasn’t got the wear out of yet.”

We ate our fish and chips off warmed-up plates (I preferred them straight from the newspaper but my mother claimed this was common), and as a special treat, we were allowed to eat it in front of the television.

It was a repeat of Man About the House,* which Tiffany and I thought was rather risqué on account of the fact that Chrissy, the blond woman, liked to wander around in a towel for much of the program owing to the fact that she was always on the point of getting into, or out of, the bath, and the man was always trying to look up it. I laughed along at the jokes although I wasn’t always sure I got them. The man was allowed to live with the two girls because they pretended he was “not that way inclined.”

“What way inclined?” I asked my mother.


She was flicking through a copy of Woman and looked up briefly.

“Which way is he not inclined?”

She hesitated for a moment and looked at my father. He frowned and then burrowed his head into the newspaper.

“I’ve really got no idea what you’re talking about,” she said eventually.

“Mum?” said Tiffany, turning away from the television.


“Who’s the oldest? You or Suzanne?”

“I am.”

“So you’re like me, and she’s like Rebecca?”

“Well, I’ve never really thought of it like that,” she said, looking up. “But yes, I suppose you’re right.”

“What was Aunty Suzanne like when she was younger?”


“Doreen!” Our father looked up from his paper.

“Well she was! She still is. Pushy and affected. She wasn’t always Lady Muck, you know. Not until she went off and married Kenneth. I don’t know where she gets all those airs and graces from. She’s got ideas above her station, has Suzanne.”

She’d started clearing the plates, scraping off the remains of the tartar sauce with vicious little swipes, dissipating the mood of family contentment to the far corners of the room.

“Right! You two can wash up before you go to bed. And make sure you rinse them properly.” She slammed the living room door shut, in case we were still in any doubt that she was in a bad mood.

1.6 The Scientific Method

On the first Tuesday of every month, I go to Alistair’s department. I am weighed and measured, a sample of my blood is taken, and a series of carefully worded questions is addressed to me.

It was Alistair’s idea and, in the end, I agreed.

“It’s for a good cause,” he said. “We have to have volunteers; it’s the only way we can test our theories. It’s not my study if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s a different branch of genetics.”

I looked at him doubtfully. “Yes, but why me?”

He stared at me, surprised. “You’re perfect for it!”

And for a moment, I’ll admit, I felt flattered.

“Particularly with your family history!”

He said it with a certain excited fervor. I should have known there’d be a catch. I turned my back so he couldn’t see my face and twisted on the hot tap. Steam rose from the sink. I could feel it warming my face, turning my cheeks red, condensing as drops on my eyelashes. I stood quite still waiting for the sink to fill.

If you ask Alistair about his childhood, he’ll say it was happy. If you ask him about his genes, he can point to the fact that his father is a professor and his mother is the ladies’ captain of the local tennis club. They take evening classes together and go on self-improving holidays. Alistair believes we’re vehicles of our genes. He believes that our environment plays almost no role in how we turn out. But I can’t help thinking it was an intellectual choice. That it was arbitrary. That it could have gone either way.

I washed the dishes, methodically scouring them and rinsing them under the tap.

“You’ve gone very quiet,” he said eventually.

I took a plate from the foam and let the hot water run over it. “Busy day.”

“Oh,” he said, turning his attention back to the papers stacked high on the kitchen table. “For a moment there, I thought you were upset about something.”

. . . On the first Tuesday of every month, I go and drink tea from a plastic cup and read ancient issues of Woman and Cosmopolitan and wait to be calibrated by a team of researchers. I’m not sure what they’re investigating. Alistair didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask. Sometimes, I think it’s easier that way.

I have become a subject of scientific inquiry. I know about the “scientific method.” It’s one of the very few things I remember of my schoolgirl science.

The Scientific Method
1. Observe. Examine the details. Note the facts. Detail. Scrutinize.
2. Hypothesize. What theory could account for the facts?
3. Experiment. Test your hypothesis.
4. Evaluate the results.

He believes that by this method you can arrive at the truth. It’s a tempting theory, although I’m not convinced that it works. Or at least, it didn’t for me. You never know what piece of information is missing, until it’s found.

The scientific method relies upon empirical evidence. I still like to consult the dictionary so I looked it up. (empirical a 1 : based or acting on observation or experiment 2 : regarding sense data as fact 3 : deriving knowledge from experience alone) Alistair uses it in the first sense. Based or acting on observation or experiment. Whereas strictly speaking, I think the third meaning is the truest. You derive knowledge from experience alone. Or, at least, I did. I derived knowledge from experience alone.

1.7 dream vi 1 : to have visions of, believe possible

My father tripped over the ironing board for the second time in five minutes.

“It’s like backstage at the London Palladium in here,” he said, although nobody took any notice of him. There was more important business in hand. Billows of perfume and hair spray clung to the air, and items of clothing had been strewn around the lounge. (“It’s a sitting room! How many times must I tell you that?”) My mother was wearing curlers and a slip and had started berating inanimate objects (“Call yourself a hairdryer!” “Where does the sewing basket think it’s got to?”) until she spotted my father wearing an old pair of corduroy trousers. “For God’s sake, James! Try and smarten yourself up!”

He looked down at himself in bewilderment. My mother always managed to look neat and composed no matter what. She said that there was never a good excuse for not wearing a properly ironed blouse. But creases collected around my father like hairs around the bathroom drain; his shirts had a habit of crumpling or sticking out the back of his trousers or being buttoned up the wrong way. He stood unsure what to do until my mother marched him upstairs into the bedroom and picked him out a pale blue V-neck sweater and a pair of beige slacks.

“Look at your hair!” she said, grabbing a comb from the bathroom shelf. He stood miserably in front of her like a dog who’d just been told it was bathtime. She tugged at the comb and tutted loudly. His hair had grown longer recently and curled over his collar. “I really can’t think what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned short back and sides,” she said. “Everybody will think you’re becoming some sort of beatnik.”

I went to watch Tiffany getting ready, to see if I could pick up any beauty tips. She had inherited my mother’s way with clothes and looked almost regal in her skirt and matching vest. She was fussing with her hair, having spent all morning trying to straighten her curls. She had washed it, and then blow-dried it with our mother’s hairdryer. She had even stolen some of her hairspray. “Is she?” they said on the ads. “Or isn’t she?” Tiffany was. You could tell. Her hair had gone sticky and the strands were all clogged together. It didn’t stop the curls from reappearing though. Tiffany’s hair was her only flaw. She had creamy, perfect skin, long black curly lashes and lips that were much redder and fuller than mine. But her hair let her down. It was black. It frizzed. Half an hour after being dried, it had curled back into itself. Nobody else in the family had her problem. Our hair encompassed every shade of mousey brown, from light mouse (me) to dark mouse (my father) taking in mid-mouse (my mother—although she called it “ash blond”).

Mine was newly washed too and slippery to the touch. I’d combed my fringe over my forehead, trying my best to cover it. It was too high. My hair started too far back; it made my face look moony. I looked in the mirror and sighed, cheering up only when I put on my magnificent new dress and began to track my mother from room to room wondering when we would be ready to go. In the hallway, we came across Tiffany wearing lipstick and eye shadow. My mother stopped in her tracks.

“You’d better clean that muck off your face right now, young lady,” she said through a thick haze of foundation, powder and bronzer.

Tiffany skulked back to her room. I trailed in her wake.

“You’ll all be sorry one day,” she said and threw herself onto her bed.

“Sorry for what?”

“When my true identity is discovered.”

Tiffany was an avid reader of mildewed Edwardian hardbacks that had been hoarded by our mother from her own childhood and was modeling her current personality on A Little Princess. She had been forced to live in the attic of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Girls because of some mix-up over her true identity.

“I’m probably a princess. And when I’m discovered, I’ll live in a castle.”

I rarely doubted Tiffany, but even I tended to think this was an unlikely scenario.

“But, if you’re a princess, then I would be a princess too! I’m your sister!”

She hesitated. She could always trump me with the power of her logic and the fluency of her rhetoric.

“Shut up, Rebecca,” she said.

The doorbell rang. Ding Dong!

“Who on earth?” said my mother. She was applying a third layer of hair spray to her curls, a task that required her fullest concentration. “Make yourself useful and get that will you, James?”

Reluctantly, he went to the door and opened it.

“It’s Gloria from next door.”

My mother threw down the canister in exasperation. “Gloria? We’re awfully busy. We’re just off to a party at the Old Parsonage.”

“Ooh, I say!”

“It’s going to be quite a do. Apparently, they’ve got outside caterers in.”

“The Kennedys did that at their party last month at the Old Barn. Were you invited to that one? I don’t believe I remember seeing you there.”

My mother glared at her. A false smile played at the edges of her mouth. “Is there anything I can help you with, Gloria?”

“Not to worry, it can wait. Just you have a lovely time now, won’t you?” And she walked back out the door, leaving my mother muttering under her breath and stabbing at her eyes with her mascara wand.

I had recently become aware that some sort of caste system operated in Middleton, but its rules were complex, its codes unfathomable.

There were some simple rules of thumb: the bigger your house, the better you were. Oak Avenue was more exclusive than Beech Drive; Beech Drive more than Sycamore Close.

And then there were the Old houses. The Old Parsonage, the Old Schoolhouse, the Old Vicarage, the Old Rectory. The past was a religious time. Although now the buildings were filled with ruffled curtains and thick-pile carpets and the vicar lived in a semi down the road from us and made desperate appeals for the Heating Fund from his pulpit.

I understood this much. It was the exceptions that confused matters. There were anomalies. Us, for example. As a rule, people with trees in their address didn’t mix with people with Old in their address. And most people’s aunts and uncles lived in Barnstaple or Chesterfield, while ours were just down the road.

There were other exceptions too. Mrs. Browning, who was married to Mr. Browning (he was something big in British Petroleum), made a point of being nicer to Lucy than she was to me, inquiring after her parents, soliciting information about her well-being (they were both Olds). Whereas the Grahams treated us all the same. And, according to my mother, they were as “rich as Croesus.” They didn’t mind whom their daughter Theresa brought home.

“The more the merrier,” they said, which threw my mother into high sniffery. “Nouveau,” she said. “You can tell it a mile off.”

We were almost ready. There were some last-minute adjustments in the hall mirror and I stamped my feet impatiently. My mother tilted her hat and placed her owl glasses on her head. I looked at her afresh.

“You look like Deirdre Barlow!” I said. “In Coronation Street.*”

“Do I?” said my mother and gave me a small, simpering smile. “Well, then. Let’s go!”

We walked down the road, self-consciously parading our finery through the streets of Middleton. Down Beech Drive, into Sycamore Close, up Oak Avenue, until we left behind the streets of modern, white semidetached houses with their patches of front lawns and family cars parked in the driveways. We reached the point where the road became suddenly more rural as we passed the pub and the church and turned into a road sheltered by tall trees and guarded by a wrought-iron fence.

There were dozens of cars parked in the driveway. We pressed the bell. It was a deeper, more sonorous chime than our own. We listened to the sounds of the party coming from deep within the house. I hopped from foot to foot until, finally, Uncle Kenneth came to the door. He looked very dapper. His hair was black and graying at the temples in a manner that my mother called “distinguished.” At his throat he wore a burgundy silk cravat.

“Ah Doh-Reen!”


My mother gave him her full simper, and they kissed each other twice on the cheek as if they were foreign, or dying.

“And James! Do come in.”

“Frightfully good of you to invite us,” said my mother to Uncle Kenneth.

“Hello, Doreen,” said Aunty Suzanne.

“Suzanne,” said my mother briskly as she walked past her sister and into the house.

I ran into the back garden to find Lucy. She was feeding sausage rolls to the neighbor’s dog, Charlie, a wire-haired Jack Russell.

We both loved animals. I tickled Charlie under the chin while he swallowed his fifth sausage roll. My mother wouldn’t allow dogs in our house on account of the fact they were unhygienic, shed hair on the furniture and couldn’t be relied upon not to embarrass you in front of the neighbors. She always averted her eyes in the street when we saw one doing its business. Particularly if it was a he-dog.

Lucy tossed Charlie a sixth sausage roll. She was wearing wide-legged trousers and a stripy top. I was beginning to think that perhaps my purple-frilled dress hadn’t hit quite the right note. My mother was evidently having a similar pang. She was eyeing Aunty Suzanne’s outfit: a long Indian-print dress not dissimilar to the one she had tried on during our shopping expedition.

“What an interesting dress.”

Aunty Suzanne looked surprised and gave it a disdainful tug. “This old thing? I’ve had it for years.”

“Really? I do think ethnic is such a tricky look to pull off effectively.”

Aunty Suzanne looked as if she was going to say something but then changed her mind and turned away. As she did, a shaft of sunlight shone through the Indian print. It illuminated the unmistakable contour of a braless breast. I held my breath. My mother had not not-worn a bra since she was thirteen, and had decided opinions on women who “let it all hang out.” “Trollops,” she usually called them, although sometimes they were “sluts.” I’d looked up both words in the dictionary and had cross-referenced to “prostitute n : woman who sells her body.”

“Does your mother sell her body?” I asked Lucy. She was still stroking Charlie but had moved on to a tray of anchovy toasts.

“She’s too old. Kenneth says she’s passed her sell-by date.”

Charlie seemed to hiccup. Then, in one swift movement, he deposited a yellowish stream of undigested sausage rolls and anchovy toasts over the patio tiles. I couldn’t say I blamed him. Anchovy was one of those things adults pretended to enjoy, like Stilton, or coffee or Sundays. He looked at us for a moment, wagged his tail, and then started to lick it up.

“Oh well,” said Lucy, walking quickly away. “Let’s get a Coke.”

We went over to the drinks table, where she expertly wielded the ice tongs and filled our glasses. Carrying them carefully, we went inside.

Tiffany was in the kitchen looking imperious. Her new outfit had effected some sort of change in her personality. Ever since she’d put it on, she’d begun to behave as if she was in a breakfast cereal commercial or auditioning for a part in Jesus Christ Superstar.

“Look,” she said, pointing to an object on the counter. “It’s a Deluxe Kenwood Soda Stream. Recommended retail price, £10.99.”

Tiffany made a point of studying the Argos catalogue and sometimes got me to test her. In years to come, she would beat us all hands down on The Price Is Right.

Aunty Suzanne appeared at the door. “Would you girls like to help with the vol-au-vents?”

Tiffany swept forward. “I would, Aunty Suzanne!”

She was using the voice she reserved for when she was especially trying to ingratiate herself with a grown-up.

“You can call me Suzanne, you know.”

“I would, Suzanne!”

“Super!” said Aunty Suzanne.

“Super!” said Tiffany.

Aunty Suzanne turned to pick up a plate. Tiffany turned and picked up a plate. Aunty Suzanne spun on her heel. Tiffany spun on her heel.

“Suzanne? Were you and Mum alike when you were young?”

Aunty Suzanne looked up from her vol-au-vents and seemed to consider her reply.

“Alike? Well, I think you could say that we’ve always been different.”

“Mum says that you’ve changed.”

Aunty Suzanne put down the plate and pursed her lips.

“Well she would say that, wouldn’t she?”

We all stood and wondered what this meant. Aunty Suzanne was looking beyond us at a point in the middle distance, although possibly it was her cork-lined notice board.

“Your mother wasn’t interested in a career. She wanted to find a rich man to marry.”

“But Dad isn’t rich!”

Tiffany looked almost hurt by the suggestion.

“We’d live in a detached house if he was!”

Aunty Suzanne shrugged and gave a small almost-smile. “No. But your mother thought he was going to be.”

Tiffany cast her eye around my aunt’s impressive array of up-to-the-minute gadgets and built- in appliances.

“So, did you marry for money, Suzanne?”

Aunty Suzanne exhaled heavily and put down her plate. “No, Tiffany. I fell in love with a hippie. And ended up married to a man who plays golf.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Life doesn’t always work out like you think it will, you know.”

How did it turn out then? It was one of those things no one would tell you. When I’d say to my mother, “Will I look like Farrah Fawcett-Majors when I grow up?” she’d just snort and say, “In your dreams.”

Outside, there was a throng of people on the terrace. The party had divided into unmistakable camps. By the buffet, my father was talking to Mr. Sullivan from the Old Schoolhouse about the merits and demerits of the Ford Cortina, while Uncle Kenneth’s medical colleagues from work had gathered by the drinks table. Their wives congregated at the side and swapped notes on their outfits. They wore pretty floral dresses, and when Aunty Suzanne swept past, she said “Drones” under her breath. She had joined the ladies from her women’s group underneath the oak tree. They had a coffee morning once a month at the Old Parsonage, from which men were banned, although it didn’t stop Uncle Kenneth from referring to them as “Hags United.”

There he was now, circling with a bottle of white wine, his silk burgundy cravat flopping dejectedly to one side.

“Hello, Rebecca.”

“Hello, Uncle Kenneth!”

He hesitated, as if another question was required but he wasn’t quite sure what it might be.

“Are you having a nice time?”

He looked at me expectantly, as if I was going to leap over the goldfish pond or turn into a toadstool. But then, like most fathers, Uncle Kenneth didn’t seem to know what you were supposed to do with children. We didn’t play golf or bridge. This left him without obvious conversational gambits.

“Yes, thank you!”

Lucy appeared at my elbow. “Kenneth?”

“Yes, Lucy.”

“What’s sexual intercourse?”

I gasped and cast my eyes to the ground. But Lucy just stood and stared at her father, daring him to answer.

“Well, it’s...it’s something. It’s when a man and a woman love each other very much.”

“What? Like marriage?”

“Well, yes, sort of, that’s right.”

“So if you’re not married you can’t do sexual intercourse?”

“Lucy, I don’t really think this...”

“Or you can do sexual intercourse but only with a married person?”

She’d done it. Lucy always managed to push things too far.

“Why don’t you ask your mother? She’s the expert.”

A roar of laughter erupted from underneath the oak tree. Uncle Kenneth shifted his weight onto a different foot.

“Better push off,” he said, exiting patio left. “Don’t want to be accused of being an oppressor again.”

Lucy and I turned our attention back to the party, watching the adults for clues. We did as they did and stood in our best clothes, sipping our Cokes. Was this it? We waited for the moment when the fun would kick in, but nothing happened. We hovered for a moment or two longer, then gave up, sprinting toward the oak tree and scrabbling for our familiar handholds. For the second time that day, I considered that my purple dress might have been a mistake. It kept on riding up, and when I hung off the second branch up, it flipped over my head.

I somersaulted back around and checked to see if anybody noticed. The chatter continued undiminished. I was walking discreetly away when Mr. Sullivan appeared at my elbow.

“Pink ones, eh?”

My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Although luckily Mr. Sullivan didn’t seem to mind.

“Jolly good. Jolly good,” he said, patting me on the bottom. “Why don’t you try that tree over there?”

I ran off, my face burning, taking the path past the fishpond and along the side of the house. The noise of the party was louder now. Somebody had put on the record player and dragged it onto a windowsill. A few of the women had kicked off their shoes and started dancing. The sun was hotter, the shadows longer. I sat down on a bench and considered my shame. Was I a trollop? A slut? A prostitute?

Tiffany appeared next to me. I wondered if she had heard about the underpants incident. There’d be hell to pay if my mother found out. She always put on a dressing gown over her nightie when the doctor came to visit, and said that no one had ever accused her of putting her prime cuts on display. Tiffany had other matters on her mind, however. She just put her fingers to her lips and said, “Sssshhh!”

I followed her gaze and there was my mother, so perhaps I was safe after all. She was having some sort of heated conversation with Kenneth, although she didn’t play golf or bridge either. Her hair seemed to have slipped over to one side of her head. I felt a pang of pity for her because she must have spilled something on her shirt too, as Kenneth was patting it clean.

I turned to Tiffany. “What are they doing?”

Tiffany rolled her eyes. “You’re such a baby. You never understand anything.”

She was right enough about that. I’d never understood why Tiffany seemed to reserve her most virulent displays of hatred for me. We were sisters! She was supposed to love me. I knew this for a fact. I’d seen it on the television.

“Why don’t you just go and play with your dolls?” she said, saying “dolls” as if it was “cow pat” or “dog-sick.” “Why don’t you just go and play with your dog-sick?”

We didn’t arrive home until it was dark, after the summer light had finally leached from the sky and been replaced by stars that winked as we walked back down the long, twisting drive, along the road, and down Oak Avenue. Pools of orange from the streetlights guided us now as we turned in to Sycamore Close and up Beech Drive. It took us almost twice as long to reach home as it had to walk to the party. My mother was giggling, although, as she wasted no time in telling us, her feet were killing her, the fault of the impulsively purchased tan open-toed sandals that had left red angry welts across her ankles. Back at home, we gathered in the kitchen and switched on the electric kettle.

“I’m ready for a cup of tea, I can tell you that.” She sighed contentedly. “Thinks she’s lady of the manor, she does. All those airs and graces.”

“Hmm,” said my father.

“Just because she lives in a big house, she thinks she’s the bee’s knees, she really does. Poor Kenneth! He has to sew his own buttons on, you know.”

“Mum?” asked Tiffany. “Did you like Suzanne’s dress?”

Ugh! Wasn’t it awful? She’s really let herself go. But then, I never could see what he saw in her.”

“Mum?” I said.

She was sitting at the table massaging her toes.



“Why don’t you like Aunty Suzanne?”

She stopped massaging and looked up. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Well, you always...I thought

“Of course I like her, Rebecca. She’s my sister.”

I studied her carefully, trying to follow her logic. Tiffany was my sister after all. It was hardly what you’d call incontrovertible evidence.

“We just have...different values, that’s all.”

My father made a noise that sounded like a grunt. Or possibly a snort. My mother’s head spun in his direction.

“Sorry, James. What was that?”

“Nothing, my dear.”

She looked at him suspiciously for a moment and then said, “My God, is that the time?”

According to the kitchen clock, it was eleven o’clock.

Bed! Now!

Although it was a different sort of “Bed! Now!” from usual. Mock, as opposed to actual, horror.

That night, I wrapped my continental quilt around me, relishing its novelty. (My mother had held out against them longer than anyone else on Beech Drive on the grounds you couldn’t get a proper hospital corner with them.) I fell asleep and dreamed of owning a dog called Charlie who fetched sticks and cleaned up after himself.

The next day, Tiffany told me she’d had a dream too.

“So did I! It was abou—”

But she didn’t give me a chance.

“I was Cinderella!” She looked triumphant. “And my father came back to claim me!”

I thought about telling her about Charlie and the sticks but realized it wouldn’t be any good. Tiffany always had to trump me. Even in her dreams.

1.8 The Fruit Fly

The favored object of study for geneticists is the humble fruit fly. Drosophila melanogaster. They like roundworms too, but for gene hunters, the fruit fly is king. You can knock out a fruit fly gene, mate it with another fruit fly and see the resulting offspring all within a two-week cycle.

Scientists know far more about fruit fly genes than they do about human genes because you can’t use humans as laboratory animals.

Alistair told me this with a completely straight face. We were walking through the streets of London on the way to a party being thrown by one of his colleagues. I knew already what it would be like. Overloud conversation. A lot of references I wouldn’t get. And the wives and a couple of husbands standing around and trying to make small talk about anything that didn’t require a degree in science to understand.

It was late summer and still light. Alistair was talking but I couldn’t concentrate. The black shirt I was wearing was too tight under the sleeves. It felt clammy against my skin. My shoes pinched.

“You can’t breed a tall human with a short human,” said Alistair. “Or a small-earlobed human with a large one. You can’t mate them together, and you can’t wait twenty years to see what offspring they produce.”

“You can,” I said. My thighs chafed against each other as I walked. “It’s called life.” Perspiration trickled down my legs. “They’re called children.”

Alistair, cool in a pair of chinos and a thin cotton shirt, was walking slightly ahead of me.

“But there’s no control experiment. In science, you always need a control to check your observations against. In life, there’s no control.”

The strap on my shoes was digging into my ankle. “So, is that what you’re afraid of?”


“Losing control?”

Under his breath, I heard the faintest sigh. We’d reached the house where the party was being held. Voices and music drifted out of the open window. We stood by the steps, both of us hesitating.


I turned to look at him expectantly. He reached out to touch my face.


“You’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”

Figure 1. Patterns of Genetic Inheritance

*Love Story (1)
“Told in flashback, this is an uncompromisingly sentimental love story between two star-crossed lover- students—Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and Jenny Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw).

“The box-office smash hit of 1970 begins with Oliver reflecting on his past: ‘What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?’

“Their love triumphs despite their very different backgrounds. He is a ‘preppie’ and heir to the Barrett millions. She is the daughter of a poor but loving family of Catholic immigrants.

“The film’s most memorable moments are the scenes in which they frolic in a wintry-looking Harvard— kissing and playfully tossing snowballs at one another.

“After overcoming many obstacles, Jenny goes for a pregnancy test only to be diagnosed as terminally ill with a terrible but unspecified disease. She dies in Oliver’s arms in a tear-inducing finale as the award- winning musical score builds in the background.”

Figure 2. The Monroe Family Tree

* Man About the House

“First aired on ITV in 1973, Man About the House (and its American remake, Three’s Company) was perceived as groundbreaking in its treatment of what has come to be called the ‘alternative family.’

“The first episode featured Chrissy and Jo cleaning up the morning after a farewell party for their ex roommate and finding a drunken man asleep in the bathtub. Robin is a handsome bachelor who is studying catering at the local technical college, and once the girls discover that he is looking for somewhere to live, they offer him the vacant bedroom.

“In the seventies, however, two single women living alone with a single man was unacceptable to the vast majority of society, here represented by the Ropers, the girls’ landlords who live downstairs. In an inversion of the closet principle, Chrissy, therefore, informs the Ropers that Robin is gay.

“It was the first time mainstream television had grappled with the new social structures created by the so-called ‘permissive society’; the comedy is a by-product of the clash between the ideologies of the right and those of the new generation of ‘swingers.’ However, by doing so within the constraints and parameters of the situation comedy, the ‘threat’ is effectively neutralized and rendered titillating but ultimately nonsexual.”

*Coronation Street

“First shown in 1960, Coronation Street is the longest-running soap opera on British TV, regularly watched by almost one third of the British population. Its audience is predominantly female, older, and generally from lower socioeconomic groups (Sonia Livingstone, Making Sense of Television, 1990).

“In common with other soaps, relationships are more important than plot and female characters more important than male. It is this, in part, that has contributed to the genre’s lack of prestige within the critical establishment.

“While characters act according to the limits of their knowledge, viewers are omniscient. They know more than any single character can. Viewers can thereby engage in informed speculation about possible turn of events. Tania Modleski (Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, 1982) argues that the structural openness of soaps is an essentially ‘feminine’ narrative form.”

Figure 3.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A fast read that might be described as Helen Fielding meets Zadie Smith—takes an unusual spin on the nature versus nurture debate." —The Wall Street Journal

"[Cadwalladr] has a careful, nuanced sense of place and purpose . . . She is fearless, wry, and compassionate." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Poignant and amusing . . . While some have labeled The Family Tree chick lit, don’t be fooled: In fact, this is lit that happens to be written by one very clever chick." —People

"Carole Cadwalladr blends several generations of love stories with an examination of genetics, family and pop culture as she attempts to get at the heart of why we are the way we are." —Publisher's Weekly

"[A] loving, spot-on portrayal of a late 1970s childhood.... Cadwalladr has produced an ambitious book, packed with funny, likeable characters.... [A] lively, rangy, and thoroughly entertaining novel." —Entertainment Weekly

"This is a poignant and intelligent first novel, in which vivid characters engage the reader to ponder the timeless themes of fate and choice in light of the science-influenced sensibilities of the twenty-first century." —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works.

Meet the Author

Nominated for the Best Specialist Writer/British Press Award, Carole Cadwalladr writes for newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and lives in the UK. The Family Tree is her first novel.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Family Tree: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
At times it can seem that we're awash in stories dealing in introspection, with characters digging into the past in order to come to terms with the present. While, quite broadly, that is the focus of this estimable debut novel, The Family Tree is far above the ordinary. Ms. Cadwalladr, a British journalist, has fashioned a story rich in perception, tinged with comedy, and flawlessly delivered. That's quite an order for a voice performer to fulfill but dancer/actress Josephine Bailey is more than up to the task. Born in London, her reading is assertive yet also conveys the vulnerability found in narrator Rebecca Moore. Weaving together the stories of three generations allows Rebecca to explore her past in an effort to find out precisely who she is and what she's about. She is, most certainly afraid of being like her mother who took her own life. Rebecca wants to know why her mother did this. For her husband, Alistair, it's simply a matter of genetics. He can find an explanation for human behavior in science. Rebecca isn't at all willing to accept that, dismissing it as too facile. What about free choice? And, what about her marriage when it is discovered that there are very basic disagreements between them? The Family Tree is an intriguing story, and the introduction of a worthy new writing talent. - Gail Cooke