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
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 truthno, 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
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.)
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
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.
"Exquisite.... The writing is slick and deliberate, with a keen observation of middle-class domestic life." Chicago Sun-Times