Sunday, January 31, 2010

#6: Family Album

There are so many things one could say about Penelope Lively's Family Album. (For one, it has nothing to do with the book of the same title by Danielle Steel.) Here, I will quote a few: "a haunting new novel" (Dominique Brown, New York Times); "another winning demonstration of [Lively's] wit" (Ron Charles, Washington Post); "one of her most impressive works" (Joanna Briscoe, The Guardian).

To this could be added "thoroughly underwhelming," or -- perhaps less generously -- "a meandering tale lacking a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot, a progression, character development, and, while we're at it, a point." To varying degrees, completing the journey that is reading a book generally elicits the self-satisfaction of literary accomplishment; at the conclusion of Family Album, that feeling was something closer to relief.

To be fair, the story isn't awful, just repetitive and needlessly preoccupied with trifles. (Yes, trifles. If you're neither familiar with nor amused by English idioms, you've one more reason to cross this novel off the reading list. On the other hand, Lively appears to have appropriated a decent portion of vocabulary words from GRE prep courses. This would seem rather jejune if not for her literary fecundity.)

In a genuine attempt to cut the author some slack, I frequently reminded myself that there is much -- everything? -- about the intricacies of English middle-class existence about which I know nothing. (The term "Edwardian" is bandied about with alarming frequency, for example.) If that is the extent of it, then I apologize to Lively's loyal readers across the pond and respectfully retreat to lighter American fare. Perhaps Danielle Steel? The characters populating her Family Album are said to "face the greatest challenges and harshest test a family can endure, to emerge stronger, bound forever by loyalty and love." But then, those words were written by her publisher; and besides, as guilty pleasures go, I remain unwaveringly yours, John Grisham.

But I find it unlikely that cultural ignorance alone can explain the yawning gap between Family Album's aspirations and its reality. Maybe familial experience, then? I have as many siblings as Alison Harper has children (six), and perhaps that's just the problem: none of these dark, festering secrets and tensions strike me as extraordinary, or imbued with any larger meaning. Loud, rambunctious dinner conversations cut short by an ill-timed outburst? Self-imposed emotional detachment from the less pleasurable aspects of childhood? Par for the course, methinks. (Doesn't everyone do that?)

And now I'm starting to sound like Gina, the second child who, in an email to her siblings, agrees with her older brother that "all families screwed up, more or less." I just wish Penelope Lively's editor had kindly informed her of the same. Even the looming family secret, revealed midway through the book, is a letdown, almost a cliché as these things go, and both central and irrelevant to the story at the same time. Making matters worse is the grating redundancy; each sibling marvels, in a never-ending revolving door of memories, at how the formative years stubbornly retain their familiarity while growing increasingly foreign. The children themselves, from infancy through adulthood, are too numerous to animate with believable personalities, and so become terribly one-dimensional. Sandra can do nothing other than shop for clothes and look elegant. Paul must always drink heavily and display utter disregard for social etiquette. Clare just dances, and that is all. Even the interweaving style with which Lively travels through time and space to indulge her characters' collective nostalgia is arbitrary, with just enough proximity to Kazuo Ishiguro's similar tendencies to bring him to mind while silently reprimanding her for trying on his shoes.

There are, disappointments notwithstanding, some highlights amidst the unimpressive remainder. Strewn among the unremarkable hiccups of nostalgia are poignant touches that strike a chord with anyone who has grown up, left home, and returned, astonished at the changes. "Goodness," Katie exclaims in an email to her brother, Roger. "A married Gina, who'd have thought it." Similarly, towards the end, as Alison recounts the glory days of her motherhood at Allersmead, it would require an inhuman imperviousness to pain for the tragedy of her existence not to weigh heavily on the spirit of the reader. (And once again, specters of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day haunt Alison's pitifully denialist closing reflections.) It's just that the characters themselves seem to cope more serenely -- and authentically so -- with their upbringing than their creator does, and that, generally speaking, should not be the case. Chalk it up to big-family cynicism, but this is one family album I won't be flipping through again any time soon.