Monica McInerney’s sixth novel, The Faraday Girls, is a complex saga exploring relationships and the damage family secrets can inflict.
Five sisters live with their father in a house in Hobart, Australia. Absent is their mother, Tessa, who has died, leaving her husband, Leo, to raise their daughters alone. Her loss is keenly felt by all, and her absence is at the heart of the novel. Leo especially mourns the love of his life, whom he has raised onto a pedestal as the paragon of motherhood.
As the girls are introduced over a cooked breakfast one morning, with each girl arriving at the table their personalities and differences instantly take shape. When the youngest, Clementine, is discovered to be pregnant at just 16, it is a shock to the whole family. They reluctantly pull together, agreeing to all help raise the child until the child is old enough to attend school.
When Maggie is born, lives change. Clementine finds herself torn between her daughter and a career; Sadie is only too happy to help, pseudo-motherhood coming all too easily for her. While other sisters adore Maggie and do their part, each longs for bigger and better things. Leo is pleased to have all of his daughters under one roof and adores Maggie as well.
Life takes a dramatic turn when, shortly before Maggie’s sixth birthday, right at the time the sister’s have agreed they can go their separate ways, one sister makes a gross error of misjudgment and the family is torn apart.
Fast-forward twenty years, and we find Maggie in trouble, alone in New York trying to recover from an ordeal and make sense of her life. Leo is anxious for the family to be together for their traditional Christmas in July celebration, begun in honor of Tessa years earlier. As each girl begs off, Leo goes to New York to enlist Maggie’s help in bringing all his girls together for a surprise.
But Maggie’s help will require her being privy to some secrets which may explain the family’s difficulties but will also make Maggie question her family and what she believes in, and leave her with a horrifyingly difficult decision that may change everyone’s lives.
The reader is entertained by this classic family struggle, by the dynamics that make families so wonderful yet annoying at the same time. Each sister is her own person struggling for her own identity, and some find it easier than others.
The eldest girl, Juliet, is practical, the mother figure of the group. Miranda is self absorbed and outspoken, even cruel. Next comes the quiet, calculating fitness freak Eliza, then Sadie, who lacks self-confidence, seems most unable to forge her own identity, and is often the butt of vicious teasing. Finally we have the youngest - smart, practical Clementine.
The head of the family, poor Leo, seems only half a person after losing his wife, but was she really the person he mourns? How much does his insistence upon honoring the memory of Tessa cause the problems that arise within this family?
There is much to recommend this book: the deep exploration of those ties that bind, the damage of secrets and lies. McInerney doesn’t shrink from difficult topics like infertility or teen pregnancy, nor does she gloss over the family unit, making the Faradays real, gritty and believable.
Some aspects of the novel do fall short. I loved the Hobart setting and felt really a part for the story there in the comfortable suburban house of the Faraday family, yet as the story moves forward there are so many locations all over the world that it is difficult for the reader to feel any real sense of place.
Also, the sisters all become successful and wealthy; even Leo becomes wealthy off the back of one his inventions, which seems contrived. I appreciate that McInerney wants to show that money and success and getting out of Hobart is not all the girls think it will be and that unhappiness can still follow, but everything falls too neatly into place for each sister career-wise, even if not in other areas.
Miranda’s personality is a sticking point. While there are indeed some people who are brash, ambitious and mean – indeed, Miranda is drawn very well - yet her family puts up with her behavior all too easily. One thinks that at some point, someone would at least try and put her in her place.
Still, The Faraday Girls is a powerful story that isn’t all wrapped up in the end but leaves open questions that keep the reader thinking for some time. By story’s end, the reader may get the feeling that the girls and Leo might be okay, but this is no fairytale and problems and issues still exist.
At the heart of this book is Maggie, who as a child changes the balance of the family and indirectly causes the split. As an adult, it is Maggie who must face the tough decisions that really should have been dealt with by Leo years before. Her dilemma when it arises is heart-breaking, and her decision - whether the right one or not - leaves questions and raises others.
I have not read any other McInerney novels, though no doubt her readers will love this installment. As a family saga, it is well-written and has heart even as it explores family demons. Readers of Maeve Binchy may find McInerney’s works appealing.