Family Album
Penelope Lively
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Buy *Family Album* by Penelope Lively online

Family Album
Penelope Lively
240 pages
August 2010
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Masterfully bringing a fresh, unique perspective to the intricacies of family life, Lively focuses her novel on the lives of Alison and Charles Harper, who have raised their six children - Paul, Sandra, Gina, Roger, Katie, and Clare - in the substantial Edwardian house of Allersmead. Along with Ingrid, who has been the family’s au pair for many years, Alison and Charles have persisted in an odd sort of marital bond, both enduring what has normally been expected of them.

As Gina arrives back at Allersmead with her boyfriend, Phillip, she recalls the resigned and rather sardonic Charles, content to isolate himself in his study, writing his books about history, philosophy, sociology (“a bit of everything”), and Alison - the homemaker and housewife, an “outmoded figure” of dependent womanhood.

Except for Paul, who still lives at home and has found work at the local Garden Center, the rest of the children have long since dispersed around the world, and none of them have seen the others for awhile. Gina’s return sparks the expectations and misconceptions of family history. Her siblings begin to appear, fondly remembering Allersmead, the house always drawing them back: “this real family house with all its scars.”

Much of the novel reads as photographic slices of life growing up in this grand estate, the family tumbling through the house, their happy smiling faces preserved on mantelpieces, windowsills and piano, their images perpetually framed on the walls. The house remains a steadfast shrine to family: its wide flight of steps up to a front door with stained-glass panels, the kitchen filled with children’s drawings tucked behind the crockery on the dresser, and a painted papier-mâché tiger along side a row of indeterminate clay animals that someone made earlier.

Lively beautifully shifts between the Harpers' various dramas. Cornwall flickers like an “old film rerun degraded by time” as a mistake of Ingrid’s threatens to derail the family. Suddenly a subtle shift in the dynamics causes Alison to realize that she and Charles will have to live with it for always. The best way for everyone is to live with it is together, as “a family.”

As Lively's story unfolds, Alison becomes the pillar, well aware of her deficiencies yet fanatical in doing her job and giving Charles what matters: “a real four-star family life.” Allersmead hears everything, the house always seeming to know all that has been said and all that has been done. Silent speech hangs in the air, repeating the words that hang in people’s heads. The house is almost like a separate character, continuously stowing away the inaccessible archive of memories and of love.

The author seamlessly juxtaposes Alison and Charles’s life together with that of their more accomplished and free-spirited children. She moves the reader through the precarious conjunction of motherhood and marriage, “a strange, required system that sets two people along side each other.” But in the end, Family Album is just that - a beautifully written tribute to the importance of home as it reaches across the generations, proving once and for all that one can always find comfort in the healing power of family.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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