three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-FamilyAlbumPenelope Lively’s illustrious career includes the Booker Prize–winning novel Moon Tiger (1988), as well as numerous titles for children and adults. The British author, who was raised in Egypt and England, is a member of the Royal Society of Literature in London.

The Story: Allison Harper was determined to provide a picture-perfect upbringing for her six children. Relentlessly cheerful—when she’s not having a breakdown—her days were a manic whirlwind of baking, cooking, crafting, and overseeing the sprawling Edwardian home of Allersmead (while being largely ignored by Charles, her cold, emotionally absent husband). Now, as her grown children (who have no children of their own) return to the house and each reflects on his or her childhood, a long-buried family secret finally comes to light. Told largely in flashbacks, and narrated by different members of the family, Family Album reveals how childhood memories, even the suppressed ones, have the power to shape adult lives.
Viking Adult. 240 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780670021246

Chicago Sun-Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The reward in reading Family Album comes from savoring the specificity of a room or moment spent with a parent or sibling; it comes from recognizing how singular and extraordinary every human being is and how our relationships result from our need for or denial of connection." M.E. Collins

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"In her haunting new novel, Family Album, the act of forgetting is as strange and interesting as the power of remembering." Dominique Browning

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The intimations of doom are so frequent and heavy … that the revelations when they come are somewhat less dramatic than one has been expecting. … Family Album manages to intrigue and delight, and to keep the reader captivated, racing along without obvious direction but with a very tight sense of purpose." Joanna Briscoe

Independent (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Family Album is a very readable, well-paced novel peopled with Lively’s customary immaculately observed and impeccably rounded characters. But as for the family’s ‘dark secret,’ I’m afraid the reader sees it coming a mile off." Susan Elkin

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s not an especially dramatic scenario, but it offers scope for Lively’s evocative, accomplished, indulgently readable exploration of the sins of the fathers and the mothers. … If there’s a lukewarm quality to this assembly of unsurprising characters, with their mild difficulties and unexceptional developments, compensation can be found in Lively’s seasoned economy and crisp wit." Elsbeth Lindner

Spectator (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Lively’s mastery of her material, the sureness of her touch and her unique, consistently scintillating prose raise Family Album to a higher plane. This may not be her most successful novel but there is a great deal here to admire and delight." Matthew Dennison

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The success of these chapters is uneven, but several of them are brilliant, full of glancing humor and spot-on truths about the way families maintain the peace through a process of willful ignorance and disciplined forgetfulness." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Although most critics acknowledged that Family Album was not her best work, they thoroughly enjoyed Lively’s latest tale of middle-class family dysfunction, a theme that fans will recognize from earlier novels. Lively is particularly skilled at exploring the small, seemingly inconsequential details of domestic life with an authenticity that will have readers cringing with empathy. There is a foreshadowed family secret that comes to light more than halfway through the novel: it’s effective, but not as dark and foreboding as a weary reader might be expecting. On the technical side, several reviewers were distracted by Lively’s constant mixing of first and third person narratives and past and present tenses. So you’ll have to pay attention. Nevertheless, Family Album was considered an entertaining, highly readable addition to Lively’s venerable body of work.