three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-FamilyTreeFor most people, nature versus nurture is a subject for casual debate. For Rebecca Monroe and Alistair, it’s a marriage. As a cultural studies grad student, Rebecca is fascinated by the effects of the world around us while her geneticist husband sees destiny in biology. Rebecca’s family turns out to be the perfect case study. Rebecca offers up scenes from her family’s history, depicting her freewheeling grandmother Alicia and manic-depressive mother Doreen, and tries to understand the past’s effects on the present. But Rebecca will need more than science to understand the quirky, painful legacy her forebears left behind.
Dutton. 390 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0525948422

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Most of the time, the novel motors along with a breezy, wickedly funny nonchalance … But then Cadwalladr will deftly slip in an emotional bomb, a blazing intuitive insight that makes everything make sense." Karen Campbell

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For the most part, Cadwalladr’s plot juggling doesn’t get in the way. But by the end of The Family Tree, the relentless rewinding and fast-forwarding becomes a distraction." Patricia T. O’Conner

Orlando Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cadwalladr is a newspaper journalist, and her prose is straightforward and understated. Despite a story moving enough to bring me to tears in the end, she uses her wry humor to keep pathos at bay." Sara Isaac

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"When Cadwalladr sticks with Doreen and the nuclear Monroe family, the novel feels close to flawless."
Michael Upchurch

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Cadwalladr] allows her male characters to fall absolutely flat: They’re cardboard villains or useless mannequins upon which to drape her women’s lives." Summer Block

Wall Street Journal 1 of 5 Stars
"The near-identical suffering of the Monroe women seems forced, and the book’s popular science is more a case of story padding than added authenticity. … [The] embittered tone of the book will leave readers weary." Stephen Barbara

Critical Summary

Cadwalladr has an exceptional feel for times and places, and a flair for depicting the women who inhabit them. Her men are more problematic—one critic found a lack of sympathetic male characters. However, another praised The Family Tree for its equitable gender politics, pointing out that Cadwalladr depicts female villains as well as male ones. Frequent setting shifts sparked similar debate, entertaining some while frustrating others. But even detractors agreed that Cadwalladr had a compelling story to tell, and her descriptions of family dysfunction will strike a chord with many readers.