Tag Archives: Penelope Lively

FAMILY ALBUM by Penelope Lively

Lively Penelope Lively is an author that I have been interested in for a long time, but hadn’t read until this year. I just finished her most recent novel, Family Album.

Family Album is the story of the Harper family – mother Alison, father Charles, their six kids (Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger and Clare) and au pair Ingrid, who all live together at Allersmead, a large but fading estate in England. Alison is frumpy and somewhat clueless, but focused entirely on being a mother and creating the “perfect childhood” for her six kids. Charles is a distant, distracted intellectual, who mostly ignores his children, weighing in only when discipline is needed. Ingrid, the au pair, stays with the family long after the kids have moved away, and is hiding her own secrets.

Family Album is essentially a collection of memories, with the now adult children telling the story of the family from shifting perspectives that reveal how they felt about their siblings, their parents, and their place in the family. Chapter by chapter, more is revealed about the odd Harper family. Alison seems to spend more time focusing on creating picture perfect holidays and birthdays than in actually engaging with her children and understanding who they are. The siblings form allegiances and individual bonds, but there is little warmth and caring among them. And Charles fritters away the years in his study, oblivious to the children growing up around him.

Lively’s writing is wonderful. It is understated and at times poetic. This is the opening to an early chapter:

When the day begins, when the light swells and within the house some people turn over in bed, some people blink, burrow down for some more sleep (Sandra, Katie, Roger, Clare), and others yawn, stare at the window or the clock, return to yesterday’s preoccupation (Charles, Paul, Ingrid), or simply pick up the thread of existence once more (Alison, Gina), when this spring morning gets up momentum there are nine at Allersmead, none of them more than a yard or two from someone else, but all poles apart within their heads their hearts. The adults are incapable of recovering what it is that goes on inside the mind of a person of six and a half, or ten, or fifteen. The children have on the whole not the faintest idea of what it is that drives and motivates their elders, or of the landscaping of their thoughts. The children have various instinctive understandings of why their sibling behave as they do; the adults retain the intimacy of daily association but have lost sight of one another in other ways – like most people, they know one another inside out, and not at all.

Breathtaking, no?

However, I finished this book, and felt kind of empty. In the end, the kids were so deeply affected by their unconventional childhood that they mostly rejected all notions of family themselves, dispersing around the world and barely staying in touch. I am not sure what Lively was trying to accomplish with this novel… was she making a statement about parenthood? Did she find any of her characters sympathetic?  Is there anything redeeming in how Alison raised her brood of six? I wondered, when I finished, what was the point of the book?

That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, or that I regret reading it. As a work of writing, it was definitely worth it, and I’d like to try out more of Lively’s work.

Vacation Post

I apologize for the lapse in posting – I am on vacation. I have been in NY for Passover this past weekend and today, and tomorrow I leave for Florida for a few days. I am hoping for a few mellow days in the sun, some time with my family, and some time to read!

I would like to finish (finally!) You Couldn't Forget Me If You Tried, Susannah Gora's excellent book about the teen movies of the 80s (I am in the "Some Kind Of Wonderful" chapter). I also brought Penelope Lively's latest novel, Family Album, which I picked up at a used book sale last weekend. I've had my eye on it for a while, and am about a chapter in. So far, so good. Lively is one of those writers I keep wanting to read, and keep buying, but just haven't gotten to yet. I am also hoping to finish my fourth book for Booking Mama's Shelf Discovery Book Challenge (I brought Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, by Judy Blume). And if I read ALL of those, I ALSO brought Lori Lansens' The Girls, another book that keeps dropping down the TBR list. I loved her writing in The Wife's Tale, so I am really looking forward to this one too.

So that's the reading plan.

A few other things to add:

Check out this article about Lionel Shriver in last Friday's Washington Post. She touches on a lot of the same topics as during her reading at Politics & Prose.


Has anyone read The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte, yet? Is it as good as everyone says?

MAKING IT UP by Penelope Lively

Sometimes there are authors that I follow over the years, even if I never actually read anything they’ve written.  I pick up their books in stores and look them over, thinking “maybe next time,” but I never actually pull the trigger.

One of those is Booker Prize-winner Penelope Lively, whose Making it Up recently came out in paperback.  The New York Times describes it as “a clever ‘anti-memoir'” in which Lively “imagines what might have happened if her career, husband or country had been different.”   Entertainment Weekly liked the book as well, giving it an A-, along with the following review:

At 72, Penelope Lively asks eight hypothetical questions about her life, among them: What if her mother — the wife of a British official in Egypt — had decided to relocate to South Africa rather than Palestine during World War II? What if her teenage romance with an older man had ended in out-of-wedlock pregnancy? What if she had chosen to write history rather than fiction? The masterful short stories in Making It Up — she calls them ”confabulations” — suggest answers to those questions. Most are lighthearted (she would have made a disorganized and permissive single mother), several are sobering (she envisions her own death en route to Cape Town), but they all display Lively’s incisive prose style, her wit, and, above all, her agile imagination.

From Amazon.com: “Making It Up is an enthralling examination of how both fate and free will can dramatically alter the lives of each and every one of us. Each of Lively’s expertly crafted stories reveals the life she could have lived, had she, or another, chosen a different path. Yet in answering a series of ‘what if’ questions, Lively does more than indulge her imagination; rather, she challenges her readers to examine the consequences of both the significant, and the seemingly trivial decisions we make every day.”

Lively The other Penelope Lively book that I have picked up several times is The Photograph, which came out in 2003.  It tells the story of a widower who discovers, years after his wife’s death, a hidden photograph of her with her hands entwined with those of another man.  From The Washington Post(registration may be required):

It is an ingenious premise for a novel, and Penelope Lively spins it out with expert skill. She has a smoothly versatile style of storytelling, drifting in and out of her characters’ heads, weaving action, reminiscence and interior monologue into a seamless whole. As in her past work, she takes the occasion of telling a story to play with the conventions of narrative itself.

From The San Francisco Chronicle:

Lively has once again created a situation that enables her to investigate her central theme, memory, and how we reorganize and rearrange the past. ‘The dead don’t go; they just slip into other people’s heads,’ Elaine comments. Lively’s point is that the dead stay alive as long as the rememberer does, but they don’t stay unchanged. Instead, they mutate as the rememberer’s slant on them changes — which in turn changes the survivors, too.

I think The Photograph looks really good. One of these days…

Has anyone read anything by Penelope Lively?