…by Penelope Lively.
Set in Allersmead, an Edwardian house in England, this story revolves around the lives of the members of the family that lived in that house. Alison, the mother – who always dreamed of being a mother and nurturing her children. Charles, the father – who is emotionally unavailable, locked in his study concentrating his time on his work (writing books). Ingrid, the au pair – who lives with the family in the house lending a helping hand to raise the children. And then the children – Paul, Gina, Katie, Roger, Sandra and Clare.
Allersmead – what was once a home that nourished six children has now become a place where only the parents and the au pair live with the children visiting occasionally.
Paul, the eldest, leads a nomadic life of sorts…switching from one job to another, with not much of a personal life to show for either. Gina is a journalist, has a career with a TV news channel. Sandra starts off as a fashion correspondent with a magazine, but later in her life moves on to managing a boutique in Rome while trying her hands on property development. Katie graduates with a degree in English and moves to the US. Roger, who has always been interested in biology, becomes a pediatrician in Canada. And Clare becomes a professional dancer.
The book starts off with Gina bringing her boyfriend Philip to her childhood home. While all that Philip can say is how exotic a family with six children must have been growing up, Gina slowly points out how it is not all that interesting after all. The story goes forward with flashbacks into the childhood years through the eyes of the six children. With time, the readers are let into a dark secret that is kept in the family…a secret that everybody knows of, yet no one talks about. On the whole, the book, with episodes of past and the present, sheds light on the lives of the family members.
What I really liked about the book is the realistic undertone that it has to it. No family is perfect…yet to someone from the outside things look greener than where they stand. A big family house. So many siblings to keep one another company. A mother who dotes on her children. A writer for a father. An au pair. – that’s all the outsiders get to see, while it is the children who really know and have lived through the ups and downs of what that sort of a family life brings. The ones closely involved are the ones that know what makes up this family other than what meets the naked eye.
Also, the theme of the book focuses on how more than the experience in itself, it is what a person gets out of it / how a person reacts to it that makes for a good/bad memory. Even though the six children grew up in the same house, with the same parents, they each have had different experiences that have shaped their lives. What a child takes from any incident, how same thing happening to two people can be interpreted in two different ways is portrayed.
The book had its flaws too. For one, the deep dark secret the author talks about isn’t that much of a secret at all. I put a pin on it the first time a hint to it is mentioned in the passing. So, when the secret is actually revealed, it didn’t come as so much a shock to me. I guess in a way it didn’t bother me much that I deciphered the family secret early on because that helped with keeping up with the practical portrayal of issues rather than something over the top. Other than that, a couple of the characters were a little hard to connect with…but then I won’t complain much about it because it didn’t take away from the beauty of the book.
The language and the tone of the book couldn’t have been better. The author’s description of people, places, situations, etc. were all impeccable. It didn’t take much effort on my part as a reader to put together the visuals for the scene or characters…the writing took care of that. The author has a graceful style to her writing…I will be sure to read more books by her just for the way she writes.
Overall, this insightful study of family and relationships and a genuine portrayal of the same, is a good read.
My rating: 4*.
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