Family Album by Penelope Lively is about a perfect family who, no surprise, turns out not to be so perfect after all. But that’s not for lack of trying on Allison’s part. Allison is married to Charles and is the mother of six children – Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger, and Clare. She’s somewhat of a throwback in that she yearns for nothing but a large, happy family, the traditional role of a mother, large group celebrations, big home-cooked meals, etc. Helping with everything is their “au pair girl” Ingrid.
Beyond this facade of idyllic family life there are problems. Charles is detached, Paul is aimless and dabbles in drugs, Gina and Sandra don’t seem to get along, and there’s a big secret concerning the family. This secret, though, is not so much a secret since everyone knows. They just choose not to talk about it. Throughout the course of the novel, the secret isn’t exactly revealed, but rather the children eventually acknowledge it to themselves and each other.
The book is told from alternating perspectives within the family and jumps around in time. Different family events are examined from major celebrations to minor mundane details. This method of storytelling gives a more complete and layered view of the events, but can make it slightly less compelling, particularly if you, like me, read two books in the middle and then have to find your way back into this story. Still, you get a much better sense of the characters’ personalities when you hear their own views on what’s happening.
While I would hardly call Family Album a page-turner, reading it was an enjoyable experience. Nothing major “happens” per se, but Penelope Lively is a good enough writer that just going deep into a family’s workings is entertainment in and of itself.