Lively (Consequences, 2007, etc.) anatomizes a sprawling but not especially enthralling middle-class clan.
A lifetime of writing is evident in the author’s capable handling of her character-heavy scenario, although there’s a lackluster quality to this faceted family portrait. Alison and Charles Harper reside with their six children and live-in nanny at Allersmead, an Edwardian mansion and idyllic refuge that is itself a character in the story. Eldest child and family black sheep Paul, the target of his father’s sarcasm and his mother’s preference, grows up inclined to drugs and drink, almost unemployable. The other four girls and one boy successfully fly the nest and find their niches and/or preoccupations: Clare as a dancer, Roger a doctor, Sandra in fashion, Katie struggling with fertility and Gina, the high-achiever, with a career in TV news. The novel’s title is reflected in its flashback structure, the narrative interspersed with snapshot scenes of significant interactions at birthday parties, anniversary dinners, seaside holidays, etc. The characters’ contrasting perspectives and a fairly obvious secret at the heart of the family supposedly lend momentum, yet there’s little dynamic to this chronicle of development and atomization as the children grow up different from their mismatched parents: he a disengaged intellectual/dilettante; she a gifted cook and earthmother. No member of this extended family emerges as three-dimensional.
Cool, anticlimactic storytelling, lacking the Booker Prize–winning author’s customary delicacy and depth.