Literary aspiration can’t save this British novel from maudlin domestic melodrama.
Though McGregor earned a Booker Prize nomination for his debut (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, 2003), his sophomore work fails to distinguish itself. The major interest here is formalistic, as the narrative cuts back and forth across the decades in the same way that memory might. Memory, secrets, identity and blood ties are the chief concerns, though McGregor doesn’t have much that’s fresh to say about any of them. A prologue finds a young Irish girl sent to England to serve as a housemaid, where doing the family’s bidding results in her pregnancy. She keeps her condition a secret, gives the baby away and goes on with her life. The novel then turns its attention to Eleanor and David Carter, many decades later, before delving into their courtship and individual family histories. David, who comes from a comparatively happy family, has an inordinate boyhood fascination with museums and collecting artifacts, as if connecting with the past can illuminate the present. Since David is the story’s protagonist, the reader senses some irony here—he must be the baby who’d been given away, and who apparently has no idea of his own familial history. As David fulfills his ambition to become a curator, neither his parents nor his sister mention anything about adoption, and when the secret comes out (from Aunt Julia, who isn’t really his aunt), David is shocked. He falls into marriage with Eleanor, who knows very well who her parents are, but has suffered from an abusive relationship with her mother and the failure of her father to protect her. David and Eleanor start a family of their own, Eleanor succumbs to depression, David considers an affair, parents on each side die, David makes it his life’s mission to find his “real” mother.
With its plot contrivances and drably conventional characters, this novel never comes alive on the page.