FAMILIAR ACTS by June Barraclough


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 Barraclough (Kindred Spirits, 1989, etc.) makes a big deal of a morass of lies and sexual misalliances beneath the strictly moralistic faáade of a Victorian English family. Written in the voice of Hester Johanna Coppen, the story begins when she is a seven-year-old living in North Kent. Her father, a cruel and unforgiving man, travels to the city each day to work. Hester and her older brother, Gregory, know they are not loved by their parents, and they also can see that their parents have a very different attitude to their sister Clara. It turns out that their mother isn't their mother at all: She's their stepmother, who had left her own husband and young son to live with Hester's father while his wife, Hester's real mother, was recovering from an illness in Italy, where she eventually died. Clara is their love child. On her 18th birthday, Hester's invited to join her Aunt Zelda, her mother's sister, and her son Max in Italy. The drizzly hypocrisy of London is replaced by the lively world of art, opera, Tuscan sensuality, and the rich social life of Florence. First Hester discovers art--Michelangelo's David and the paintings of Botticelli and Filippo Lippi; this is quickly followed by the discovery of sex, or at least of desire. At a performance of Rigoletto she is transported into a state of ecstasy, a mournful, hopeless love, when she hears Orso Orsini sing. The recounting of the passion of the innocent, repressed young woman is charming and beautifully crafted. What doesn't work is the rendering of the opera star as the novel's hero. Orsini never emerges as more than a figure of Hester's passionate fantasies. Their romance, too dependent on ridiculous intrigue, is unconvincing, and in the end, the book is just as statically beholden to genre conventions as Hester's father is to Victorian ones.

Pub Date: July 22nd, 1994
ISBN: 0-312-10980-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 1994