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"All happy families resemble each other," Leo Tolstoy famously wrote. "Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." In "Family Album," her 16th novel, distinguished British writer Penelope Lively features one of the latter. The Harper family lives at Allersmead, an expansive but rundown red-brick house in a middle-class suburb near London.
The book opens in the present and flashes smoothly back and forth in time, allowing us to get to know the six offspring of Alison and Charles both as children and adults. The family's inscrutable Scandinavian au pair, Ingrid, arrives in 1968 at the birth of Paul, the firstborn, and at the narrative's completion she remains -- quite mysteriously -- at Allersmead even though it has been decades since child care was needed.
If Ingrid's presence at Allersmead seems odd, another discordant and vastly apparent aspect of the household is Charles and Alison's distant and sour relationship -- Alison typically speaks in torrents while Charles undermines her words with sarcasm. The perfect rendering of Alison ("the earth mother dressed by Laura Ashley") is undoubtedly Lively's major achievement in this almost flawless work of fiction. Lively wants readers to understand that Alison is "the sort of woman for whom having a child -- children -- is the only thing that matters," and she notes Alison's inexhaustible smile and her majestic complacency.
While Alison and Ingrid deal with his incompliant progeny, Charles, a writer, concerns himself with "matters of the mind, the things that go on in his head that Alison could not possibly follow." Clearly he is a man who needs solitude, who needs communion with language and ideas.
As is the case for most families, the halcyon years of rosy-cheeked babies and winsome toddlers at Allersmead are succeeded by more challenging times. Paul, the oldest and Alison's admitted favorite, becomes a drug addict and an alcoholic, prompting years of maternal denial and escalating distress.
Much of the narrative unfolds through Gina's point of view. She is the second child, and she grows up to become the polar opposite of her mother. One of her strongest beliefs is that "a woman's achievement is not measured by the output of her womb." Gina is a TV news reporter who cavalierly parachutes into the world's hot spots. The younger Harper children are not given as much space as Paul and Gina, but Lively sketches them in a way that makes them compelling.
In addition to masterly characterization, "Family Album" offers insights on the human condition -- namely that appearances are deceiving, and those tamped-down, stowed-away memories are often unreliable. Once again, Lively has written an enjoyable, compassionate and powerful novel.
Katherine Bailey also reviews books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She lives in Bloomington.