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Book Review

‘Family Album’ a small but vast diary of dysfunction

By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2009

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There’s something hypnotic about family stories, especially when the members of the clan seem to be both successful and also hiding very dark secrets. That’s the hook at the heart of British author Penelope Lively’s “Family Album,’’ and it is one that carries the reader a good way. Set during a reunion at a sprawling family homestead called Allersmead, this detailed work - Lively’s 16th novel - offers a delicious taste of such lives, but in a form that is ultimately too disconnected to satisfy.

The family members coming together at the start of this short novel couldn’t be more different. Four daughters, two sons, two parents, and an au pair, Ingrid, who has become a member of the family, have all gathered to celebrate the parents’ 25th anniversary, bringing with them an equally odd assortment of mates.

These adult children have little in common, except their shared history in Allersmead. Only one, Paul, still lives in the family home. In classic failure-to-launch mode, he nominally holds a job at a local gardening center, but his history of troubles - with the law, with drugs - haunts him. Meanwhile, Gina, who is accompanied by her new boyfriend, Phil, is an urbane TV news anchor, concerned with the world, while her sister Sandra has devoted her life to the glitzy materialism of fashion and property. The remaining sibs - Roger, Katie, and Clare - have scattered into equally separate lives with very different interests. Only one is trying to start a family, and all feel great ambivalence about Allersmead and about their return. That their parents - the earth-motherly Alison and the distant Charles - do not really have a marriage that should be celebrated adds to the strangeness of the occasion.

The shadow overhanging the anniversary brings up other dark secrets. There had been an accident - or, perhaps something worse - at Gina’s eighth birthday party, for example, resulting in a hospitalization and the filling in of the small pond out back. There was the time that someone cut up Charles’s nearly finished manuscript. While many of the tensions reverberating around the big, old house remain, by the book’s end, some are at least explained - sometimes by the characters involved, sometimes by the siblings who looked on, wondered, and remembered.

And people do remember in “Family Album,’’ usually in great detail. In fact, Lively’s Allersmead lives in its details. From “the dog, a sort of Labrador, from Battersea Dogs Home’’ to Charles’s esoteric books, everything is specific and real. The dialogue is dense with references to these specifics, and natural enough to sound almost dreamlike: “I got seriously into marine biology,’’ Paul remembers “one amazing summer.’’ “Smelly dead things in buckets,’’ sister Katie recalls. Such close study distinguishes the characters and their diverse paths.

However, these details can also slow down the forward motion of Lively’s prose, bogging down the process of discovery and reconciliation in a kind of fussiness that Alison might appreciate, but that readers may not. And while the descriptions are wonderfully concrete, Lively’s viewpoints are a little too mutable. Ricocheting among characters, between first and third person, and between the distant past and the present, the storytelling goes for depth. But while these varieties of voice do lead us into the emotional realities of the characters, they add to the confusion. What is past? Who is speaking? The result is rich, but meandering, making “Family Album’’ a bit ungainly, as if Allersmead itself had taken novel form, drafts, memories, and all.

Clea Simon is the Cambridge-based author of, most recently, “Shades of Grey’’ (Severn House).

FAMILY ALBUM

By Penelope Lively

Viking, 240 pp., $25.95

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