The Family Tree, By Carole Cadwalladr, Dutton, 392pp, $23.95
Rebecca Monroe is a pop-culture researcher. Working on her PhD in cultural studies, she is fascinated by how our personalities are informed by our experiences. Rebecca's husband, Alistair, however, is a behavioral geneticist. He maintains it's all in the genes. Handsome and charming but deliberately clinical and emotionally obtuse, he is the kind of man so absorbed by the details that he ''can see trees but not woods."
Theirs is a marriage designed for provocation. While Rebecca struggles with trying to understand the intricate, convoluted puzzle of how we become who we are, Alistair thrills to the scientific certainties of who we were born to be. ''Alistair leaps out of bed every morning and rushes off to his department. He whistles and hums. I can tell he's happy. He believes there are answers."
But ''The Family Tree," the funny and bittersweet debut novel of British journalist Carole Cadwalladr, is really Rebecca's story. And as she plumbs three generations of family history, secrets, and dysfunction, she not only tries to find answers she can understand, she grapples with which questions to ask.
Heavily anecdotal, ''The Family Tree" takes a while to get going. It's not immediately clear where Cadwalladr's headed with this first-person account. The author ping-pongs back and forth in time, alternating between Rebecca's present-day account of her late-20th-century life, her stalled marriage and her existential musings, and chapters that recall telling episodes of her '70s childhood. In addition, Cadwalladr weaves in chapters about Rebecca's maternal grandparents, Herbert and Alicia. Throughout the novel are threaded the gradual unraveling of the intrigues of their marriage and its impact on their offspring through the generations, especially on Rebecca and her mother.
As a coming-of-age story, ''The Family Tree" is a lively, affecting tale about sisters Rebecca and Tiffany; their implacable, down-to-earth father, James; and their high-strung, emotionally unstable mother, Doreen. On one level, it's another in a rash of recent books about mentally ill mothers and the damage they wreak, as Rebecca describes the manic-depressive cycles that plunge Doreen from months of burrowing in bed into periods of frenetic activity, during one of which she nearly brings the house down around their ears trying to remodel. But as Cadwalladr fleshes out Rebecca's family tree, she skillfully ties past to present, creating a viable, convincing heritage for her protagonist while touching on universal themes -- identity, loyalty, prejudice, and the strange, ineffable ties that somehow bind us to one another.
Most of the time, the novel motors along with a breezy, wickedly funny nonchalance, and some of the descriptions are hilarious. The young Rebecca recalls finding herself in a communal changing area at a department store. ''I'd stumbled into Hell. It was an inferno of heaving, quivering humanity that smelled of armpits and hormones and fear . . . a woman in a petticoat grimaced at the mirror, her face hollowed out by the fluorescent strip lighting. It was an expression I'd not see again until much later in my educational career when Mrs. Howarth put a transparency of 'The Scream' by Munch on the overhead projector." But then Cadwalladr will deftly slip in an emotional bomb, a blazing intuitive insight that makes everything make sense. As Rebecca recounts experiences from the perspective of her child self, Cadwalladr cleverly and gracefully foreshadows what is to come with enough deft humor and irony to break your heart. And it's fascinating to see how the insights (or lack thereof) of the young Rebecca inform the perceptions of the present-day adult.
Cadwalladr sets up each chapter and section with dictionary definitions, reflecting Rebecca's life as a researcher and her abiding fondness for words. And throughout, scientific graphs and charts trace her struggles with the nature-nurture debates, and footnotes document some of the popular television shows of her '70s childhood, mostly sitcoms and soap operas. (A seminal moment in her childhood was gathering in front of the tube to find out who shot J.R., a revelation that, in her mind, quite eclipsed the announcement of her baby brother's birth.) It's an effective conceit that reminds us time and again that Rebecca, like many of us, is looking for answers to questions she can't quite articulate, wrestling with the inability to quantify or chart the quixotic ambiguities of the brain and intangibles of the human heart.