Should Your Book Club Read Family Album by Penelope Lively?

As you know, Family Album was this month’s Literary Masters book groups’ novel. Wow, did it generate great discussions. If you’re just reading for the bottom line, here it is: this is a really good book, but not everyone likes it. Some dismiss it as too light (until they are in one of my literary salons!) and some think it’s just ho-hum. Most people, though, loved it. And it is a great choice for a book club.

Quick plot summary: Nine people living under the same roof, a large Edwardian house–called Allersmead–in the English countryside, are remembering their time there as a family. And family is what Allersmead is all about. Alison, the mother, raises a brood of six children with the help of her au pair Ingrid while the father Charles writes books in his library. Alison is, well, picture a frumpy Martha Stewart on steroids. If it’s something that will scream “this is what a happy family does,” then Alison does it. Anything to raise a happy family, right?

But as Tolstoy told us all, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As we get to know, through the various characters, what it was like growing up in Allersmead, we begin to sense something rather dark lurking under all that happy family business. And we come to learn why the family really is quite unhappy–in its very own way.

Penelope Lively’s writing is ironic, subtle, and nuanced, and her portrait of the family seems simple but is deeply complex. Your book club could spend the entire meeting discussing the varied configurations of family members alone. You can discuss Allersmead as a character, some would say the most important character of the novel, and how it is a metaphor.

But there is so much more to discuss! The novel is a meditation on how memory works in many ways, and how it constructs our reality. You can talk about whether one can ever know, really know, a sibling or parent, or one’s self for that matter. You can talk about how family stories or myths are built, and how they differ among family members. You can ponder why we remember some things from our childhood but not others.

Well, I could go on, but instead why don’t you contact me for “Points to Ponder” for your book club to use. Now, I want to tell you to ask your book club the following question, but stop now if you haven’t yet read the book. Come back when you have finished it, and ask them: SPOILER ALERT–“Who do you think cut up Charles’ manuscript?”

Now, most people will think that Clare did it, because Ingrid tells Clare that she did it. However, a very astute reader in one of my groups has a different theory.

She thinks that Ingrid did it because she was angry with Charles. Remember now, this is the scene where Ingrid says to Charles “I am a servant.” When Ingrid later tells Clare that she did it, Clare has no recollection of having done so. Yet Ingrid plants the myth of Clare’s guilt by telling Clare she has done it, and this becomes the “truth” so to speak. As Gina says at the beginning of the story–“I’m never sure if you remember or are told.”

Now don’t forget to get back to me on what your book club thinks!

One thought on “Should Your Book Club Read Family Album by Penelope Lively?

  1. Thank you, very helpful post and ideas. As I am studying this book for an English exam and wondering what the questions could be about..

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