In Penelope Lively’s subtle, observant novel Family Album, the history of the Harper clan unfolds in a series of evocative scenes and conflicting memories—much like the pages of an old photo album. Behind each snapshot of the large, boisterous English family—a devoted mother, an absentminded scholarly father, a Swedish au pair, and six happy children—lies a darker, more complicated truth.
When we first meet the family, the children are grown and scattered around the globe. Gina is a successful television journalist, Roger is a doctor in Canada, Katie is struggling to start her own family, Sandra is the manager of a fashionable boutique in Rome, Clare is a touring ballet dancer, and Paul, the oldest, washes up at home between dead-end jobs and stints in rehab. Their parents, Alison and Charles, along with the aging au pair, Ingrid, still live at Allersmead, the sprawling Victorian where all the children grew up. The Harper children have mixed feelings about the house and the three adults who raised them. They feel smothered by Alison’s vision of the perfect family, and they all know, without ever being told, that Clare’s mother is actually the ever-loyal Ingrid.
The novel is told from the perspective of each character in turn giving us his or her private thoughts and his or her own versions of events. Paul, the eldest and acknowledged favorite of his mother, relates in painful detail his slow stagnation in adulthood, while Gina contemplates her choices to live a life as different from her mother’s as possible. Even the flighty, hysterical matriarch, Alison, who maintains her central place in the family through emotional outbursts and carefully coddled fantasies, reveals herself to readers in an intimate reflection on her life and family.
In this quietly provocative novel, Penelope Lively elegantly shows how a family shapes its own myths and creates its own disasters—and ultimately saves itself.
- Why do you think the truth about Clare’s parentage was never discussed in the family until she herself brought it up as an adult?
- What do you make of Alison’s decision to keep both Clare and Ingrid as “part of the family” after she discovered her husband’s infidelity?
- Paul’s problems with work, addiction, and depression seem linked to his mother’s particular attachment to him. Do you think her influence on him is a viable explanation for his difficulties?
- When they were young, the children play “the cellar game,” in which they enact their own visions of the ideal family. They keep it secret and seem to feel some shame about it, or at least a need to keep the truth of the game from their mother. Why do you think this is?
- The children in this family grew up in an unusually close and carefully maintained unit. Why have they drifted so far from one another and their parents as adults?
- Alison and Ingrid might have been rivals for Charles’s affection, or at least enemies of each other, given that Ingrid sacrificed her own future to that of the Harper family’s and that Alison’s fantasy world was marred by Clare’s birth. But at the end of the novel, Charles has died and the two aging women find a new home together. Why are they able to maintain a lifelong friendship?
- Alison’s vision of the perfect family seems to have paradoxically resulted in dysfunction and distance among her grown children. How do you think that might have been avoided?
- Gina still has a scar from a birthday party scuffle with Sandra. What is the significance of this incident and its legacy in the family? How does it affect the relationship between the two sisters and between Alison and Charles?
- What role does Charles’s sister, Corinna, play in the novel? How did her perspective influence your opinion of Alison and her family?
- What does this novel suggest to you about the nature of family in general, beyond the specifics of the Allersmead clan? Does it make you rethink the dynamics and legends or myths in your own family?