TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 October 2017
I find Lionel Shriver infuriatingly opinionated and smug when I hear her broadcasts and when I read some (though not all) of her journalism – but I have to say that she can write very stylishly and well – some of her articles, usually when they’re not on politics, are truly brilliant. However, there’s a strong strand of misanthropy in her work that can make it – even when she’s witty – quite depressing, and this book was no exception.
‘A Perfectly Good Family’ deals with that increasingly prominent topic – inheritance. Corlis McCrea (that’s a woman, by the way, as a child she was ‘Corrie Lou’, rather as Shriver was ‘Margaret Ann’) returns home to Raleigh, North Carolina, after the death of her mother, to sort out her parents’ will (her father having died some years previously). She soon finds herself embroiled in a complicated family row, as each of her brothers wants the colonial mansion, ‘Heck Andrews’ in which the family grew up – but, for complicated reasons, needs her to buy the other out. As Corlis feels her loyalties torn – between her iconoclastic elder brother Mordecai, a rebellious businessman who left home at 16, and her shy, decent younger brother Truman, who has never really left home – and as she faces her own conflicted feelings about her childhood and her parents, tensions rise to breaking point.
Shriver makes some interesting points about sibling dynamics and about the complicated feelings that children have about their parents, and Corlis, a sculptor who has quit London after a threesome with her two male flatmates went horribly wrong, is quite an intriguing character. There’s also some slyly clever observations of family get-togethers – the one where Truman’s wife Averil reveals a tape of ‘Corrie Lou’ as a small child, for example. The quality of writing is on the whole high, and some sections are quite addictive to read – Shriver’s never afraid to admit how badly families can behave! For good writing alone, Shriver deserves a four-star rating.
However, I don't feel I can give more than three, as the book suffers so much from Shriver’s darkly misanthropic outlook. The late Jenny Diski, in a piece on the writings of Caroline Blackwood, noted that Blackwood’s terror of sentimentality made her go to the other extreme, creating a world in which no one was really capable of goodness or altruism, and in which, therefore, nothing really mattered. There is something of the same flavour about this book. Everyone acts badly, and harbours nasty thoughts about each other. The main feeling that the children have towards their parents appears to be resentment, and for adults Mordecai, Corlis and Truman are remarkably inept at thinking about their parents as people rather than just as child-rearers, and have an endless potential for bearing grudges, and little ability to forgive. And Shriver appears to view her three main characters with almost as jaded a view as they do their parents. Mordecai is an alcoholic, self-pitying bully (and if he was really a genius, how did he get so in debt?), Truman’s kindness and gentleness is largely ascribed to his being ‘weak and frightened’. Corlis is a cynic, siding first with one brother and then the other, coming out with all sorts of prim self-righteous statements such as ‘inheritance is evil’ but never actually doing anything particularly admirable herself. Of the few remaining characters, the mother is largely caricatured, while Mordecai’s wife and colleagues are bad-tempered slobs, and Averil a prig. While I’m aware that wholly ‘good’ characters can tend to be boring, one longs for someone to commit an act of genuine kindness or courage now and then, or show some positive human qualities that aren’t based on fear or wanting something.
The book is also – as often with Shriver – quite repetitive, though this novel is only 270 pages. If much of your novel consists of people complaining about each other, you tend to get into a repetitive cycle of moaning. This certainly happens here. We don’t need to be told ten times that Eugenia McCrae was fat and obsessed with making pie, or that Mordecai flipped burgers as a teenager and resented his parents, or that Truman was scared of school, but Shriver keeps hammering home her points obsessively. It means that what started off as a pleasingly caustic read soon becomes simply sour and jaded – like one of those conversations with people who always see the worst in people. I was reminded of Chaucer’s injunction to ‘Seek ye good in every man’ – it really does matter.
One senses that even Shriver has realized that she’s gone too far by the end of the book, as the last ten pages turn into a stylized ‘happy ending’ where everyone gets what they want (though I’m not sure one of the characters would have been so happy in reality), and a truly good character (David Grover) at last arrives. But it’s too little too late. Well-written this book may be, but it will leave you with a nasty taste in your mouth about families, about children’s attitude to their parents and about inheritance.