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A perfectly dysfunctional family
on 16 February 2014
When I suggested A Perfectly Good Family to my reading circle, it was because I had admired the writing of Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk about Kevin. Looking through her titles, I thought inheritance would be a safer option than that notorious book, and, because despite being riveted by We need to talk …’, I doubt if I could read it a second time.
The book tells the story of two brothers - macho slob, Mordecai and wimpish perfectionist, Truman - and a sister, Corlis, or Corrie Lou, who together with a worthy charity, inherit their parents’ home. Each of the brothers wants to own the house and buy out the other one, but they can only do this with the help of their sister.
A Perfectly Good Family was written before We need to talk …,’ and, at first sight, the prose did not seem to me so sparkling; in fact occasionally the sentences seemed a bit rambling and incomprehensible. Also, there were too many Americanisms for me. These were observations I made at about the half way point, but my main problem was not the above, but the fact that the story had not moved very far at that stage, even though we had learned quite a lot about the main protagonists.
In an article, Lionel Shriver describes the similarities to her own family, for example, the action takes place in North Carolina, where she was raised, and like the protagonists, she is the only girl sandwiched between two brothers. Her parents, though alive, have similarities to the fictional dead parents in their liberal politics and other attributes.
So although this is a piece of fiction, the relationships are based on truth and as result of that, I think there is a problem with having a great deal of information on the subject matter. Like any sort of research or pot of knowledge, it’s tempting to include too much of it. So I am wondering if Lionel Shriver got carried away, when describing her own family and was so busy setting the scene that she forgot about the plot.
There were characteristics which were horribly familiar to me - the obsessive recycling of sheets of aluminium foil, for example, which I’m sure were drawn from life - and they were amusing, but perhaps, a bit too much of them.
At first sight, the brothers, although very different, are both unappealing in different ways, and the narrator has also some unpleasant ways. Only when the brothers are reconciled and Corri Lou is honest with them, did I get to like them all more.
This is a story of family dynamics and not only describes sibling rivalry, but also a kind of emotional incestuousness, with both brothers vying for attention and affection from their sister, while she both welcomes and is put into a state of divided loyalty by that affection.
The story takes off once the siblings start battling over their inherited house, and the real action begins about half way through with the Christmas dinner from hell. The various events that follow keep the interest from flagging.
I found the book interesting, but I think my next Shriver will probably be post Kevin. I would probably give it 3.5 stars.