A Perfectly Good Family by Lionel Shriver
Published in 1996
My version: Kindle
After having escaped for years to London, Corlis McCrea returns to the grand Reconstruction mansion where she grew up in North Carolina, now willed to the three grown children following the death of their parents. All three want the house.
Fiscal necessity dictates that two must buy a third out. Just as she was torn as a girl, the sister must choose between her decent younger brother and the renegade eldest―the black sheep who covets his legacy in order to destroy it. The adult siblings re-enact the deep enmities and loyalties of childhood, as each bids for a bigger slice of the pie.
I’ve read several Lionel Shriver books and always quite enjoyed them – although I do find at times she can be overly wordy for the sake of it!
This book is narrated by Corlis, who returns to her childhood home in North Carolina from London after her mother’s death. The house, which is a huge, rambling mansion, has been left to Corlis, her two brothers and a charity – leaving the family with a major dilemma. The two brothers are as chalk and cheese as it is possible to get – younger brother Truman has never left the house, having made the top floor into a self-contained flat, while rebellious older brother Mordecai left at 14 and only ever came back to scrounge money. Truman wants the house – but can he buy the others out … and do they want him to?
The characters in this book are brilliant – the two brothers are both irritating idiots – although strangely I found myself sympathising with each of them at times (but not for long). Corlis is stuck in the middle, and she is far from perfect herself.
We gradually find out more about the family dynamic and why the siblings are as they are. Their father was very charitable and believed in many causes, but pretty much ignored his children, while their mother acted as though they had the perfect family and, despite having money, hoarded, scrimped and saved. In one scene, the siblings empty out an old freezer, which is full of food from decades ago. It’s quite a funny yet poignant scene, and much of the book is along these lines.
While all this worked well and built a well-rounded picture of the dysfunctional bunch, it did ramble on at times and this could take away from the main story, which was in itself gripping. Things definitely picked up towards the end as the book reached its bittersweet climax.
There was much I loved about this book. Shriver is never afraid to create pretty horrible characters that are both frustrating and annoying – yet real enough that at times you find yourself rooting for them despite yourself. The sibling relationship was also drawn well and you could really understand what made them all tick and why they found themselves in the situation they are in. The dialogue between them is believable and I loved the tension between them all. Yes, the novel does ramble on at times, and Shriver does like to use clever words (and often ten of them when just two would do), but when she gets on with telling the story it really is a good one.
My rating: 8 out of 10