Family Sagas selected by Rebecca Fletcher
‘There’s nowt so queer as folk,’ as they say, and this month’s bookish choices for Are You Sitting Comfortably? are about just that. Family. Well, family sagas to be precise. A genre of literature all of its own, I don’t know about you but what could be more fascinating than someone else’s family dynamics? Maybe it’s all those different perspectives but the chronicling of the ups and downs of a family and a multitude of interconnecting lives over time, certainly provides food for thought about one’s own.
Keeping it all in the family so to speak, this month’s reads will keep you turning pages with affairs, passions, sacrifice, secrets, hidden ambitions, freedom and identity. We can’t wait to hear what you think!
The Exhibitionist by Charlotte Mendelson
‘Tolstoy was an idiot.’
This is how he always begins. Then, when somebody responds, laughing or demurring, Ray will say: ‘All that crap about happy families. It’s the unhappy families who’re alike. Uptight, cold….ugh.’ He’ll gesture merrily at the chaos: books everywhere, wizened tangerines and cold coffee, heating on full. ‘Poor bloke had never met us lot. We’re famously happy, aren’t we. Aren’t we? And totally unique.’
An extraordinary fifth novel from Charlotte Mendelson which has already earned its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022 list, The Exhibitionist shines a spotlight on art, marriage, ego, family dynamics and power. We meet the Hanrahan family as patriarch Ray, a famous artist and notorious egoist, prepares for a momentous weekend where he will show the first art he has exhibited in decades.
Will this be his moment? Three children wait in the wings – shy Patrick, insecure Jess and Ray’s champion, Leah – all with their own decisions to make. Then there’s Ray’s loyal and selfless wife, Lucia. Also an artist, Lucia seems to be teetering on the edge of a sea change. Can she step back from her roles as wife and mother to rediscover her sense of identity before her secrets consume her? It’s sad, it’s funny but above all, it’s a novel which explores family from everyone’s perspective. As the story unfolds, Mendelson’s sharp and deeply perceptive lens is directed at personal freedoms, the intricacies and nuances of relationships and the different roles we inhabit in the place we call home.
‘This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither.’
Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years
If you haven’t read Elizabeth Jane Howard before, then you’re in for a treat. This is the equivalent of the box set you’ve been waiting for and other Rebecca and I defy you not to binge read the whole lot in quick succession. The Light Years is the first novel in a series of five which follow the fortunes and failures of three generations from 1937, known affectionately as the Cazalet Chronicles. The Light Years introduces the reader to the Cazalet family, a sprawling upper middle-class family, all with very different agendas and outlooks on life. It’s summer of 1937 and ‘Brig’ and ‘Duchy’ are preparing for their sons to return to Home Place, in the heart of Sussex with their wives and children, as is tradition.
Rachel, their unmarried daughter who still loves at home, will help welcome them all for two blissful months on the coast. However, nothing is ever as it seems despite idyllic first appearances. Hugh remains haunted by the Great War, handsome Edward flits dangerously between wife, Villy and mistress, Diana, and then there’s the youngest brother, Rupert, who gave up his dream of becoming an artist to work in the family firm and give his increasingly demanding wife Zoe the life she wanted. Not even sister Rachel can embrace happiness as her sense of duty prevents it at every turn.
Think country house drama, affairs, the arrogance and flightiness of youth, siblings, lovers, parents, friendship and family – it’s got everything in spades. If I had to pick a book series as my companion on a desert island, the Cazalets would be it. Don’t tell the other books, but I think this could be in my top 5. E J Howard’s writing really sings in the first book of this delicious family saga series.
The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience by Jennifer Higgie
She paints herself to develop her skills, to converse with her contemporaries and with art history. In the act of painting herself she makes clear that she is someone worth looking at, someone worth acknowledging. Her paintings assume shapes that she does not always predict. Against all odds, she discovers what she is capable of.’
A talented artist friend introduced me to this book and I’m so grateful she did as I have been paying it forward ever since. For too long art history has been dominated heavily by male critics and art historians and the art they’ve written about has tended to have white men centre stage too. In her compelling new book, Australian writer Jennifer Higgie, one of the most respected art critics in the business today and a judge both forthe Paul Hamlyn Award and the Turner Prize, shows us the bravery, ingenuity and skill that many female artists had to manifest and exemplify, against all odds. The Mirror and the Palette is not only a tour de force when it comes to navigating the history of female self-portraiture over the course of 500 years, it’s an intimate vignette into the lives of many extraordinarily talented and resourceful women. From Artemisia Gentileschi to Gwen John, this is a wonderful portrait of the artist as woman that doesn’t require you to be an art buff in order to enjoy it – I’ve learned so much from its stories.