By Rebecca Fletcher
What a book trio we had this month! Diving back into my favourite series of books (and other Rebecca’s too), I was very tempted to stay ensconced in the world of the Cazalets a little while longer with a large Gin and It. I urge you to read all five if you haven’t already – if a more absorbing series of books exists, I’ll eat my hat! There are so many reasons to love a good family saga. You only have to consider the popularity of cult TV series Succession to reflect on the fact that audience appetite for family dynamics, parallel lives and perspectives reigns supreme. Chatting to award-winning author and Women’s Prize shortlister, Charlotte Mendelson, about her novel, The Exhibitionist in this month’s Are You Sitting Comfortably?, both Rebecca and I were determined to get to the heart of our fascination for them. Curiosity and connection both came up but as Charlotte put it so beautifully, she writes to understand. I think she’s right.
Click here to listen to our fascinating interview with Charlotte – a treat for anyone interested in writing and the creation of novels. https://www.instagram.com/tv/CfCcZUqomEv/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=
Whilst Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles will always have a very special place in my heart, here are some other utterly standout reads that will have you embroiled in family drama before you’ve even reached the third chapter.
Travelling to Latin America and an oldie but a goodie, Isabel Allende’s stunning saga, The House of Spirits, is another of my all-time favourite reads. Our story begins with Clara del Valle, a girl who can tell fortunes and predict the future. The tragic death of her sister renders Clara mute for nine years and when she breaks her silence, it is to announce her betrothal to mercurial Esteban Trueba. The novel follows the Trueba family as they carry their struggles and secrets – a story which spans three generations against the backdrop of a century of revolution. As crisis point brings them together, a tyrannical patriarch must face his beloved granddaughter on opposite sides of the barricades. Allende’s rich tapestry is woven with forbidden love, passion, tyranny and rebellion in this spellbinding and spirit-laden tale.
Returning to suburban England with a bump, Family Album by Penelope Lively is a gorgeously well-observed novel about a family of six. Alison, the matriarch holds onto a portrait of blissful childhood she created for her children, complete with summers at the beach and birthday parties on the lawn at Allersmead, their family home. But was it really like that for composed Sandra, tricky Gina, ruinous Paul or thoughtful Katie and twins Roger and Clare? As they gather one by one back at Allersmead, secrets bubble under the veneer of perfect domesticity. Where will it all lead?
We couldn’t have the Cazalet Chronicles without recommending Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s autobiography. As Howard looks back on an eventful life which included marriages to Peter Scott, naturalist and son of famous explorer Captain Scott, as well as her most famous and tempestuous union with Kingsley Amis, the reader can see just how much of Jane’s own story was mined for the pages of her Cazalet novels. An actress, editor, book reviewer and Vogue model, her first novel The Beautiful Visit was published in 1950, winning the John Llewellyn Rhys memorial prize. Penning twelve novels, she was still writing at 90. This incredibly insightful glimpse into the literary world she inhabited alongside some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the day including Cecil Day-Lewis and Laurie Lee is juxtaposed with an honest and compelling account of her extraordinary personal life. A must-read for Cazalet fans.
John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga follows the lives of three generations of a large, upper middle-class family at the turn of the century. Set in five volumes (three novels and two interludes) beginning with The Man of Property, the Forsyte family are upwardly mobile and eager to reach the upper echelons of Victorian society. We begin with Soames Forsyte, successful solicitor and man of property as the title suggests, who is a collector of things including beautiful wife, Irene. Jealous of her friendships and wanting to keep her to himself, Soames decides to move Irene away from prying eyes to Robin Hill, a house he is having built in the country. A divided dynasty, feuds, recriminations, hatred, love – it’s a masterpiece of family drama. The fantastic adaptation by ITV Drama starring Damien Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves (be still my teen crushed heart – blame all that foppish hair he had as Freddie in A Room With A View) ought to get a very deserving mention here too.
From one classic to another and White Teeth by Zadie Smith which is a definite tick in the modern classic box in my humble opinion. Painting a portrait of multicultural London, White Teeth is witty and wise as well as poignant. Meet two unlikely wartime friends, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones, and their families in London. It’s New Year’s Day, 1975, and Archie Jones decides to end his ordinary miserable life sitting in his car, waiting for the exhaust fumes to overcome him. He’s saved by the owner of the halal butcher’s shop he’s parked outside – Archie was blocking the driveway. Archie is given another chance at life and the resulting story covers three families over three generations as well as love, friendship, gender, race, cultural identity in modern Britain and how the past isn’t always something we can put behind us.
Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love shines a spotlight on unconventional households as we meet the Ramdin-Chetan family. When widow Betty Ramdin, son Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan build a home together forged through loneliness and friendship, they are happy in their differences until the night when a glass of rum leads to hidden truths that will tear them apart. Set in Trinidad and New York, Love After Love follows the stories of all three characters, offering up vignettes of the many forms of love and how we hold onto our ideals of what love is. There’s a bigger question to explore here too – what makes a family?
For a twist on the traditional family saga, I couldn’t help but include this dark-humoured beauty of a novel – How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie. Grace, a brilliant antiheroine of a protagonist, has lost everything and is out for revenge. When she discovers her billionaire biological father not only disowned them but also rejected her dying mother’s pleas for help, Grace decides to pick off his family members one by one. The only problem is that somehow she ends up in prison for a murder she didn’t commit. Dysfunctional families, the power men wield over women, our obsession with murder, Mackie’s social observations feel razor sharp and subversive. Think Killing Eve but funnier. Grace will have you rooting for her in no time at all.
For more fabulous suggestions and author insights please head to Rebecca Fletcher’s website