I enjoyed and appreciated this character-driven family drama by Claire Lombardo. I read it for my book club, which didn’t end up happening last month, and that was actually good because I never would have finished in time. It’s a long one — but for those who like complicated family dramas that cover many years, this one is worth the effort.
I loved the way it was written; it was insightful but not ponderous and the dialogue felt real. Most impressive was the character development. Lombardo tells this story from many different perspectives – I’m sure some will feel too many, as there are two parents, four sisters, their spouses and children, and even one family friend. For many writers this would be impossibly unwieldy, and yet I almost never had trouble distinguishing which character was narrating. The four sisters in particular had distinct voices, and consistent personalities over many years.
Another thing I really appreciated – the sisters are not always likable characters. I love strong, complicated, messed-up characters, and this book has a few of them. Violet and Wendy, the two oldest sisters, are particularly horrible at times, yet I hung in there and rooted for them. I have three sisters myself, and we’re very different and don’t always like each other, so this story felt very real to me.
But that was the thing: sometimes being a sister meant knowing the right thing to do and still not doing it because winning was more important.
Lombardo’s story centers around two parents, Marilyn and David, who are unusual in family sagas – they are caring parents who love each other deeply. I found it fascinating that the challenges faced by their daughters in this book stem, in part, from the close loving relationship that their parents have. You wouldn’t think two parents who love each other could possibly be a bad thing, and it isn’t, but it still impacts their children. Maybe, having really great parents who seem to have a perfect relationship is a hard thing for a child to live up to.
And this was what worried her the most: nothing had ever felt as comfortable, as easy, as good as being with her parents, her family. No one, it seemed, would ever regard her with the same enthusiastic awe as her mother; the same quiet, feverish pride as her father. It aroused concern within that she was slated for a lifetime of disappointment from the outside.
There’s an awful lot of focus in this book on pregnancy and child-rearing, and normally that would mean I’d find this book hard to relate to. But this is a book about parent and sibling relationships, as much as a book about what it means to parent. So I could still relate, though I would have preferred more emphasis on the other aspects of the sisters’ lives.
As with many family dramas, this book is told in the current day but also goes back to when Marilyn and David meet, and then follows the progression of time until the past catches up with the present. At times I got a little distracted by the alternating chronology, but it was mostly pretty easy to follow.
The title is a reference to Marilyn saying, as a new parent, that parenting was “the most fun she’s ever had” (she’s completely lying of course). I thought of it as a comment on how something that looks easy can be really, really difficult.
This book won’t be for everyone. It’s long and meandering, and the characters are terrible to each other at times. But it was my kind of book. It’s on the longlist for the Women’s Prize and is a book I definitely recommend.
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