The narrator of The Family Tree, Carole Cadwalladr’s debut novel, is a thirty-something housewife, Rebecca Monroe, who is locked in a loveless and childless marriage to Alistair (he does not want children and pressurises her into having an abortion when she falls pregnant). Alistair is a clever geneticist with a compulsive need to theorize, and retains an adolescent enthusiasm for starting pointless debates and scoring petty points. He is also, as Rebecca suspects for the best part of the novel, having it off with a research student.
The vaguely unhappy Rebecca has left her PR consultant job and, as a mature student, is doing a PhD thesis on the popular culture of the 1970s. Rebecca has more time on her hand than a park attendant in Communist Hungary, and she spends it by reminiscing about her family— to be precise, her mother’s side of the family. And there are more skeletons in the family’s cupboard than I have hair on my head.
Moving back and forth in time, the narrative, encompassing several decades, tells the story of the three generations of the Monroe family: Rebecca’s childhood in the 1970s—the (relatively) recent past, the story of her grandmother’s romance in the 1940s—the distant past, and the present—the here and now reality of Rebecca’s barren existence. The most riveting section of the story is the one dealing with Rebecca’s childhood. Liberally sprinkled with entertaining and informative footnotes on popular sitcoms of the 1970s (Unlike her husband, for whom genes are everything and culture is irrelevant, Rebecca believes that her story cannot be properly understood without cultural references)—both British and American—such as Dallas, Man About the House (‘Groundbreaking in its treatment of what has come to be known as the alternative family’), the Waltons (‘The programme was a means of reassuring viewers of values (God, family, marriage) that were steadily being eroded outside of the confines of the series’), Coronation Street (‘In common with other soaps relationships are more important than the plot’) and Charlie’s Angels (‘Structured around not female liberation, but male gaze’), the story of the growing pains of young Rebecca is a gripping read. Eight year old Rebecca is a curious girl—together with her cousin, Lucy, she is in the habit of reading her uncle’s dictionary of sexual nomenclatures (‘Cuissade is the half-rear entry position, where she turns her back to him and he enters with one of her legs between his and the other more or less drawn up; in some positions she lies half-turned on her side from him, still facing away’). She is also a quaint mixture of naivety and perspicacity, and has the knack of asking the most awkward questions (‘What is incest?’) at the most awkward moment. Rebecca lives in a lower-middle class suburban area with her family consisting of an elder (and bossy) sister Tiffany, who has literary pretensions (she grows up to become a newspaper columnist), her intensely class conscious mother, Doreen, who, depending on your view, is either highly strung or has manic depressive mood swings that would make Stephen Fry jealous, and her outwardly ineffectual father, whom Rebecca’s mother constantly compares unfavourably with her sister’s doctor husband. Doreen’s younger sister, Suzan, a crypto-feminist, lives with her doctor husband and daughter in the posh part of the town, and there is little love lost between the two sisters. What is more, the two sisters and their respective husbands have been childhood buddies, and Rebecca suspects that her uncle and mother might have been an item before he settled for the younger sister. Doreen’s disappointment—which she makes no efforts to hide—at her quietly spoken husband’s not having come up in life is matched by her mother-in-law’s at her son’s having married an unstable woman. There are several situations in this section of the novel which balance precariously between hilarity and uncomfortableness. A gradual sense of unease builds up and harbingers the approaching tragedy that would unleash seismic changes in young Rebecca’s life.
The other two strands of the story are disappointing, by comparison: the story of Rebecca’s grandmother Alicia’s abortive romance with a Jamaican airman, Cecil, and her eventual marriage to Harold (who has developed an unhealthy interest in his first cousin—yes, Alicia and Harold are cousins—ever since he sprouted his first pubic hair, and stealthily follows her with guile and cunning worthy of a stalker serving a life sentence in an American penitentiary) is unconvincing. The story of the present- day, adult, Rebecca suffers from an overload of popular science stories spouted by the caricaturesque Alistair. Mildly amusing at times, it does not add to the authenticity of the story. The contrast between Alistair’s deterministic genetic views—he browbeats Rebecca to volunteer in a study of mitochondrial DNA (no doubt because her mother topped herself and she herself is showing all the signs of going crackers)—and Rebecca’s views on the influence of environment in our personality make up is about as subtle as a belch.
Cadwalladr describes the female protagonists—Alicia, Doreen, and Rebecca—with a lot of sympathy, all of whom come across as interesting, vibrant, intelligent and interesting characters. Men, by contrast, are one dimensional, and would sink up to their necks on a wet tea-towel. The women, albeit from different generations, are linked by the common bond of suffering: they are all married to men they have fallen out of love with, or, perhaps, never were in love with in the first place. Alicia, the grandmother, is the only one of the three who has a happy ending of sorts when Harold drops dead unexpectedly but conveniently—the family is expecting Alicia, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (I am no expert on Alzheimer’s disease, but Cadwalladr’s description of the progress of the disease sounds a tad unconvincing, in comparison with some other depictions of the degenerative illness in literature, for example, Linda Grant’s brilliant account of her mother’s decline, Remind Me Who I am Again, or Michael’s Ignatiff’s autobiographical novel, Scar Tissue)—and, equally conveniently, Cecil—who, it turns out, was living only a few miles away for fifty years and has remained unmarried.—reappears to hold her hand and take care of her.
Cadwalladr has a quirky sense of humour, at its most lofty display in the segment relating to Rebecca’s childhood. The author also shows that she has a well nuanced sense of times and places (perhaps not so surprising seeing as she is a travel writer), which, coupled with a keen eye for parody makes The Family Tree is an almost engrossing book. Definitely a few rungs above your average chick-lit.