A Perfectly Good Family
by Lionel Shriver
Harper Perennial, 277 pp., $13.95
Arriving at the once-opulent Reconstruction mansion bought by her parents long ago on the cheap, Corlis McCrea is an expatriate sculptor returning from London two weeks after her mother's death to her hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Spotting her mother's pocketbook "reposed like a body in a casket" on a table near the front door, Corlis suggests that her younger brother Truman might want to cancel the credit cards.
Past 30, Truman lives with his wife Averil on the top floor of the house. Truman is still an undergraduate at nearby Duke, and has cared for his mother for the two years since his father's death.
"Pawing through her wallet doesn't come easily," he responds, taught all his life not to go into his mother's purse without asking. Truman has never really left home.
London expat Lionel Shriver has a dead-on eye for the murky underwater comedy among siblings, rising through the mixed sorrows surrounding the death of a last parent, to bob back as the surviving generation onto the surface of ordinary life. Ahead lie the rituals of cleaning out the refrigerator (a little damage done to dampen the enthusiasm of the appraiser for the house), the thread-by-thread analysis of just how happy the parents' marriage really was, and the place of every child in the hierarchy of parental love.
Joining in these--or not--with Corlis and Truman is their elder brother Mordecai, a sixties throwback with three ex-wives, a high IQ, and pigtails clamped off by alligator clips.
Oh yes, and there is the reading of the will, in which a fourth equal share of the estate is revealed as allotted to the ACLU. As their father was a civil rights lawyer and maverick state Supreme Court judge, this comes as no great surprise--but the consequences soon loom huge. Truman's attachment to the house known locally as Heck-Andrews is understood, but as Corlis and Mordecai find their fondness for it reawakened, the likelihood of it staying in any of their hands is fast reduced. More likely, it will have to be auctioned to satisfy the ACLU's claim.
Back in London, Corlis had to cancel the first major gallery show of her sculptures when one of her two boyfriends found out about the other and smashed two years' worth of work to smithereens. In Raleigh, this hint at a quirky love life resonates as just one small echo in a lifetime of divided loyalties once Corlis has sat through meetings with both her brothers in front of the same bank manager as each tries to obtain a mortgage with her help.
Mordecai left home at 15 to escape a father he too closely resembled, and subsists on hard rock, aquavit, and weed. Truman, with his "too-wide eyes and a kick-me smile," was tagged by his mother in childhood as the Tender Flower. Reliving her first turning-away from the fiery brilliance of one brother to protect the vulnerability of the other, Corlis simmers in her past as in a backyard hot tub, feeling a lifetime of old affiliations bubbling up. Affections slosh between overwhelming fondness and frustrated scorn, and a few things become intimately visible that you'd just as soon not see.
"But most of all this is a book about a house," claims the author in the endnotes to this new Harper Perennial paperback edition (A Perfectly Good Family was first published in Britain in 1996).
Raleigh, we learn, is her actual hometown, and Heck-Andrews is a recently renovated real dwelling in the old downtown section known as Oakwood. Although she never lived there, the house does indeed emerge as a principal character through her loving descriptions of vaulted ceilings and mansard roof, the gargoyles along the black walnut banisters, and the front door panes broken on a night that Mordecai's father chased him down to make him lower the volume on Three Dog Night.
"Talk of my parents was like candy we couldn't refuse but which makes us sick," says Corlis, in one of her many winning moments of insight. But amid all the tortuous conniving and rehashing of family traits, the bashing of various forms of property and the baring of a historic manginess in the Heck-Andrews kitchen, the humor eventually wears thin.
For Lionel Shriver, food has metaphorical power. In a later book, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), the author describes an ex-husband who used to make himself peanut butter sandwiches while the wife was getting their pasta dinner to the table, giving such a clear vision of a marriage down the drain on her first page that I welcomed the read that lay ahead, although her subject there was a meditation on parenthood in a family where the child becomes the killer in a school massacre.
A good deal funnier, A Perfectly Good Family never attempts that much. But with so much action concentrated at the level of a food fight, this reader longed after awhile to trade in some of the thoughtful observation for a more satirical edge. I am reminded of certain recent critiques of designer dogs. The puggle is my favorite, which is every bit as cute as the name suggests, but owners finding themselves leashed to this mix of beagle and pug can soon find its physical charms outweighed by the hybrid quandaries of an animal with intense instinct for tracking and no sense, ever, of where it is.
Harper Perennial could also have paid better attention to its cover design for the American edition, featuring a photograph of a house with a triangular pediment and a second-floor balcony behind tall white columns. In the first line of the book, even the taxi driver knows that he's delivering Corlis to a house that looks like the home of Norman Bates.
Edith Alston is a writer and editor in New York.