Anyone who grew up poring over sketches of hairy lovers in the original Joy of Sex or worrying about perishing in a freak accident before finding out who shot J.R. will appreciate the loving, spot-on portrait of a late-1970s childhood presented in Carole Cadwalladr’s first novel, The Family Tree. Told in bright, busy flashbacks, the most affecting segments of this multigenerational British saga take place between the first election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Di two years later. Narrator Rebecca Monroe is too young to go to discos, but not too young to imbibe the era’s peculiar cultural cocktail: She and her bossy older sister, Tiffany, weigh the relative allure of the Dallas women (”Victoria had the big bosom and the heart-shaped face, but Charlene had the waist-length blond hair that we all coveted. Even if she was a midget”), while simultaneously entertaining sincere longings to join the Walton clan.
That’s preadolescence circa 1980 in a nutshell, and Cadwalladr excels at depicting the innocently selfish and insular world of middle-class girls. As Rebecca and Tiffany bicker over the contents of Kellogg’s variety packs and furtively skim Fear of Flying, their family is beginning to crack under the pressures of barely guessed-at secrets and genetic predispositions. Rebecca’s high-strung mother, Doreen, wears a Playtex 24-hour girdle to bed and dreams of a fitted kitchen with Formica countertops. She cranks up Blondie one afternoon and brings down the house (literally) in an attempt at some spontaneous remodeling with a pickax. To celebrate the royal wedding a year later, she prepares a lavish buffet, puts on a brand-new Laura Ashley dress, and suffers a breakdown with violent and far-reaching consequences.
That’s enough drama for most novels. But what clan on earth has just one shattering story? Like most family trees, Cadwalladr’s gnarled and wobbly specimen has dead twigs, flourishing branches, a few systemic diseases, and some promising new growth. Cadwalladr duly delves into the adult Rebecca’s marital problems (her husband has stopped sleeping with her) and excavates the tale of her grandmother’s passionate 1940s affair with a black Jamaican immigrant, casting some doubt about Doreen’s paternity. Cadwalladr raises a host of questions about the interaction of the generations (to what extent do the misadventures of our ancestors affect our own lives? Or is it all genetic?) but to her credit never forces answers.
Cadwalladr has produced an ambitious book, packed with likable, funny characters. Still, a few of her creations fall short. For such a crucial player, Doreen feels brittle and underimagined, a mad housewife with little tangible, sympathetic reality beyond a collection of shrill mannerisms and shallow aspirations. And Rebecca — skeptical and brainy throughout most of the narrative — devolves into a neurotic who can’t stop weeping in the somewhat choppy closing chapters. It’s almost as if Cadwalladr is struggling for some grand emotional finale, though this lively, rangy, and thoroughly entertaining novel doesn’t require one.