Book Review – Family Pictures

Family PicturesFamily Pictures by Sue Miller
My rating: (4 / 5)

But that’s the way it is in a family, isn’t it? The stories get passed around, polished, embellished. Liddie’s version or Mack’s version changes as it becomes my version. And when I tell them, it’s not just that the events are different but that they all mean something different too. Something I want them to mean. Or need them to. And of course, there’s also the factor of time. Of how your perspective, your way of telling the story – of seeing it – changes as time passes. As you change.

 

In the idyllic 1950’s, the Eberhardt family seems to have it all. They bought the big house overlooking the park in Chicago, where the dad is a psychologist and the mom stays home with her three beautiful children. Until they discover that something is wrong with their youngest, most beautiful child. He is autistic, and it sends the family into a tailspin.

Dad is angry and retreats into his work. Mom is destroyed since the diagnostics of the day place the blame of autism squarely on Mom’s shoulders. As a result, she conspires to bring three more children into the family, trying to make up for the problems of their son.

 

Certainly even then we thought of the family as neatly divided down the middle. The first three, Macklin, Lydia and Randall, were the special ones. Even those names, we thought, showed greater imagineation, greater involvement on our parents’ part, than ours did: Nina, Mary, Sarah. Clearly by that time they had run out of gas.

But we didn’t necessarily connect any of this with our father’s nicknames for us. These were embarrassing not because of what they meant – which none of us stopped to consider then anyway – but because they existed at all. Not because they pointed to some quality we shared, but because they pointed to us. He called us “the unexpected guests.” or “the surprise party.” He would lower his book and watch us as we passed his study door, the three of us always together. Under his high, narrow forehead, his blue eyes had the trick that eyes in certain portraits or photographs do, of seeming to follow you while actually remaining steady, unmoving. “There they go, the extras,” he’d say. Or, “Ah, the fleet’s in. The Nina, the Pint-sized, that Santa Maria.” We were “the little pitchers of health,” “the coup de grace,” “the last straws.” We complained and laughed and whined about it, we told our mother, but it only made him worse.

 

Needless to say, it didn’t quite work. It does, on the other hand, make for a fascinating family dynamic.

This book follows the family through the 60’s and 70’s, even through to adulthood in the 80’s. You have a chance to see through the eyes of each of the family members, except for the autistic son, who is in very many ways the center that holds the rest of the family together as well as being the catalyst for change and destruction in their lives.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I loved that it was set in my home town of Chicago, and found myself daydreaming about the many settings and neighborhoods that were reminiscent of stories my parents had told me about from their youth. The author does a fabulous job of bringing the city to life as well as the family the book is centered on.

This is very much a character-driven novel rather than a plot-driven novel. It’s a family drama, and plays out the childhoods, teenage years, and young adulthoods of the children in the family, from what high school was like in the 1960’s for a girl that didn’t fit that era’s feminine ideal, to what happened to young men who dropped out of college and were sent to Vietnam, to wives swept up into a culture where swinging was becoming the norm. It examines what our place in the family does to us as part of our development. Are we expected to be the golden child? Were we overlooked in the middle? Coddled as the baby? It delves into our own expectations of our siblings and parents, and how we can change people with our own perceptions.

This book is a little dry in places, but I still found it very hard to put down. It’s an excellent read.

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