LibraryThing Early Reviewer scheme 10 Aug 2009

The story of a year in the life of an extended family, focussing on Thomas and Tonie, who have recently swapped roles at home, and Howard and Claudia, older businessman brother of Thomas and his lapsed artist wife.  The bickering older Bradshaws are skilfully portrayed, younger brother Leo and his alcoholic wife are sketched in, mainly to give amusing lines to their children, and leads on Tonie’s family and the life of the piano teacher are not really followed up.

The style and tone are very detached and I didn’t really form an emotional attachment to any of the characters – most seemed to have a morality based on selfishness and not enough attractive characteristics to balance this.  The author didn’t really seem to "care" about any of her characters either, apart from as symbols to show a) how there are different ways to cope with trying to control the world; b) that there is no answer to the dilemma of whether women should stay within the home or go out to work (both sides are shown struggling and punished) and c) that acting selfishly (even the dog with its hedonism) will bring punishment and destruction.  So a moral tale but without the attractive/engaging characters that would make the morals hit home more effectively.

The joint climax of the story seems contrived and in one case obvious (why put animals in books just as symbols – an eternal criticism of mine!).  Some of the characters get lost, the central conceit of Thomas’ world view as a set of musical metaphors gets diluted and tails off, there is no real resolution, but I don’t suppose there is meant to be, as the book’s narrative is bounded by the year rather than the action.

It all felt a bit like an exercise in writing about different kinds of characters and their relationships, and fell a bit flat.  There were some perceptive portrayals, eg Alexa and Olga, and some interesting exploration on how Thomas finds it harder to listen to his favourite male pianists once he starts learning the piano himself, but the book ultimately doesn’t have *enough*, either in the form of a plot or of enjoyable and minute description of family relationships and interior monologues.

I think this is going for the Weldon or Moggach reader.  Cusk has published a good few books (I read another years ago which had the same detached feeling) but I don’t think this is likely to be her commercial breakthrough.