I love picking up a book when I have few or no expectations at all and discovering a true gem of a story. That happened when I read Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout, a book I absolutely adored. From the first pages I literally fell in love with the Fowlers and Willoughbys and was fascinated by the interactions of the two families however imperfect the relations and difficult the situations may be. A roundabout is an apt description of this family drama as Mrs. Fowler points out.
"...It's like a sort of roundabout, isn't it? You get one lot more or less settled and then, before you know where you are, it's all starting up again with the next."
Set roughly between the years 1920-1939 the story centers on two families led by very different matriarchs. Each have five children and when two of them marry, the lives of the members of both families become inextricably linked. I'm not sure where exactly the novel is set, somewhere outside of London in a small town. Crompton conveys both a sense of small town cosiness along with a feeling of oppressiveness very well, and it was easy for me to fall in with the rhythms of the story and wonder where everyone was going to end up (and with whom).
In a sense the story was about two very different mothering styles. Whereas Mrs. Fowler tends to let her children make their own decisions and mistakes, Mrs. Willoughby is all hands on. Mrs. Fowler would like to see her children out of the nest and be able to travel and get away, but she finds not all her children are as independently minded as they appear. Mrs. Willoughby keeps a tight rein on her brood of children and grandchildren and nary a decision is made without her input. She's described as having a "barometrical eagle's-beak nose", where you could always tell which way the wind was blowing in terms of her mood. She prefers the family close at home, even when they are bursting to get away.
The story is somewhat episodic in nature. Although she jumps over years to advance the story, to me it never felt choppy. And Crompton has a wonderful ability to portray characters of great depth and breadth. They each have very unique characteristics, personalities and voices, so even though the cast of characters was long, I never felt confused by them all. There's a subtle humor to the story as well. It's not necessarily laugh out loud funny, but Crompton didn't seem to take her characters too overly serious either. She reminded me just a tiny bit of Barbara Pym.
I won't go into any detail about the plot. Aside from not wanting to give anything away, there's too much that happens to too many people, but don't worry, it's all still very manageable. I will mention that both families have these Sunday gatherings, each very unique to the family and parenting style. I have to share one passage from the story, however:
"It was Sunday afternoon--the afternoon set apart for the family--but Mrs. Fowler was guiltily conscious that deep down in her heart she hoped that the rain would keep the family away. She had put a little pile of books on the table by her chair and was looking forward to a long quiet afternoon. Peter used to laugh at her habit of selecting a number of her favourite books to 'dip into' whenever she had an afternoon or evening free for reading. Other people, he said just had a book and read it through till they'd finished it...".
I think I'd get on very well with Mrs. Fowler indeed! I can't recommend this book highly enough. I think it is extremely likely to end up on my top ten list at the end of the year. Strangely the only reason I decided to read this now was to avoid buying it. I very much want to place an order for a few new Persephones, but the postage cost is so extreme, I've been putting it off. I wasn't looking for this title particularly. I started searching for titles I could borrow (and thus avoid the cost of buying), and this was one of my recent interlibrary loan books. It was even a lovely Persephone edition that was loaned to me. Although I was very pleasantly surprised, my purpose for borrowing has been defeated. I'm going to have to buy this at some point now. And what's worse, I've got two more of Richmal Crompton's books coming: Frost at Morning (which I hear is even better than Family Roundabout) and Linden Rise. Family Roundabout is her only novel still in print (I think she wrote about 40 books for adults), so I'll be looking for used copies of her other works. I should mention that Crompton is the author of the Just William children's books. I hear these are very popular even now, but I will content myself with reading her family sagas. My only disappointment with this novel was coming to the end and knowing there was no more!