“I exist!” exclaims Ruby Lennox upon her conception in 1951, setting the tone for this humorous and poignant first novel in which Ruby at once celebrates and mercilessly skewers her middle-class English family. Peppered with tales of flawed family traits passed on from previous generations, Ruby’s narrative examines the lives in her disjointed clan, which revolve around the family pet shop. But beneath the antics of her philandering father, her intensely irritable mother, her overly emotional sisters, and a gaggle of eccentric relatives are darker secrets–including an odd “feeling of something long forgotten”–that will haunt Ruby for the rest of her life. Kate Atkinson earned a Whitbread Prize in 1995 for this fine first effort.
I’ll just get right to it and say that this is the book by which other works of fiction are measured in my brain. I can cuddle up with any old book and after I’ve finished the last page I’ll think to myself, “Well, that was good but it was no Behind the Scenes…”. So there’s that. If you’re still reading this (and haven’t clicked over to Amazon to buy it right now) I will tell you I don’t know how I happened upon the gem who IS Ruby Lennox, but I’ll never be the same after meeting her.
I love reading fiction about families. And Behind the Scenes at the Museum is so steeped in family lore and the culture of complex relationships that one could instantly connect to Ruby and the entire Lennox family. Everyone’s mother has a little Bunty in them (picture an agitated, chain smoking, Joan Crawford-type simultaneously resenting the children pulling at her hem and furiously preparing a meal in her best dress… it IS the 1950s after all). While she is at times deplorable and ridiculous, Bunty was actually one of my favorite characters in the book because she was so very real. You can practically feel her motherly gaze (Put on a sweater. Sit up straight!) as you turn the pages.
What also captured my heart were the mementos and tokens that found their way into the hands of various family members over time. A glass button, a rabbit’s foot for luck, a teaspoon ¾ Atkinson weaves these objects into the Lennox family narrative by giving them life and making them count for more than their physical worth. You learn where the button once dangled by a single thread. You see the rabbit’s foot steel the family in difficult times. You hear the clink of the teaspoon through an adjoining wall. We all have family heirlooms and objects that mean more than meets the eye, and Ruby’s family is no different.
If you want to meet some of the realest fictional characters ever created and revisit history through the eyes of the determined and perpetually haunted Ruby then this is the book for you.
My next review will likely be for The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (another family tale). I read recently that Nicole Kidman is looking to make this book into a screenplay (of course). That seems like a good pairing since I’m sure the former Mrs. Cruise knows a thing or two about drama-filled marriage. Until then…happy reading!