Accomplished British journalist Carole Cadwalladr takes on a wide variety of weighty issues in her debut novel, The Family Tree, including the difficulties of family relationships, the plight of the English middle class, the aftermath of the women's liberation movement, the effects of pop culture on everyday life, and last but not least the argument of nature versus nurture. Yet the gravity of Cadwalladr's subject matter is brilliantly balanced by her light touch and sharp sense of humor, making the book a pleasure to read.
The premise of The Family Tree is refreshingly unique: the book itself is the thesis project of its engaging main character, Rebecca Monroe a discourse on how '70s pop culture has both affected and been influenced by the lives of women (complete with graph, charts, maps and hilarious footnotes explaining the significance of Love Story and Dallas ). To illustrate her point, Rebecca follows her own complicated family history, reaching back to her grandmother's thwarted romance with a Jamaican man and subsequent loveless marriage to a first cousin, through her parents' unhappy union and her mother's suicide and to the potential collapse of her own marriage. As the wife of a prominent scientist whose belief in genetic disposition encompasses characteristics ranging from mental illness to fidelity, Rebecca struggles with the idea that life as she knows it could be merely the result of mixings in her (slightly smaller than usual) gene pool. Despite having a family history that would stand up against the plot of any daytime TV drama, she constantly grasps at twists that would make the branches of her family tree even more tangled.
Cadwalladr writes with humor and intelligence, effectively tying together complicated plot lines that could in the hands of a less skilled author fall into the maudlin. The Family Tree is that rare book: a compelling and funny tale with underlying themes that will haunt the reader long after the cover is closed.
Emily Zibart writes from New York City.