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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Discussion: Behind the Scenes At the Museum

It is the third week of the month again, and that means it is time for another Berwyn Library Book Discussion report.

This month our group discussed Kate Atkinson's first and award winning novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (herein referred to as BTSATM). We had read Case Histories previously, but BTSATM does not share the crime fiction aspects of that novel. BTSATM is a unique family history novel. Our narrator is Ruby Lennox, who begins her story by describing her conception in 1951 and ends her tale with her mother's death in 1992. Ruby is the youngest of George and Bunty's daughters, living above their family Pet Shop in York, England. This is the story of the Lennox family, covering four generations of mothers, their trials and tribulations, their successes and failures. It is a novel full or tragedy and humor; in other words, it reads like real life.

What makes this novel unique and a great choice for book discussion groups is how Atkison relates the Lennox family history. She utilizes "footnotes." Let me explain. The novel is really written in pairs of chapters (and I should warn you, it is best enjoyed by reading the chapter pairs together). First, there is is chapter narrated by Ruby in which she refers to a physical object in the present of the story, which has survived from the family's past. She footnotes this object (such as a rabbit's foot, a button, a family photo). At the conclusion of Ruby's chapter, the reader gets a footnote chapter recounting a time the the family's past which features the footnoted object. These footnotes do not follow in chronological order, as Ruby's chapters do. Instead they move around in time, revealing the stories of Ruby's great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother.

Are you confused yet? The group was a bit confused as they were reading. A few people felt the footnotes were "a little too cute" at first, but once people got used to them, we all agreed they enhanced the plot, giving us a richer story than Ruby could provide alone.

There were literally dozens of characters to keep track of here, and some participants made family trees while they read. This lead to a discussion of why there wasn't a family tree in the book. I offered that maybe Atkinson chose NOT to include one on purpose. Another member agreed saying that a family tree at the beginning of the book would have given the novel "a finishedness" that the journey of reading the book requires to fully appreciate.

I brought up that this novel was accused by the British press of being "anti-family." Our group disagreed. Some families are like this one. Also, the generations of unhappy mothers and wives were more a victim of their times and the choices available to them. We felt this needed to be taken into consideration. In then end though, there is no escaping the fact that Bunty (Ruby's mom) is seriously anti-family; but that does not necessarily make the entire novel so.

I then brought up how BTSATM has been on bestseller lists in 12 countries and almost as many languages, so there must be some universality to it. We talked about how we all know people or families like many found here.

We also noted that large family gatherings were key here. Something extreme happened at all of them, climaxing (pun intended) in George (Ruby's Dad) dying at a family wedding in a compromising position.

The largest portion of our discussion revolved around whether this book was tragic or comic. Without giving too much away, the story of the Lennox family is filled with hardship, but Atkison levels out the tragedy with dark, British humor. For example, Ruby tells us early in the story that the people in her family are "genetically predispositioned towards having accidents," with being run over or blown up among the most common. Some participants thought the humor overpowered the tragedy, while others could not get past the sadness.

We decided that the answer to this question lies in the novel's ending. The book ends with Ruby and her surviving sister living nontraditional lives, but fulfilling and happy ones. In fact, we went back a looked at the nontraditional characters in this novel, and they all appear to be the happiest. It is that hopeful tone at the novel's conclusion, with Ruby carving out a life for herself and her 2 daughters that left us unwilling to classify this book as an all out tragedy.

During this discussion, participants were mentioning readalikes themselves. I was so proud. :)

One member mentioned that Atkinson's humor reminded her of Mark Twain, which was very insightful, since my research showed that one of Atkinson's favorite authors is Twain. Another participant said the story of a family told in the "present" with flashbacks to the past, reminded her of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, which we read many, many years ago.

In terms of my opinion, I found BTSATM's use of footnotes to trace the history of an object in the story's present very similar to the more recent, and also bestselling, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. In 2003, NoveList's book discussion guide for BTSATM also suggests, The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, Loverboy by Victoria Redel, The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald and The Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay.

In terms of nonfiction options. Obviously books about Scotland, York, tracing your family history, dealing with the death of a sibling, and England during WWI and WWII could all be of interest to readers of this novel. Each subject is linked to a list of books for you to peruse if you are interested.

As you can see, BTSATM has a lot to offer anyone who reads it, but overall our group felt that this detail made the book even better to be read AND discussed.

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