Written and set in the early 1970s, this is ostensibly about Toby, who is expelled from his private school for taking pot, shortly before his 18th birthday and Oxford exams. However, all the most important relationships in the book are between mothers and daughters; the men are generally less astute and more passive.
The prologue has no immediately obvious relevance to the story outlined on the cover and above, and the rest of the book switches viewpoints and style quite often: a common technique nowadays, and one I'm familiar with, but I did find it slightly confusing at times in this book, partly because it wasn't always clear who was speaking or what their relationship with other characters was.
The family ticks along in a middle class way until Toby's expulsion exposes how troubled and dysfunctional they really are. The over-anxious Islington-type parents are desperate to understand
, and their attempts at analysis give the story depth and complexity, but their relationships with their own parents and siblings impair their efforts. They (and all their friends) live vicariously through their children, project their own ambitions on them, then pathologise any discrepancies. Even a psychiatrist friend has demons of his own, makings his wife take tranquilizers "so HE can be bad-tempered with impunity."
Blame does not always lie where it first seems: there are secrets and skeletons, and those who know about them often pretend they don't. At times it feels as if almost everyone is trying to analyse everyone else, whilst hiding things about themselves - and getting it wrong. Which narrators can the reader trust?
A pivotal character is 12 year old Lucy, the middle child. Many sections are told by her, but she is inconsistently naive and knowing. She feels the pain and frustration of wanting to understand and help (whilst also being afraid of the truth), but being left out and ignored.
Yet other types of awkwardness are well described: teenage party encounters; first fumblings; fear that anything one says to a psychiatrist may be misinterpreted; in a disco/dance, "the young swayed separately; shut off from each other like autistic children"; meeting old school friends who only talk about (and live through) their children when you don't want to talk about yours.
I have no experience of drug taking, drug takers or nervous breakdowns, so I have no idea how plausible that aspect is; it seems a little melodramatic in places, but that may be a feature of the era as much as the chemicals and condition. But who can not be moved by the pain of "It was rather as if we had had a photograph of our son and it had suddenly been replaced by the negative: thin and transparent. And slightly blurred."
If this story were retold in the twenty-teens, it would be a little different, but I think the essential message would remain. Toby's father, Charlie, sums it up well: "All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known... Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs."
The final wish (curse?) is perhaps impossible: "Be well, be happy".