Day 955: Family Roundabout

Cover for Family RoundaboutBest Book of the Week!
It is 1920, and the Fowler and Willoughby families are about to be united by marriage. The Fowlers are an old county family, now getting a little shabby, while the Willoughbys are forces in the town, wealthy but not so genteel. Up until now, the families have held apart, but in this generation there are friendships between the children. Now, Max Willoughby, good-natured and charming, will marry the determined and managing Helen Fowler.

The two families are headed by widows. Ever since she married her husband, Mrs. Fowler has hid her true self, whom she wryly refers to as Millicent, behind a façade of vagueness and stupidity that she calls Millie. Although she never seems to make a decision or take charge of anything, everything seems to get done they way she wants it.

Mrs. Willoughby is made of sterner stuff. She manages everything, including the family business and the lives of her grown children. When she tries to manage Mrs. Fowler over the wedding, though, it’s like pushing jelly around. Everything gets done, just as Mrs. Fowler wishes it to. From the beginning of the marriage, Helen is more like Mrs. Willoughby’s daughter than Mrs. Fowler’s.

Endpaper for the Persephone edition

Other future partnerships seem foreseeable from the wedding. Anice Fowler gets engaged to Martin Newbolt, a poor but intellectual young man who works in his uncle’s book shop. We can see trouble ahead because of Anice’s unspoken rivalry with Helen. The youngest Willoughby, Oliver, finds himself attracted to his young sister Cynthia’s best friend, Judy Fowler, who is looking beautiful and grown up at the wedding. Then there is the already married couple, Peter and Belle Fowler. They have a young daughter, Gillian, but things are not looking good for them. Peter is sensitive and mild-mannered, but Belle is a self-centered, temperamental beauty.

Family Roundabout follows the fortunes of the Fowler family and some of the Willoughbys through almost 20 years, until just before the war. Although it has many characters, I found myself deeply interested in their lives and problems. This is a compelling novel about the everyday lives of ordinary people, with an ending that eerily contrasts what we know about the coming war with what the characters don’t know. Although I don’t usually lose this perspective with fictional characters, it made me wonder what happened to them next.

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