Review 1429: The Old Man’s Birthday

I’ve only read two books by Richmal Crompton, but she seems to be interested in studying the individual members of large families. In The Old Man’s Birthday, she focuses this interest around Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday.

Matthew has led an exciting and sometimes disreputable life, but he married an extremely conventional woman and now lives in a village stifled by class consciousness and respectability concerns. To this birthday party, he has insisted on inviting his grandson Stephen, who is living with a married woman and has been cast off by most of the rest of the family. Part of Matthew’s motivation is a perverse desire to shock these family members, but when he meets Stephen’s partner, Beatrice, he is also reminded of a girl he loved when he was young.

This novel is about how the introduction of a single person into a group can change dynamics that seem fairly set. You may feel that a multitude of difficult situations are resolved too easily, but still, this is an enjoyable and touching novel. I read it for Classics Club and was glad I did.

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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 fa├žade 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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