Penelope Lively is one of my favorite authors, and a new book by her is a treat. This one was good, but not her best. She calls it an anti-memoir. She uses various points in her life as prompts for writing stories about what might have happened if she had chosen a different path (or in some cases, if someone else, such as her mother, had chosen a different path for her). Often she inserts herself only as a minor character, making the story really about someone else; the first story in the book, about her nanny, is excellent, as is another about her fictional half sister learning about the death of her older sister (presumably Lively, who kills herself off in a plane crash).
The problem for me was that sometimes she deviates from this pattern, and makes up a fictional past for the character, in addition to the imagined future. So how then are these stories about her and her choices? These other stories were not bad, but were distracting. I kept trying to figure out how they fit in with the facts that she acknowledges in other stories. For example, one story is about a middle-aged woman (presumably Lively, married to a different, fictional husband) returning to England from America. This character, however, spent her childhood in Britain; we know from Lively herself that she spent her childhood in Cairo. So is the woman supposed to Lively or not? Where was the deviation or choice, the road not taken? The stories that fit this pattern were not nearly as interesting as those that examined the potential ramifications of real choices or circumstances in her own true life.
A better book is Lively's real memoir Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived . Also her novels Moon Tiger and Spiderweb, which are two of my favorites. All her books are good, some are just better than others.
You can read more about this book here.
(Book 10, 2006)