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The Children by Ann Leary: Happy families

Cover imageI liked the sound of Ann Leary’s new novel even before I remembered how much I’d enjoyed The Good House. Looking back at my review of that I see that I was after something ‘absorbing but relatively unchallenging’ thanks to the befuddlement of a cold. This time I was engaged in that traditional British summer activity – trying to cope with a sudden heatwave. On both occasions Leary’s books distracted me from my discomfort beautifully. The Children is set in similar New England territory to her previous novel but this one has much more of an edge of suspense to it.

Charlotte and her mother, Joan, live in Lakeside Cottage, owned by Joan’s late husband and left to her for her lifetime, or so she thinks. Charlotte’s in her late twenties and rarely leaves the property, spending much of her time on her blog with her fictitious family, spinning stories about her son’s disability and her lovely but hopeless husband and earning a decent living from it. She’s engaged in what she likes to think of as a casual relationship with Everett, the estate’s caretaker but it’s a little more serious than that. Her beloved stepbrother Spin has brought his fiancée to meet his stepfamily, hoping to stay for the summer. Laurel is beautiful, talented and has a lucrative writing contract under her belt but seems a little too interested in how much the house is worth. Much to her surprise, Charlotte finds herself warming to Laurel, enjoying the unaccustomed attention and the promise of friendship. Even more astonishing, Laurel manages to win Joan over who suggests that the lakeside estate would make the perfect place for the couple to marry. As the summer wears on niggling questions begin to surface about Laurel who seems to know more about her new family than you might expect.

I’ve mentioned several times recently that I’m not one for beach reads, the kind of book you see in piles at airport bookshops aimed at readers who need to get themselves through the miseries of a long flight or want to forget the world  while sipping a cool drink next to the pool. Despite that, I seem to have worked my way through a couple this summer and you might say The Children is one of them. Leary unfolds this taut little novel from Charlotte’s perspective as she looks back over the events of the summer. She has a sharp eye for characterisation – Joan’s bragging routine and insouciant disregard for what anyone else might be feeling but herself is particularly convincing and handled with humour. The virtual world is neatly satirised through Charlotte’s dodgy blogging activities and the plot is cleverly put together, crucial pieces of the puzzle quietly dropped into place often throwing up yet more questions. Altogether a very satisfying read. I raced through this one and enjoyed it very much.