Following the death of her worthy liberal parents, Corlis McCrea moves back into her family's grand Reconstruction mansion in North Carolina, willed to all three siblings. Her timid younger brother has never left home. When her bullying black-sheep older brother moves into "his" house as well, it's war.
Each heir wants the house. Yet to buy the other out, two siblings must team against one. Just as in girlhood, Corlis is torn between allying with the decent but fearful youngest and the iconoclastic eldest, who covets his legacy to destroy it. A Perfectly Good Family is a stunning examination of inheritance, literal and psychological: what we take from our parents, what we discard, and what we are stuck with, like it or not.
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July 02, 2007
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Excerpt from A Perfectly Good Family by Lionel Shriver
'Don't tell me,' said the taxi driver, rubber-necking at the formidable Victorian manor. 'Your mother's Norman Bates.'
'My mother's dead,' I said. Harsh, but the information was so fresh for me, only two weeks old, that I was still repeating it to myself.
'Don't you strain yourself, Missy.' He lunged from the front seat to take the luggage from me: two leather monsters and a bulging carry-on. I'd been overweight at Heathrow, and lucky that in November the plane was not too full.
'You want, I'll haul these to the porch--'
'Not at all,' I said. 'My brother likes to give me a hand. He always has.'
I pulled out a wad of dollars crumpled with flyers, unsure of the form for tipping taxis in North Carolina. An ostensible native, I clung to any ignorance about Raleigh as proof that I no longer belonged here. Skint most of my adult life, I reminded myself I would have more money soon and forced myself to hand over twenty per cent. The generosity didn't come naturally. McCreas are Scots-Presbyterian stock; I have stingy genes.
'But you're spot on about the house,' I nodded upwards. 'It does look like Psycho, all right. The neighbourhood children all think it's haunted.'
And wasn't it? Handing over the bills, I thumbed Alexander Hamilton; after five years of starchy London tenners, a dollar felt like pyjamas.
'Or The Addams Family, mehbe. Take care now, ma'am. Hope your brother's a muscly guy. Those cases is killers.'
'He's pretty powerful.' I frowned. Since I still envisaged Truman as a delicate, timid tag-along about two feet high, that he was a beefy man of thirty-one who lifted weights in his attic living room was disconcerting.
The cab ploughed down Blount Street, leaving me by chattel that would have been, until a fortnight before, all I owned. I turned to face what else I owned: a great, gaunt mansion built just after the Civil War.
There was no denying its magnificence. I had shown friends in London pictures of my family: my dark, glamorously beautiful mother in the days when she was genuinely happy instead of pretending to be; my father sporting his lopsided, hangdog grin as he accepted another award from the NAACP; my little brother Truman when he was photographed by the Raleigh Times throwing himself in front of a bulldozer; though I had no pictures, I discovered, of my older brother. None of these snaps made the slightest impression. Yet when I showed them a picture of my house, faces lit, hands clapped, eyebrows lifted. For the English, Heck-Andrews was everything a Southern residence was meant to be: remote, anachronistic, both inviting and forbidding at the same time. It fulfilled their tritest expectations, though I received complaints that there was no Spanish moss. That's in South Carolina, I'd explain. And then we would get on to why I didn't seem to have a Southern accent, and I'd be reassured that tell-tale traces had been eradicated.
Even in the last light of the day I could see the clapboard was flaking; so the failing manila paint was now my problem. It was apparent from the pavement that the ceilings of the first two floors were vaulting, all very exhilarating except they were murderously dear to heat, and the price of oil was now, I supposed, my problem as well. Yet paint and heat were only a third my responsibility--and this in itself would shortly become my biggest problem.
It was the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday which I only ever remembered in Raleigh-Durham, where gift shops were flogging pop-up pilgrim books; letting this exclusively American holiday nearly slip by unnoticed gave me a sense of accomplishment. I zipped up my jacket. No doubt the English didn't picture the South in winter, but North Carolina has one, albeit mild. In fact, I remembered dressing for school huddled by the floor vent, stuffing my bunched knee-highs by its breath to pre-warm my socks. My parents were McCreas, too, and their remedy to the heating problem was all too simple.