Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995)

by Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum might have been a depressing book if it weren't for the ebullient voice of Ruby Lennox, who narrates her own experience as well as the history of three generations of her female ancestors.

Ruby's parents own a pet shop in York, England, and live with their daughters above the shop. Bunty, Ruby's mother, is bitterly disappointed with her philandering husband and dull life.  Oldest daughter Patricia is melancholy as a child and rebellious as a teenager, and middle daughter Gillian is contrary and selfish. Ruby, the youngest, who has to struggle to be noticed, observes their dysfunctional interactions with dark humor and keen perception.

Besides recounting her own life from conception in 1951 to age 41, Ruby is also the omniscient narrator of the "footnotes" that follow each chapter. These go back a century and chronicle events surrounding Bunty; her mother, Nell; and her maternal grandmother, Alice. Constrained by expectations, circumstances, and the effects of two world wars, the women marry unhappily. The family suffers the disappearance of some of its members and more than the usual number of tragedies.

Drifting beneath the family chaos is Ruby's sense that she's forgetting something. She finally penetrates to the truth of a long-buried devastating event for which she was wrongly blamed. At the end of Bunty's life, Ruby, the long-lost Patricia, and their mother come together, manifesting the ties that bind families even if, as Ruby says, "it's not what I would call love."

Readers are advised to have a pencil and paper nearby to keep track of the family tree in this first novel by Kate Atkinson, which won England's Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1995.


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