FAMILY LIFE portrays a seemingly ordinary domestic drama. Anthropologist Philip Sloan has left his wife Estella for another woman. Philip, however, is unwilling truly to separate himself from his family, so he and his new lover Jane rent a house on the other side of Nantucket to be near Estella and the three Sloan children, Libby, Chrissy, and Jasper.
Estella is both hurt and furious by Philip’s betrayal of their marriage. The children, too, respond to their pain in often contradictory ways. Libby denies that she needs or wants any kind of love. Chrissy staunchly supports her mother but is unwillingly drawn to visit her father. Jasper, only seven, cannot understand why life as he has known it is so suddenly and irrevocably ending.
The outline of the plot, however, cannot convey the richness and texture of Robertson’s writing. Telling the story from the various protagonists’ points of view, she has managed to create six very real human beings, each one with his virtues and flaws. The ambivalence of their emotional responses is unexpectedly honest in situations in which most authors would opt for a cliche.
Robertson is able to draw on the natural surroundings of Nantucket as a counterpoint to the Sloans’ tragedy -- the fog, the ocean, the beach, and, finally, a hurricane come to represent the Sloans’ last summer together. The author also skillfully interweaves into the story the family’s memories of a three-year field trip to Africa and several of Chrissy’s short essays on animal behavior. All these elements combine to become a seamless tapestry of family love and joy as well as family dissolution. FAMILY LIFE is a pleasure to read--literate, intelligent, and honest.