Family Roundabout has quite an ensemble of characters—two matriarchs with 5 children apiece. Add the odds and ends that round out the lives of these 12 characters and there’s quite a bit that needs to be kept sorted and straightened. Thankfully, Miss Crompton’s distinct voice for each of her characters makes it easy to do so.
Let’s start with the two matriarchs who embody two completely opposite character types, two completely opposite approaches to parenting and are the heart of the novel.
Mrs. Fowler is a poetry loving, genteel woman whose air of quiet vagueness has been perfected into an effective weapon against the domineering personalities in her life: her husband (who died before the novel opens), her elder daughter Helen and the other matriarch of the novel, Mrs. Willoughby. Her hands-off approach to parenting involves letting her various progeny muddle through their lives and their mistakes on their own while acting as the one constant in their life that offers non-judgmental, sympathetic support.
Mrs. Willoughby’s hands are always occupied and she has a healthy distrust of books. She’s brisk, efficient and practical. Her realm of influence is vast and expansive, encompassing her children, grandchildren, and the poor relations that are never forgotten and always taken care of. She knows the best course of action in every situation and her children are never allowed to forget this fact.
These two women are then the center about whom the merry-go-round of the family revolves and the book becomes an exploration of the shadow that these two matriarchs and their approach to life and parenting casts over their children.
I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed the book. I did not find any of the characters particularly appealing or relatable: the tendency of all the progeny to suffer and feel trapped drove me bananas. Don’t get me wrong. I could see why each of the characters was doing what they were doing but that failure to connect with any of them emotionally did prevent me from enjoying the unfolding drama whole-heartedly.
And then the complete petulization (yes, I made up that word. It denotes the degeneration of a character into petulance and general weirdness, a process that leaves the reader in a slight daze) of Oliver (one of Mrs. Willoughby’s son) felt off-key. I did not understand how his life-long rebellion could take the form it did—that of dandified neuroticism. Or maybe that’s what a suppressed rebellion erupts into? Whatever be the reason it did not feel like the natural evolution of the character.
The “rebellion” by Mrs. Willoughby’s two elder daughters was also abrupt. That’s not to say that I did not feel like shouting out, “Finally!” but after the heavy hand that Miss Crompton had dealt her characters through the entire length of the book these little endings seemed an attempt to end the book on a slightly more cheerful note.
I’ve also been thinking about Mrs. Fowler’s dialogue at the end of the book:
It’s like a sort of a roundabout, isn’t it? You get one lot more or less settled, and then, before you know where you are, it’s all starting again with the next.
She is referring to the themes that played out in the two matriarchs’ children’s lives being played out in their grandchildren’s lives as well and it conjures an image of continuity and a grand design in my mind. And perhaps that’s what Miss Crompton is trying to say—that no matter what one does or doesn’t do as a parent those themes will get played out in the children’s lives.