About The Book
When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.
Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.
A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…
I’ve had a hankering for a while for a scandi novel which isn’t crime. I do love a crime novel set in northern Europe, I am a huge fan and regularly read and recommend, but I was interested in what modern literature outside of the crime genre would be like. When A Modern Family by Helga Flatland crossed my path I thought that it may scratch the itch. I was hoping for a book with deep, complex issues, characters who I would become invested in and an immersive and compelling narrative and A Modern Family had all of this and more. I wasn’t prepared for the emotional sucker punch that this book would provide with its lyrical and beautiful prose, astute observations of family and sibling relationships and its profound understanding of loss and change.
The book opens with a Norwegian family arriving in Italy to celebrate the 70th Birthday of Sverre, the patriarch. He along with his wife, Torill and their adult children, Liv, Ellen and Håkon and families spend a few days in Rome taking in the sights and then spend the remainder of the holiday in a villa. It is at this villa on the evening of Sverre’s birthday that he and Torill announce that after 40 years of marriage they are getting divorced. This isn’t a decision they have made lightly but they have taken the marriage as far as it can go and are to separate.
The announcement is dropped into the smooth waters of this family’s life and causes ripples of grief and uncertainty. Liv, Ellen and Håkon have clearly defined roles within the family. Journalist Liv is the eldest, the responsible one and an expert at maintaining the status quo. She is married to Olav and they have two children, one of whom is a teen boy who emotionally is moving farther and farther away from her. Ellen, two years younger than Liv works with Norwegian politicians advising them to what to say and how to present themselves on TV and in interviews and is generally forthright within the family dynamics. The youngest is Håkon who was born almost a decade after Ellen and was ill as both a baby and child. Despite being thirty he is still babied and mollycoddled by the family. They each react differently to the divorce, but are all impacted by the decision, finding that the ties that bind them as a family are threatened.
Written from the perspective of Liv and Ellen we watch as the breakdown of their parent’s relationship seep into their own relationships. Liv’s marriage to Olav becomes strained as she struggles to deal with the emotional fallout. Her grief is palpable and she turns it inwards, holding it close, smoothing the jagged edges, trying not to let it hurt her too much. Building a wall around herself she closes herself off from her husband and siblings, expecting them to understand and to be feeling the same way as her and therefore to act the same way. For Ellen however, the divorce’s impact is taking second place to her grief of failing to get pregnant. A year of trying, miscarriages, IVF and a relationship which is buckling under the pressure builds to a crushing crescendo.
For me, Ellen’s chapters were the most emotionally affecting to read. Hers is a powerfully told story of a woman who
didn’t realise that I only ever revealed a few sides of myself to those around me, instead wandering around believing others thought me to be as vulnerable as I felt.
Her fragility and grief gradually chip away at her veneer. Her decision not to tell her family is isolating, she avoids Liv because “she does nothing but talk about her own children, reminding me of everything I don’t have” and as Liv descends further into sadness whilst Ellen becomes more desperate for support their relationship wavers.
This exploration of a normal family whose core is shaken is brilliantly examined. There are moments of quiet observation that took my breath away, Sverre knocking on walls in Ellen’s new flat to make sure it was sturdy enough, memories of Liv and Ellen’s teen years and disagreements, Liv’s belief growing up that Ellen was more beautiful than she and teenage Ellen’s desire to be just like her big sister are all recognisable. It’s just gorgeous. Completely measured, wholly realistic and quite honestly some of the most powerful words I’ve read about families and the relationships within them.
The complex relationship between siblings, between a mother and her daughters and the relationship of a father with his offspring is explored. The divorce is a quietly devastating event that isn’t full of histrionics and mud slinging. Its impact is felt in the moments when Sverre has moved out of the family home and his slippers are no longer in their normal place, his toothbrush is missing from the bathroom and the grown adults realise that the family home is no longer.
This is a book of quiet power which is beautifully executed. I could wax lyrical about A Modern Family and it is a contender for one of my books of the year. It is a beautiful and rare thing to finish a book and find myself moved like I was with A Modern Family. Excellent.
About The Author
Helga Flatland is already one of Norway’s most awarded and widely read authors. Born in Telemark, Norway, in 1984, she made her literary debut in 2010 with the novel Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, for which she was awarded the Tarjei Vesaas’ First Book Prize.
She has written four novels and a children’s book and has won several other literary awards. Her fifth novel, A Modern Family, was published to wide acclaim in Norway in August 2017, and was a number-one bestseller.
The rights have subsequently been sold across Europe and the novel has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Where You Can Buy It
My thanks to Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for a copy of the book and an invitation to join the Blog Tour.