Jane Green is insane, and I don’t hate her for it. She’s written approximately one million novels, and I admire that kind of creative output. She also seems well meaning, and I bet she’d be fun to get margarita drunk with. Unfortunately, while I’m sure she’d be lots of fun and very polite, I can’t imagine her coming over to my tiny house in my tiny town, or sitting on my sofa from Goodwill. While I delight in my clever thriftiness, I don’t think Jane could handle it. No, Jane Green seems like she might be fancy, and that’s why I read her books the way some people devour Us Weekly. Pure rubbernecking.
If you are unfamiliar with Jane Green, she’s an English author who also sometimes lives in the United States. She also transplants her characters from one country into another country, and it’s very clear that her view of America is pretty shortsighted. Her circle of American influence seems to be the ladies who lunch subset. You know the type – women who are superbly intelligent and capable of running charity boards and fundraisers, but who can’t deal with the drudgery of a day job. Occasionally a character will have a “career.” I remember one book where a family decides they need to “simplify” their life in the end and so the wife decides that they need to move up to Vermont and run an apple orchard. Yes! So simple! Horticulture is so easy and rustically luxurious! I expected nothing less from Family Pictures.
Family pictures is a mystery in the sense that the cause of the sinking of the Titanic is a mystery. I mean, in the moment I’m sure the characters were like “WHAT’S GOING ON WHY ARE WE SINKING?!” But there was a pretty obvious iceberg hulking above them, and as a reader I was able to figure out the “mystery” of the dude with two families by the end of the first chapter. I think it also might have been hinted at on the back of the book? I don’t really remember. I read this months ago and only today remembered that I have a blog.
Sylvie is a wife and mother in California. We’re told she lives a modest life, driving modest cars and living in a modest house. A modest house which she has hand designed lovingly by herself, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to recreate the rustic simplicity of her ancestors’ French homes. Oh Jane, you love your over the top rustic simplicity, don’t you? I mean we’re talking SUPER modest here. Sylvie is so casual and free spirited that she doesn’t care about clothing or fashion. She just IS, with her perfect long black hair and her carefully cultivated Bohemian clothing. So California! Her daughter Eve is also a beautiful, nervous, perfectionist type. She’s preparing to go off to college, and has her heart set on going in New York. The only imperfection in their lives is that Sylvie’s husband and Eve’s stepdad Mark works so dang hard. Sylvie works hard too, being a “creative.” If Jane Green were younger and more hip she might call Sylvie a “maker.” That may be the most irritating label in recent years – aren’t we all makers? I made myself tea and oatmeal this morning, look at me!
Across the country, in some Eastern state (Connecticut? Delaware? I don’t remember and I don’t think it matters), Maggie raises her pack of kids in her fabulous McMansion with their fabulous cars. She wears fabulous designer clothing and handbags. This woman is a money faucet. She opens her eyes and millions of dollars pass through her hands and out the door, as she shops and hosts fancy lunches and does “charity work.” Maggie is a deeply insecure person. Apparently she grew up in a manner she thinks of as white trash, although I recognized her background as more “normal American.” To combat this, she’s relearned her regional accent and has completely made herself over, Pygmalion style. Because of this she was able to marry rich and begin her social climbing. She’s obviously not a happy person, but feels like she worked so hard for her power marriage that she’s stuck with it. She wishes her husband didn’t travel so much for work, but recognizes that he needs to work so crazily in order to sustain their lifestyle. Where could these story lines possibly be heading?
Obviously the Mark who is married to Sylvie is the same Mark who is married to Maggie. There are a number of paragraphs scattered throughout part one where Mark goes on and on about how identity theft ruined his life and credit, and how he can’t afford to take risks now that he’s an ultra successful business owner, so he doesn’t allow his families to have social media pages on the internet. Aside from the pages of sanctimonious preaching, this kind of rings true. I know a number of people of my parents’ generation who think anything computer related means instant credit card fraud. I’ve had my credit card info stolen a few times – each time it was immediately after using my credit card in a restaurant or gas station, leaving me to believe that good old fashioned analog credit card theft is much more profitable. No data trail, for one. Mark also goes on and on about how he doesn’t want his family ever setting foot on the east coast. So much crime! Alternatively, Maggie’s husband doesn’t want his family ever visiting California. All those earthquakes, wildfires, and mud slides! It’s totally fine for him to go their on business all the time, but it’s not safe for his wife and kids, who he must assume are utter idiots. Connecticut never gets terrible weather, amiright?
Obviously his kids on both coasts don’t listen and have Facebook, and of course Eve ends up becoming friends with these other kids through the chain of mutual friendships that is real life and internet life. This is the most real, relatable part of this book. Eve ends up going over to Mark’s other house to hang out with the kids there and discovers, through the family pictures in the house – hah!- that her stepdad has another family. CUE TEENAGE EATING DISORDER.
Part two of the book goes downhill pretty rapidly. Mark goes missing, and Eve goes into a hysterical hibernation. Credit cards are declined and bank accounts are emptied. Sylvia and Maggie eventually call each other and realize that Mark’s been living a double life. It’s revealed that Mark has been borrowing lots of money illegally, using his social connections to obtain loans he shouldn’t have. Sylvie is livid – his other family were driving around in Porsches while all they had were crappy SUVs?! Maggie is terrified – she’s going to have to get a job!
Don’t worry too much about Maggie and Sylvie, though. This is the feel good part of the book! I’m not sure what happened between parts one and two. Maybe Jane Green saw some after school specials, or maybe she’d watched one too many episodes of the Brady Bunch. Either way, we’re given two sub-plots: Eve develops an eating disorder, and Maggie’s daughter whose name I can’t remember becomes an alcoholic.
Sylvie and Maggie go through their own transformations. Sylvie uses her creative hipster talents to start making and selling scented candles. This reminds me so much of The Office, when Jan decides she’s going into the candle making industry and turns Michael’s spare room into her office. Somehow Sylvie actually ends up turning a profit doing this to the point where she’s a legit businesswoman and has to start wearing makeup and other doing magazine interviews. Maggie becomes a waitress and rents a carriage house from a wealthy couple. Back to her roots figuratively AND literally, as she goes back to her natural hair color. The horror! As her natural hair texture and color emerges, Maggie realizes that she knows what will make her really happy – hooking the son of the wealthy couple she rents from. REALLY. It’s totally different this time, though – she’s a strawberry blonde now, an indeterminate color Jane Green feels is white trash and which represents Maggie’s return to her true self. (Note to readers: I am a strawberry blonde, bite me Jane Green.)
Mark ends up in jail for fraud and now that he has literally nothing but time on his hands (har), he develops a pen pal relationship with the son he ignored all those years he was working away from home, building an empire based on fraud.
Shortly after, Eve recovers from the anorexia that has almost killed her (such a realistic picture of recovery!) and falls in love with her stepbrother. Sylvie and Maggie become the best of friends, and they all become one big, happy family.
Barf! As I type this, I just watched my cat Sprocket vomit all over my cat Jerome. He’s clearly not a fan of chick lit.
The most disturbing part of this book was the “oh, I don’t know how our cards keep getting declined, my husband handles the money” horsecrap that both Maggie and Sylvie fell prey to. “Mark insists he handle the accounts, he’s a business man so he knows way more than I do.” Or “Mark just puts money on the card for me to use, it’s so easy!” LADIES. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? Look at a bank statement from time to time. It’s illuminating. Get on Mint.com.
The second most crazy part was dialogue about how you need to fulfill your husband’s stripper fantasies or else he’s going to be justified in cheating on you. The characters tell us that the best way to do this is to skip the La Perla for a night and put on something really down market – Victoria’s Secret.
This is solid life advice, people. After reading this I think I’ll put aside my Agent Provocateur and head to Frederick’s. Wouldn’t want a man thinking I’m uppity or something. The horror! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go clean vomit off my cat.