I have finished the 59th book for the book challenge. It was Behind The Scenes At The Museum by Kate Atkinson.
This is the story of Ruby Lenox. It is told in Ruby’s words. The story begins, of course, with the moment of Ruby’s conception. The first chapter relates the events in the life of Ruby’s mother while Ruby is a fetus in utero and Bunty, her mother, is carrying her. We see Bunty and Gillian, Ruby’s sister at the Museum park, where Gillian is riding her tricycle and then Bunty is shopping and flirting with the butcher. Next we are present for Ruby’s birth in the York hospital.
In later chapters, we find Ruby as a small child with her extended family and friends watching their television, engrossed in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Her older sister Patricia has a book that outlines many facts about the coronation and she regales the family and friends with these facts about the process. Ruby also remembers a time when she was about four when she went to stay with relatives. All alone. They went to the aunt’s spiritualist church. The pastor told her that her sister had a message for her, that she was well. Ruby doesn’t understand.
Ruby and Gillian attend school together. They squabble the way sisters tend to squabble. They share a bed and a room. Ruby doesn’t much care for Gillian. Gillian doesn’t much care for Ruby. Ruby feels Gillian is her mother’s favorite.
Then, there is a holiday to the seaside. Bunty has disappeared somehow and George, Ruby’s father, manages to come up with a “substitute mum” to care for the girls plus a cousin for the week while he tends to the Pet Shop the family owns. The girls have a splendid time with this substitute mum and on the weekend, so does George. They must promise not to speak of her to Bunty, however, if Bunty ever materializes, and indeed, Bunty is waiting for them all at home when they return. All the girls keep silent about the substitute mum.
Then tragedy strikes on Christmas Eve. The family has gone to a Christmas pantomime. On the way home, Gillian is struck by a car an killed. Patricia and Ruby are sent to relatives to stay. Bunty and George are in deep mourning. Bunty goes into a depression. Ruby feels it is somehow her fault for having unkind feelings about Gillian. But now she has the bed and the room to herself. Grandmother Nelly moves in with the family. They still live Above the Shop. Ruby begins to help out in the Pet Shop. Patricia attends Queen Anne School. She begins to be interested in boys.
Then another tragedy occurs. Bunty leaves an iron unattended and there is a fire and the entire Pet Shop and Above the Shop is destroyed. All the pets are dead except for the dog Raggs. The family adopts Raggs and moves to a semi-detached house in York. The Shop is renovated and George decides to sell medical equipment. Eventually Ruby is old enough to attend Queen Anne’s with Patricia. Ruby does well in school except in maths. Her best subject is English.
The Lenox family goes on vacation to Scotland. Bunty is having an affair with the husband of the other family they are on vacation with. The entire vacation is a disaster. Patricia is sick the entire time. George realizes that Bunty and the man are carrying on and he blows up and finally leaves with his family. The other family moves away. Patricia finds herself pregnant. She has to go to a home for unwed mothers where she gives the baby up for adoption. Patricia returns home but eventually leaves and does not say where she is going. No one hears from her for many years.
Ruby and her family go to a cousin’s wedding. Ruby is a bridesmaid. All the family is there. George is looking rather odd. Suddenly he looks quite red, then pale, and then collapses. He has had a heart attack and suddenly dies. He is cremated. Bunty is not depressed. She takes over running the medical supply shop. Ruby makes plans to go to university.
Ruby has flashbacks of a twin. She also hears rumors of a twin. She asks her mother about this and finds that it is true. She had a twin sister Pearl who died when she was four. This was when she was sent to stay with the aunt. The sister fell through the ice on the river. Gillian said that Ruby pushed her, but Patricia said that Pearl just walked onto the ice. Bunty said that she didn’t think that it was important that Ruby remember it.
Ruby and her best friend Kathleen plan to go to Edinburg to work for the summer. They will be working at a hotel. Kathleen will be returning to get married and Ruby will be going to university. But things change. Their history teacher didn’t teach them enough history and they both failed their history A-levels. Ruby can’t go to university. Kathleen has become involved with a boy at the hotel. Her fiancé comes to Edinburg to get her. Ruby becomes involved with an Italian boy in Edinburg and marries him. They open a fish and chips shop in Edinburg and have two daughters. They eventually divorce.
One day, Ruby gets a call from Patricia. She is in Australia. She is married to a dentist and has two children. She wants Ruby and Bunty to come to visit her. The two women go to Australia to visit Patricia in Melbourne. She has become a Buddhist and is very happy.
Fast forward a few years. Ruby has come down to York to sort out things for her mother who has dementia. She is with her cousin Adrian and his partner Brian looking for nursing homes for Bunty. They find a nice one, but it can only keep her if she is health. The night after they leave her there, Bunty has a stroke. She hangs on for a day or two, then dies. Patricia comes for the funeral. Ruby and Adrian pack up the house and Ruby saves some of her grandmother and great-grandmother’s things, as she has become interested in genealogy and her family history. She returns to Edinburg where she is translating manuals into Italian, which she learned when she was married.
Each chapter also contains a footnote, which is a part of Ruby’s family history. The footnotes go back to Ruby’s great-grandmother Alice, who some say died and some say disappeared. We learn that she actually ran away with a French photographer after he took photographs of her and her children, which Ruby now has. We learn about her grandmother Nelly and her two engagements to men who were both killed in the Great War and how she eventually wed someone else, but never loved him the way she loved those other men. We learn about her sister Lillian who had a child by one of those men that Nelly was engaged to, how she moved to Canada, and what happened to her children, how one of them was lost in World War II. We learn about Bunty’s childhood in York and her young adulthood. These footnotes are all the basis of Ruby’s genealogy and her family history.
This novel was a very interesting, unique one. I really enjoyed the perspective of Ruby, from the moment of her conception through each moment of her life. The footnotes don’t follow chronologically which can be a bit confusing. You have to remember who all the names of the older relatives are and there are quite a lot of there, as well as the fiancés. This makes it a little difficult to follow at times. But all in all, I liked this novel. Atkinson is a brilliant writer.