I have read the 78th book for the book challenge. It was Relative Strangers by Allie Cresswell.
This is a book about what it means to be family. It is about an extended family, the McKay family. The extended McKay family has gathered at a country house to celebrate the anniversary of the patriarch and matriarch of the family, Robert and Mary McKay. Robert, the founder of McKay Haulage, has had a stroke and has been a burden on his wife, Mary. His daughter Belinda, who is a kind, nurturing woman, wants to get the entire family together to do something nice for her parents and to give her mother a bit of a break from caring for Robert. She has planned this week-long holiday at the country house as a way to do this. All her sisters and her brother are coming with their children to the country house and there is to be a celebration dinner on the Thursday night of the week. Belinda drives down early to prepare the house and the others follow.
Her husband, Elliot, who works for McKay Haulage, is an arrogant, pompous, belligerent man who drinks too much and fights with his son and belittles Belinda. His son Rob fights with his sister Ellie and has talked his father into bringing the computer, which he uses to play violent video games and emails his sister’s friend to try to get her to tell him a secret that his sister told her. He sneaks alcoholic drinks whenever he can, and makes himself as obnoxious as he can so he will be sent home. His sister Ellie is scared that her friend will reveal her secret and distrusts her brother. She looks forward to spending time with her cousins but is generally afraid of her brother and her father.
One sister Ruth, a school counselor, is coming with her husband James, a psychiatric nurse. He has a daughter Rachel from a previous marriage. They have a musically talented son, Ben. Ruth is a very cheap woman. Her children are dressed in thrift shop clothes. They have no nice things. Ruth also drinks too much. James takes care of her the way Belinda takes her of her family. Rachel wants to be friends with her girl cousins but feels she is on the outside looking in. Her aunts take her shopping with them them buy her some nice, new clothes and Rachel is very grateful. While at the country house, Rachel gets her period for the first time and it is quite a traumatic event. Ben has the opportunity to write a song with his uncle Bob and perform it for his relatives. James spends hours waiting on the family and caring for the fires.
Simon is the brother of the family. He ran away rather than join the family firm. He has a distant relationship with his father. His wife April died from cancer a couple of year’s ago. Ruth was very close to April and has yet to get over April’s death. He is now in a relationship with Miriam. She is a bit distant from the children and is not at all like April. Ruth does not like her. His children are Tansy, who is a great friend to Ellie and now to Rachel, and Todd and Toby. Todd looks up to Rob. Toby likes to play with Ben and the baby Starlight.
Heather is the baby of the family. She has the closest relationship with her father. She is married to Bob, a famous musician and now recording producer. They have recently acquired a baby girl, an eighteen-month old African girl named Starlight. She is not officially adopted. She has been acquired through “backdoor” means. Heather has not made arrangements to legalize her adoption and is fearful that someone will come and take Starlight away from her. She is also insecure in her mothering capabilities. She is rather a permissive parent. Heather and Bob employ a young man named Mitch who has a spotting history to work for them. He does whatever they need doing and is quite involved in the care of Starlight. Mitch is attracted to Ellie and does not like the way Rob treats his sister and decides to interfere.
The book details each day of the week long holiday, with some flash-back memories of the brother and sisters. We learn about the various activities in the country house of all the occupants. There are also different outings to villages and wilderness areas and pubs. As well as the extended family, more relatives show up. Elliot has invited Robert’s sister June and her husband Les. June worked at McKay Haulage and is quite an overbearing woman. She, in turn, has invited her mother from the nursing home, Granny McKay, who doesn’t really known where she is, who brings a man from the nursing home with her (and the nursing home does not realize that he has gone missing), and June also invites her daughter Sandra and her boyfriend. Belinda is livid about these invitees and decides, when the police are summoned to remove Granny McKay’s boyfriend and Sandra and her boyfriend are asked to leave for having loud sex, to ask Robert’s other sister Muriel to come down. June and Muriel do not get along, since June stole Les from Muriel when she got pregnant with Les’s baby. So the air is a little tense.
Things come to a head when Rachel slips and tells Rob Ellie’s secret after Rob gets Rachel drunk. Rachel is mortified and cannot face her cousins and hopes against hope that Rob will not tell the secret, or that he already knew it but wouldn’t use it. Then Mary summons the four children together for a conference. She is having increasing difficulty caring for Robert by herself and wants to talk to them about options. Rob and Todd have been drinking all afternoon and decide to drive the car. Elliot comes in from a day in the city and wants to be involved in the conference and, when it’s clear that he is not wanted, becomes ugly and drunk and leaves in a huff, taking June with him in the car.
And then tragedy strikes. Everything comes to a head on a fateful night. And nothing will ever be the same for the McKay family.
I really enjoyed this book. It explores the notion of who is really a part of a family. Those members of the McKay extended family who are not “real” McKays are aware that they are not one of the brother or sisters, yet they feel part of the family. Ruth desperately wants to be part of McKay Haulage, ever since she was a small girl, but her father only wanted his son to take over the family business. However his son Simon wanted nothing to do with the business. He had to run away. Elliot came in to take over the business. Rachel also wants very much to be part of the family. Mitch looks at the family as an outsider but is drawn into the family dynamic. You can’t help but get involved with the characters in the lovely book.