I was lucky enough to win a copy of Keeping it in the Family by Sinéad Moriarty when Penguin Australia ran a Twitter contest (@PenguinBooksAus) to win a book from its new release catalogue. I was intrigued by the blurb, which sounded a bit like an Irish version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Being from a relatively large extended family of immigrants, I’m well acquainted with the insularity and cultural protectiveness that can be stifling and frustrating for immigrant children.
Keeping it in the Family isn’t exactly a romance novel, but the romance sets up the premise of the story, and what romance there is is rather sweet. The story begins with relationship columnist Niamh (pronounced NEEV) O’Flaherty falling in love. Pierre Alcee is gorgeous, intellectual and quite a bit older than Niamh, but their differences seem trivial when they’re together.
Their actual relationship takes up relatively few pages in the novel, and their dialogue has an almost staccato rhythm in its sparseness, but Moriarty does a good job of conveying their connection and the sense of fun that’s part of their attraction. It’s a heady, almost unbelievably quick courtship—within a month Pierre asks her to move in with him, and within 6 months they’re engaged.
Nevertheless, you get a sense that these two people are right together, that they’re good for each other, and that they balance each other out. This is essential in setting up the rest of the story, which deals with Niamh’s family, because when it comes to telling them about Pierre, it becomes a little more … complicated.
Growing up in a migrant family
In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Niamh grew up in a tightly knit Irish community in London. Her father, in particular, was dead set on raising his children in the Irish tradition and was determined to keep them away from the evils of modern London society. Niamh, who just wanted to be a “normal” teenager, was constantly at loggerheads with her parents. When they insisted that she learn Irish dancing, Niamh manages to sneak in tap lessons behind their backs. Getting permission to go to discos required complex negotiations, and even then Niamh had to execute outfit changes once out of sight of her family.
Siobhan, the eldest O’Flaherty child, was always the standard against which Niamh and her younger brother, Finn, were measured. That is, until Siobhan fell pregnant at 17. With her sister dropping out of school to look after her baby, Niamh now bore the burden of living up to her parents’ expectations for their children. She’s the first O’Flaherty to finish university, and when she decided to go back to Dublin to work she knew that nothing could have made her father prouder.
It’s ironic, therefore, that Niamh’s fallen in love with a man who’s not only not Irish but part French, and, even worse, black. He’s 14 years older, he’s not Catholic, and he’s been offered a job in Canada, which means they won’t even be living in Ireland. Pierre is an only child, his parents are on the snobby side, and his mother loved his ex-girlfriend. Introducing her future husband to Niamh’s family is going to be a big problem.
The race issue
I’m not sure how palatable the premise of the story would be to some readers because Moriarty doesn’t mince words when she shows the O’Flaherty family’s reaction to the news that Pierre is black. But in fairness, Moriarty also lays a very good foundation for showing us the kind of insular community that would see Pierre’s skin colour as a problem, without alienating us as readers.
The flashbacks to Niamh’s childhood convey the kinds of tension that any immigrant child whose parents retained a sort of glorified ideal of what it was like “back home” would understand. Moriarty show us how Niamh’s parents try to hold on to those ideals through their children, and the consequences for the family when the kids inevitably fall short of expectations.
And so even though the notion that the O’Flahertys won’t be able to accept Pierre because of his colour is deplorable, it also makes sense. Take, for example, Siobhan’s reaction when she first learns of it:
‘I’m sorry, Niamh, but I don’t approve. I think you’re mad. Everyone’s going to be shocked. No one in the family will support this and Mum and Dad will never accept it, so you’ll just have to break it off, find a guy your own age and make sure he’s white.’
‘Don’t approve? Who the hell do you think you are? Do you have any idea how racist you’re being?’
‘I’m not being racist, I’m being realistic. It won’t work.’
‘It will work because I’ve met the perfect person for me…and I’m going to marry him, regardless of what anyone else thinks…. I stupidly thought you’d congratulate me and be thrilled that I’d met a great guy, instead of telling me to dump him.’
‘I’m being honest. You’re living in Fantasy Land if you think this wedding is ever going to happen… The truth is that everyone’s going to freak out. You have to be prepared for that.’
It helps that Pierre is almost unerringly patient and charming and able to shrug off most of the well-meaning though often tactless comments he endures at the hands of Niamh’s family. It also helps that by the time Niamh introduces Pierre to her family we’re totally sold on her relationship with Pierre, and it’s clear that she’s not asking her family for permission to marry Pierre, just their blessing.
Moriarty provides a counterpoint in Niamh’s relationship with Pierre’s parents, which is equally awkward though in a more restrained way. They don’t have a problem with Niamh’s skin colour, but Niamh feels intimidated by their intellectual conversations, Pierre’s mother’s elegance, and her expectations of Niamh’s duties as a wife.
Definitely not bittersweet
It’s unfortunate that the cover of the book calls this a “bittersweet new novel”. There’s nothing bitter about this book at all, and there are plenty of sweet moments. I think this was a branding mistake. If you were expecting bittersweet, you’ll be bitterly disappointed, and if you’re looking for a happy ending, you’d probably give this book a pass based on that description.
In fact, the story does end happily (oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler—this is a blog about romance books!), and it seems pretty clear from the beginning that the story is leading towards that.
Yay or nay?
Keeping it in the Family is warm, funny and enjoyable read. If, like me, you grew up in a large immigrant family, then you’ll have no trouble relating to the characters. And if you’re marrying into such a family, this book may give you some insight into what makes your in-laws tick. The romance in the story is essential to but not the focus of the story, but there was enough there for me to enjoy.
Where you can buy this book
This book is published in the USA under the title Whose Life Is It Anyway? We’ve tried to link to the UK version where possible, but some of the bookstores listed below stock the US version with the alternate title.