Reviewed by Rod McLary
Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina famously said ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’
The family in The Perfect Family – Thomas and Viv Adler and their children Eli and Tarryn – are one very unhappy family. Confirming Tolstoy’s observation, the Adlers’ unhappiness is peculiar to them: Thomas is immersed in guilt because of a ‘debauched bachelor weekend’; Viv is a kleptomaniac; Eli witnessed a college hazing and just stood by when it deteriorated into a serious sexual assault; and Tarryn’s interest is ‘camming’. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘camming’ or ‘webcamming’ is using a laptop camera to capture live action and then transmitting it over the internet. None of the family members knows of the others’ actions or non-actions. Secrets are rife in this family.
But whatever may be happening behind closed doors, Thomas has the curb appeal of the house to maintain. Each Sunday morning, he mows the front lawn, edges it with the weed-whacker, power-washes the front steps and the driveway, and then hoses off the front of the house. It is all show – anything beyond the front garden is left to its own devices. As Eli says, his ‘parents were snobs, and they had no right to be. They were fakes, posers’ . The importance of ‘image’ is critical to both parents – as Eli points out – and this contributes significantly to the situation the family is in.
Of the family members, it is probably Thomas who is the least likeable. His personal assistant Emma describes him as ‘shallow, and selfish, and greedy’  and, to twist the knife in the best mean girl way, she adds ‘No one in the office likes you, Thomas’ .
Then one weekend, the façade begins to crumble. Slowly, the author takes the reader through the threatened consequences. Compromising photographs of Thomas’ actions at this weekend of debauchery are messaged to him with threats of disclosure unless he pays a significant sum of money. The theft of one particular item by Viv leads to serious consequences for the person from whom it was stolen and now he is looking for revenge. Eli, estranged from his college friends, nevertheless catches sight of them from time to time as they silently appear to warn him not to disclose to anyone what happened. Tarryn receives messages from one of her ‘clients’ who seems to know where she lives and attends school, and what she wears. Fear of disclosure is rife in this family.
The scene is now set and in turn each member of the family tells the reader of their thoughts and actions as the consequences of the family’s secrets play out. This literary device – each family member having his/her ‘own’ chapters – allows for the disconnect between what the others think is happening and what is actually happening for the particular narrator to become even more apparent. It highlights how much is kept hidden by each of the family; and, for the reader, heightens the tension as s/he sees it all unfold.
The author creates an atmosphere of genuine fear in the family not only of the consequences but also of the escalating violence. But still, through all their individual responses to what is happening around them, there remains the subterfuge and obfuscation as they continue to refuse to be honest with each other.
Robyn Harding has crafted an excellent psychological thriller with disparate characters who are not necessarily likeable but still able to engender some empathy in the reader. It is possible even to care about Thomas who desperately tries to present an image of success but lacks the emotional intelligence to do so effectively. The sense of a family under siege, but one where the members are each facing their own demons, is brilliantly realised – there is genuine psychological insight into the dynamics of a fractured family.
This is a book well worth the reading and one which is difficult to put down.
Robyn Harding has written best sellers The Party and The Swap; and lives in Vancouver Canada.
The Perfect Family
by Robyn Harding
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 978 17608 5888 9