Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk. It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.
Today I’m revisiting a book I reviewed in December last year – The Biographies of Ordinary People, Volume 1 by Nicole Dieker. Published in May 2017, The Biographies of Ordinary People is a two volume series about the fictional Gruber family that’s been described as a millennial era Little Women. It covers the period from July 1989 to November 2016, with volume one focusing on the years 1989 to 2000.
I’m delighted to say that the second volume, covering the years 2004 to 2016, is due to be published on 22nd May 2018. The Biographies of Ordinary People, Volume 2 is available for pre-order from Amazon. Watch out for my review of volume two next week.
About the Book
The Biographies of Ordinary People is the story of the Gruber family: Rosemary and Jack, and their daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. The two-volume series begins in July 1989, on Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday; it ends in November 2016, on Meredith’s thirty-fifth birthday. When the Grubers move to a small Midwestern town so Jack can teach music at a local college, each family member has an idea of who they might become. Jack wants to foster intellectual curiosity in his students. Rosemary wants to be “the most important person in her own life for the length of an afternoon.” Meredith wants to model herself after the girls she’s read about in books: Betsy Ray, Pauline Fossil, Jo March. Natalie wants to figure out how she’s different from her sisters—and Jackie, the youngest, wants to sing. Set against the past thirty years of social and cultural changes, this story of family, friendship, and artistic ambition takes us into intimately familiar experiences: putting on a play, falling out with a best friend, getting dial-up internet for the first time. Drinking sparkling wine out of a paper cup on December 31, 1999 and wondering what will happen next.
Format: ebook (435 pp.) Publisher:
Published: 23rd May 2017 Genre: Literary Fiction
In her guest post published on my blog in July 2017 (click here to read it), Nicole talked about her inspiration for The Biographies of Ordinary People and her reason for focussing on the lives of just one family. She illustrated this with a quote from volume two in which Meredith asks:
“There are all these biographies of famous people and how they lived their lives, but most of us aren’t going to be famous. It’s like we’ve gotten these models for life that aren’t applicable…We’ve learned about all of these well-known artists and how they did their work, but we don’t ever study how the rest of us do it. Where are the biographies of ordinary people?”
The Biographies of Ordinary People has been described as, ‘a millennial-era Little Women’ but don’t think that this means it is at all sentimental, preachy or twee (not that I’m suggesting Little Women deserves those descriptions either). I saw a one-star review that said (summarising) “not much happens” and feel that the reviewer missed the point of the book really. Yes, there are no dramatic events like murders, violent deaths, family break-ups, etc. but then those things are not a feature of normal family life for most of us, unless you’re really unlucky.
Things do happen in The Biographies of Ordinary People but they’re the things that make up everyday domestic life and reflect the experience of most of us growing up: making up games for entertainment on car journeys, starting school, making new friends, moving to a new town, going to the swimming pool, visiting the video store, attending your first prom. In the case of the Gruber girls, their experiences also reflect the period covered by the book so it’s videos not DVDs or streaming, video games not apps on your phone. There are also the sad events that unfortunately occur in any family over time.
Meredith is the character that resonated most strongly with me. She’s clever, thoughtful, bookish, protective towards her younger sister, competitive but perhaps over-absorbed by the desire to get things right and, in this respect, can come across as mature beyond her years. At one point she muses, “I wonder if I am good at anything that I haven’t practiced”. Meredith seems absolutely real as a character with the good points and flaws that make up all humans and I think this is the author’s chief accomplishment that in this book she has created truly realistic characters that you feel you could meet in the street or the local shop.
I found the Gruber parents – Rosemary and Jack – really interesting although not altogether likeable. They seem so careful and controlled in their parenting and in bringing up their girls so that this carefulness becomes ingrained in Meredith, in particular. In fact, at the town’s annual Easter Egg Hunt, Rosemary does seem to recognise this.
‘Rosemary often didn’t know how to feel about her daughter; certainly there was a sense of pride and love and accomplishment in the idea that she had raised a child who would hold back, whose sharp, smart eyes would case the room for eggs and then help her younger sisters find them. But she also felt a little sad, watching this, because she saw her daughter growing up and doing exactly what she and Jack had taught her, think before you speak and before you act – and she worried that Meredith thought too much.’
I really liked the contrast made with the arrangements in the household of Meredith’s best friend, Alex.
‘[Meredith] had never known anyone like Alex, who walked down the sidewalks saying hello to everyone, who climbed up on a library stepstool without asking, who ran towards her father every evening shouting “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” Mike MacAllister was big and red-headed and he would lift Alex off the ground or tousle her tangled hair. When Meredith went back to her own home she said “Hello” and whichever parent was in the living room said “Hello” and asked how her visit had been…’
‘That was one of the reasons Meredith and Alex were best friends. They talked, in Alex’s bedroom, about the Gruber way and the MacAllister way.’
I received a review copy courtesy of the author in return for an honest and unbiased review. I really enjoyed the first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People and I’m looking forward to reading the second volume covering the years 2004 to 2016 and seeing what life has in store for Meredith, her siblings and friends.
In three words: Intimate, realistic, engaging
About the Author
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, a senior editor at The Billfold, and a columnist at The Write Life. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, Scratch, SparkLife, The Freelancer, The Toast, and numerous other publications. The Biographies of Ordinary People is her debut novel, if you don’t count the speculative fiction epic she wrote when she was in high school.
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