A Tale of Two Families

By Dodie Smith

353 ratings - 3.48* vote

May and June are devoted sisters, married to the devoted Clare brothers. After 25 years of their marriages, the four still enjoy each other's company. May's husband, George, is a highly successful businessman; June's Robert is a far from successful writer. May and George are ever generous, and when they move from their London flat to a country house they persuade June and May and June are devoted sisters, married to the devoted Clare brothers. After 25 years of their

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Book details

Hardcover, 240 pages
1970 by Heinemann
Original Title
A Tale of Two Families
ISBN
0434713546 (ISBN13: 9780434713547)

Community Reviews

Mary Durrant

What a lovely novel.
Wonderful characters and descriptions of the countryside.
Suspecting her husband George, of dalliances in the city, May decides it is high time the family moved to a beautiful house in the country. She even manages to convince her sister, June, to move into a cosy cottage in the grounds.

In their idyllic new homes set in a lilac grove, both sisters are free to enjoy copious amounts of food and a slower pace of life.And as for George, the only woman in sight is now his sister-in-law, June.
What could possibly go wrong?

A lovely story.
I loved the dog Penny. Three generations get together at the weekends and it may not end as one suspects!

So glad it's been re printed.

Kirsty

I have enjoyed everything which I have read of Dodie Smith's to date, and was incredibly pleased when I spotted a copy of her novel, A Tale of Two Families, on the shelf of a local charity shop for just £2.  This is a book which I have struggled to get my hands on for an age, and I began to read it almost immediately.

A Tale of Two Families, which was first published in 1970, seems relatively under the radar.  However, the praise which it has received since its 2015 reissue by Hesperus Press has been glowing.  J.K. Rowling comments that the novel 'has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met', for instance, and Entertainment Weekly writes: 'Dreamy and funny...  an odd, shimmering timelessness clings to its pages.'

Our protagonists are many; really, the entire Clare family.  May suspects her husband, George, of conducting an affair in London, and 'decides it is high time the family moved... [to] the country' - specifically to a large property called the Dower House in Surrey.  Her sister, June, moves with them, along with her husband, Robert - who is incidentally George's brother - and they occupy a cottage on the grounds of the chosen property.  'What could possibly go wrong?' asks Dodie Smith.  Well, in answer... rather a lot.  The novel is consequently described in its blurb as 'a classic tale of complicated family ties, friendship and forbidden love in the beautiful English countryside.'

Smith follows each of the characters in turn throughout the novel.  As well as the two married couples and their relatively grown-up children - siblings Corinna and Dickon, and Hugh and Prudence - we are also introduced to Baggy, George and Robert's retired father, and a rather formidable great aunt.  Despite also being related, Corinna and Hugh are fully expecting to marry one another.

It is clear that there are quite a few differences between both distinct family groups.  May and George are incredibly well off; June and Robert not so much so.  Of Corinna and Hugh, for example, Smith clarifies the following: 'It was one of those occasions when she [Corinna] was reminded of how much more luxurious her upbringing had been than his had.  As children they had called their respective families the Clares and the Poor Clares - but had had the tact to keep this from their parents.'

I was surprised that there is so little description included of the house, placed within its own lilac grove, since it is the location in which almost the entire novel is set.  The descriptive writing which Smith has crafted, however, which is often part of reminiscences, is nice enough: 'Whenever June looked back on their early days in the country she remembered sunshine, vividly green grass, budding trees, wonderful meals and much laughter - even when things went wrong, they went wrong amusingly.  All this, in retrospect, was jumbled together in a vague blur of happiness; she found she could not recall very many actual days, they merged into one another.'

I love familial sagas as a genre, and largely appreciated this tale of a rather unconventional family beneath a very conventional facade.  As one might expect, A Tale of Two Families is filled with a wealth of domestic details, and the quite complex relationships which so often exist within the family.  There is not a great deal which occurs in terms of plot; rather, Smith is interested in her characters, both individually and with regard to the wider group structure.

I read elsewhere that this novel is set during the late 1960s; however, there is very little to ground it within this time period, and it feels quite old-fashioned overall.  Some of the conversations between characters reveal little, and serve merely to saturate the text; they do feel a little unnecessary on the whole.

Whilst A Tale of Two Families is certainly readable, at no point did I feel as pulled in and absorbed as I have done with all of Smith's other books.  It is a nice, gentle read, but it is not quite as transporting as I expected.  I found some of the characters more interesting, and ultimately more believable, than I did others; the younger characters were largely quite forgettable, and used rather clunky language at times.  Whilst I would never discourage anyone from picking up this book, I feel that novels like The New Moon with the Old, and Smith's most well known classic, I Capture the Castle, are far better executed, and more memorable.

Rhonea Williams-Dillard

The only reason I didn't give this book five stars is because I thought it was slow until the climacticic, brutally honest, eccentric character Mildred entered: "Good God, it's Mildew!" I completely get that this is one of those books where character is plot, but I didn't think all the characters were sufficient enough to drive the story and keep the reader from feeling as if they were gritting their teeth and ploughing through in spots - as opposed to I Capture the Castle where none of the characters were disposable or forgettable and the book was hard to put down.

This book was written after the success of I Capture the Castle and it seems the author is settled, content and enjoying a comfortable life of food and shopping with her new American husband (the British author married an American and moved to the U.S.). I mention this only because this lifestyle of the author's seems to inform the book. At first reading about asparagus, strawberries, champagne, tea, fireplaces, interior decorating and lilac groves is comforting and pleasurable as it evokes the senses. Smith's intimate voice and ability to capture human experiences, emotions, perspectives, frailties, strengths, idiosyncracies and thoughts with razor sharp accuracy, humor and wit make this story readable and her voice really salvages it, but I can see why it hasn't been re-issued or isn't the best-seller I Capture the Catle and 101 Dalmatians was. I also get it that this non-descript, sanguine lifestyle choice played out in the book actually describes one of the sisters and underlines why she has a problematic marriage but it's still not interesting to read for over half the book with little conflict. One got the feeling something would happen eventually (the calm before the storm) but this something was delayed for many chapters.

Also the omniscent view is a little distracting and unecessary, at one point she even tells the story from a dalmatian's point of view, albeit breifly. Now that actually was an interesting choice and gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into the work she is best known for. But other than that I generally thought the book should have been told from two or three characters point of view, maybe one.

The two sisters are interesting enough to drive the story and so is one of the husbands, two of the grown children are as well - the "very good" son and the actress daughter - but the other two children were barely worth mentioning.

The grandfather and chic grandmother are pivotal to the story and it's nice to see a writer who has enough reverence for elders to think to tell a story from their unique point of view.

Generally, I enjoyed this book and have been greedily delving for any books other than 101 Dalamtians, Starlight Barking and I Capture the Castle to read by Smith; I love this author's voice, tone and wit. But the books are either hard to find or expensive. I found The Girl in the Candle-lit Bath priced at $100 because it isn't a re-issue!

The only other criticism I'd give the book is that it seems lacking in visceral expression in a few areas. In other words, it's too polite. Almost as if the book were written in the Victorian era or the Regency era when in fact it was written in the 70's! Women wore skirts so short you could see . . . everything, men grew long hair, people were doing acid and America and Britian were going through great social and political change. Through the characters, much of this modernism is mentioned with disdain. The only thing really modern about these characters is that most of them are agnostic, which I believe Dodie Smith to be because her main character, Cassandra, grapples with similar religious ambiguities in I Capture the Castle. I mean, there's not even so much as a long, passionate kiss in this book. The few profane words in the book are the same words one would find in the bible, so I barely count them as profane. It's very PG.

In the end, I find the clean style refreshing, just oddly out of place.

Still I would definitely recommend this book. It's hard to find books this well-written.

Donna LaValley

In “A Tale of Two Families” I think Dodie Smith achieved her goal, if she had it, of writing a book about adults, for adults, even though she couldn’t resist bringing a Dalmatian puppy into it. (perhaps she did that for irony!)

Two brothers have married two sisters, and how happy are these happy families! They live with their adult children and some of the parents in London. Then they lease a country Dower House with a cottage (think 4 small bedrooms) within train-commute distance to London, and move there. May and June, the 2 sisters, are both beautiful but May is the efficient, do-everything one. Her husband, George, is the wealthy one. They invite Robert and June to live in the cottage…

Baggy, who is the father of George and Robert, comes too. Hugh and Corrine, the daughter of one couple and the son of the other, are cousins (twice over) who are chastely in love and expect to marry, despite the incest. Although the parents are fearful of deformed grandchildren, they approve of the happiness of the two. The other 2 children, also a boy and girl, are best friends, and who knows? This is a loving, inseparable family.

Fran, June and May’s mother, is a wonderful, independent woman everyone loves. She is the mother-grandmother everyone wants, and she comes for an extended visit. The lilac grove blossoms, a nightingale sings, flowers bloom, good help is hired, and the gloomy rooms begin to resound with familial love and affection -Plus the puppy! They even make friends with Sarah, the single young woman who lives a solitary life in the Hall (main house of the estate) who is caring for her ailing old grandfather.

Not much is happening plot-wise, but the reader is enchanted by the whole of the surroundings: estate, village, woods, garden, grove, park, and houses. Any conflict is from the differences in thought and position of the characters. For example, June has always had a “crush” on charming, dynamic George although she loves her husband Robert. Everyone knows that George has an affair once in awhile because he’s so irresistible. No one makes a big deal out of it, for May’s sake – that lovely, busy, wonderful woman. Besides, it’s George’s money that makes every nice thing possible. Baggy worries about being a burden, etc.

Now, Aunt Mildred, Fran’s sister, visits. She is a vain, spoiled, narcissistic, never-married, repressed woman who, in her mind, sees the world as she wants to imagine it, with herself as ingénue and wise-woman. She has a knack for comments that seem nice but hurt, or imply intrigue where there was none. She is a trouble-maker. She lets the puppy out into the rain and genteel hell ensues.

Each character, even Mildred (they call her Mildew), is further revealed with inner monologue, and this time it works. It isn’t overdone and it becomes the engine that moves the story forward. Somehow, issues and conflicts are resolved, even if half the characters were unaware of them. Lives are changed for the better without unseemly upset. It reminded me a little of Barbara Pym’s many books (“An Excellent Woman”) where nothing happens: there seems to be no plot, no action, yet a story is told through the thoughts of characters as they go about their ordinary days. The days are not ordinary here, because Dodie Smith is such a colorful writer and her characters are rounded out so well.

I recommend this book for a pleasant, idyllic read – almost like a vacation.

Beth Bonini

When you really love a book I think it can go one of two ways: either you want to read everything that author has ever written, or you sense that no other book will measure up, which makes you totally shy away from reading the rest of the author's work. Dodie Smith's great classic I Capture the Castle is one of my favourite comfort reads - a book that I have read many times in my life. The setting, the characters and especially the narrative voice have so much charm for me, and that charm has never diminished.

With some trepidation I finally read another DS book, and perhaps I've been unfairly harsh in the rating - but honestly, it just doesn't measure up. Two sisters (May and June) married to two brothers (Robert and George) and there isn't a decent characterisation between the four of them. The younger generation is even duller. The only bright spot in the novel, for me, is the portrayal of the grandparents - grandfather "Baggy," the youthful grandmother Fran and the mad-as-a-hatter great-aunt Mildred.

George is a charming bounder - ie, he has lots of affairs - so May has insisted on a move to the country. Her next bright idea is to have her sister move next door. It's a family that is entirely too incestuous (Hugh and Corinna, ick), and before long George fancies himself in love with sister-in-law June.

Actually, not much at all happens in this book. I have a lot of tolerance for gentle country house dramas, but this book just bored me. It's meant to be set in the late 1960s, but except for a reference to miniskirts, it feels much more like the 1950s. There are a few moments when something is gracefully or insightfully described - usually to do with Fran - but mostly this is bland stuff. If you want nostalgic nursery food, you might find this a comforting custard of a book.

Stephanie

This quirky story is rife with beautiful descriptions of the English countryside in summer...I can only bear to read it in early spring, when I know the warm weather and burgeoning flowers are right around the corner.

Once again, Dodie Smith creates interesting, well-rounded characters who are torn between morality and passion. She always manages to capture the early stages of love with humor and sympathy. Make no mistake, however. A Tale of Two Families isn't a fluffy romance. It's a thoughtful exploration of how love can have terrible consequences for innocent bystanders who happen to stray into its path.

This book also includes a horrible elderly, spinster aunt called Mildred that the family naturally rechristens Mildew. If you have an older female relative who manages to ruin every family gathering, you'll get an extra kick out of this book. I love how vicious Dodie is to this wretched old tabby!

Karen

I cringed when I read the blurb on the jacket flap, "a thoroughly engaging novel about delightfully nice people." That's exactly what I was after when I picked up the book, of course, but to see it put so baldly makes me feel like a thoroughly shallow reader in search of delightfully dim-witted fare. But... whatever. This book delivered. It's very Angela Thirkellesque, really, but with a somewhat smaller cast list and tighter plot than the typical Thirkell book. There is an odd subplot about a bitch in heat -- a Dalmation, naturally (Smith is the author of "101 Dalmations") -- and the family connections are a little icky (two sisters are married to two brothers, and their respective offspring are going steady). Still, I can't deny it. This book was thoroughly engaging and delightfully nice.

Victoria Kellaway

Liked this book, it was an easy-to-enjoy, summertime read. It reminded me a little of Jane Austen in that there is one mood on the surface ("Ooh, isn't everything lovely?") but when the characters aren't conforming to social norms they are pretty much all thinking about sex, including the dog! The author's distant irony is probably what reminded me of Austen here and I laughed several times. The whole thing is so very English.

Anne Fenn

Middle class life in 1960s British countryside. Biggest drama is dog in season. Light and quite nice.

D

low 3s -- smith's lovely prose and enjoyable characterizations barely hold their own against her really execrable mores and a sort of meandering, untidy plot treatment.

dodie smith does whimsy and charm and days-gone-by england so well. but what was not so evident in the hundred and one dalmations and i capture the castle but has so far played a major role in every *other* book by her i've read is her apparently firm belief in a woman's second-class status and a man's inability to control his dick.

seriously, in each of her "adult" books the main female protagonist takes responsibility for the caprices and coddling of her man while sighing sadly that he's just gonna cheat because that's what men do and she'd be a harpy to complain about it but maybe if she cooks and fusses enough he'll be too happy and distracted to chase skirt. it's really . . . horrifying. and it's so gently out there and accepted as "just the way it is" by each of her varied characters! really disturbing. misogynist.

it's holding men to SUCH a very low standard ("he'll do what he's going to do, because he has no control over himself; it's in his nature; he's like an animal") and women to such a ridiculously high standard ("if you were prettier/smarter/better company/less whiny/lower maintenance/a better housekeeper/a better cook he might be happier/not cheat/come home on time"). exhausting and infuriating. boo, dodie smith. boo. you deserve better. so do your readers.

even so, her prose is so, so charming as to dispel a great deal of the grossness i feel.

as for the pacing, it compared poorly to i capture the castle, which novel had a sort of adventuresome, energetically episodic feel, building to the emotional crescendo, then finishing on a note of tension, with a lack of finality. castle's final tenuousness actually completely worked with cassandra mortmain's psychology and place in life -- a really beautiful treatment of a coming-of-age story (as in, her life has only just begun, and so it's appropriate that smith ends on a note of uncertainty).

but in a tale of two families, when the story sort of tapers off without much resolution, i'm left feeling at loose ends and dissatisfied. what could possibly have been worked into a heart-wrenching tension felt half-baked instead (mixed metaphors for the win!).

i'd recommend this book, for all that, to dodie's devoted fans. just know it hints at but fails to attain the charm and resonance of her best works.

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