Customer Reviews: Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel
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on August 7, 1998
This is one of the best books I have ever read. I've been carrying it around with me, showing to all my friends and recommending that they read it, too. It's magical, magnificent, a very great, important piece of writing. Although the story revolves around Ruby and her family, the lives of her maternal great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are woven into the story so that in effect, the there two books here: Ruby and pre-Ruby. Several reviewers have described this novel as "one of the funniest books to come out of Britain in years (The NY Times Book Review) and as "comic" (Boston Sunday Globe) and while Behind the Scenes is enormously charming, inventive and endearing, don't buy this expecting it to be a funny or humorous book. At times it is unbearably sad, sadness tinged with dark scamperings of horror. I was telling my husband about this book and he kept saying, "this sounds awful, terrible things keep happening to these people," ! and while that is true, the author tells this story with a beautiful lightness that keeps Ruby safe despite her sadness.
One thing I found very interesting about this book was the way the women's lives went from the unending drudgery of cooking, cleaning, mending, pregnancy and taking care of numerous children by Alice, the great-grandmother who lived in rural 19th century England, to the comparatively empty days of Bunty, Ruby's mother, days that are filled up with a dedication to housekeeping that only mimics what was once a necessity of life. Alice lived in a world where the failure to bake bread and to keep up with darning and mending meant that children went hungry and cold in winter. Bunty lives in a world attached to a strict household schedule (washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesday, cleaning on Wednesday, etc) and where store-bought cakes and cookies are looked upon as evidence of a slatternly nature.
Another interesting this about this book is the way Ruby's! voice changes from when she is little to when she grows up! . Little Ruby is consumed with magical thinking, she believes in a world of ghosts where things happen for no reason and a deck of cards designed to teach the alphabet become a wondrous bridge to life away from home. As she grows, her voice takes on depth and the effects of secondary school and while the frivolity and delightful silliness that characterize little Ruby's world continue to exist, they are moderated by her maturity. This is a truly wonderful book.
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VINE VOICEon May 18, 2003
When you see the title of this book, you immediately come to the conclusion that this book must be about a little girl who's family owns a museum.
This museum turns out to be just like the museum that YOUR OWN family owns.
Exhibits at the "Lennox family museum" include:
A. A pink, daisy-shaped, glass button
B. A lucky rabbit's foot
C. A George VI coronation teaspoon
D. A bright, artificial smile
E. Bunty's unbearably sad childhood
F. Rabbit-shaped clouds hanging in the sky like zepplins
G. "Mind your boots, Lily"
H. A plane in a death spin
I. Your sister says not to worry
J. The silver locket
K. Thinking about home
Strange exhibits for a museum, don't you think?
These "exhibits" are simply items and memories belonging to several generations of the Lennox family. Each "exhibit" carries with it a history and a memory that the casual onlooker cannot fathom. Some people, like Ruby Lennox, feel that "the past is what you leave behind in life". However, others, like Patricia Lennox, feel that "the past is what you take with you". You decide. Can you really understand the past by simply viewing an object or are most museums (the real type and the kind you might have in your home) full of objects that are unable to tell their stories without an all-knowing narrator?
This book follows the life of Ruby Lennox from conception onward: "I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall." From this intriguing beginning, the book draws you in. You immediately fall in love with Ruby, her flustered mother Bunty, and her quirky English family. Each chapter that takes place in the present generation of the Lennox family mentions an "exhibit" item from the "Lennox family museum." These are listed as footnotes. However, the footnote takes you to the next chapter where you learn a bit of Lennox family history surrounding the exhibit item. For example, the pink daisy-shaped button (the above Exhibit A) popped off of Alice Barker's dress only a few days before she "died giving birth" to Ruby's grandmother. It was later found and kept in a button box for years before Ruby's sister found it.
A lot of family secrets are bound up in the exhibits of the "Lennox family museum". One in particular deals with the death of Ruby's mysteriously unmentioned sister. Another deals with the father of an unmarried family member's child. Still another deals with the identity of the mysterious late-night phone caller that never says a word. Every family has its secrets and the author is careful not to give enough hints to give away the family secrets until the end of the book.
I simply loved this book. A fellow book-lover suggested that I read it. I was not disappointed. The characters were colorful and the author keeps up a certain level of suspense throughout the novel. I was surprised to learn that this is the author's first novel since it is written in such an original format. And it makes me wonder what "exhibits" belong to my own family's "museum".
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Friends sharing books they love usually means you're in for a treat. Thanks, Anya! BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM is a total triumph of a book. Voted a Whitbread Book of the Year when published in 1995 this extraordinarily entertaining novel was the first novel by Kate Atkinson and she surely knows her stuff. Not only is the writing of the first caliber, but the technique of storytelling is invigorating and fun and warm and tragic and in short, about as fine a coming of age novel as anyone has written.
Ruby Lennox narrates this delectable tale of her life in a dysfunctional geneology from the point of her conception ( thoroughly entertaining view of life from within the uterus) through her childhood and young adulthood up to the age of 41. Atkinson divides her book into Chapters and Footnotes: the Chapters are the chronological tale of the wonderfully crazy Ruby and her sisters and bizarre mother and father and the Footnotes after each chapter explore the history of her English family for the past century. This affords the reader with a history and an interpretation of that history by wily little girl who is wise beyond her antics. Ruby knows there must be a Lost Property Cupboard (her theory of the afterlife) 'where (when we die) all things we have ever lost have been kept for us - every button, every tooth..library books, all the cats that never came back...tempers and patience...meaning and innocence..dreams we forgot on waking, nestling against the days lost to melancholy thoughts....' That is just a sample of the beauty of Atkinson's writing gifts.
The world finally focuses for Ruby but to tell how would alter the joy of discovery this wonderful little character. 'I'm in another country, the one called home. I am alive. I am a precious jewel. I am a drop of blood. I am Ruby Lennox.' This is some of the best writing you'll find. After you've spent a rewarding time reading it, share it with someone you love. Again, Thank you Anya!
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I enjoyed this wonderful book immensely, and would recommend it enthusiastically to all my British family and friends -- except that all my British friends have already read it! My only hesitation in an American context is that people who have not grown up in postwar Britain as Kate Atkinson (and I) did might not get her dense texture of forgotten brand-names and vanished social customs. In this, she is pitch-perfect, recalling not only the lost era of her own chilhood but also the England of her grandparents and parents. I can see why there is a Reader's Guide on the market, for Atkinson's museum contains an almost archaeological treasure that, though sometimes needing annotation, is always authentic.

But her factual authenticity is nothing compared to her authenticity as a person. For the story of the growth of her narrator-heroine Ruby Lennox from conception into young womanhood is that of a life not so much described as LIVED. I assume that the book is largely autobiographical, but it does not read as that either, since Ruby (who always speaks in a voice older than her years, and can be marvelously funny) is so much alive that she leaps off the page as an independent creation, clearly informed by the author's love-hate relationship with the other members of her extended family, but by no means following her footsteps. It is almost a pity at the end when she comes of age, and the provocative double focus of adult/child merges into one.

The various chapters of Ruby's story, told chronologically, are interspersed with long "footnotes" investigating different episodes in the lives of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother (this is a feminist book without making a fetish of it), their siblings, and the various men who affect their lives. These stretch back into the late 19th century, spanning two world wars, and show (as other readers have pointed out) how much the lives of women have changed in the past century. I found that many of the most moving parts of the book, some of which brought tears to my eyes, were contained in these sections. But they are told out of chronological order and feature a large cast of characters; I wish I had thought to jot down a timeline and family tree as I was reading.

Various reviews quoted in the paperback edition compare Atkinson to Dickens. Although her voice is quite different, there are certain similarities: both authors enjoy mystery and belated revelations, both have a fondness for highly colored characters, both share a comic vision, and both tend towards the melodramatic. There is more than the average amount of tragedy in this book, and few of their lives follow predictable paths. But Atkinson's characters do not lose reality because of this but seem more vigorously alive. Given Atkinson's infectious voice and grasp on life, the overall effect of this book is wonderfully exhilarating.

[For another magnificently authentic account of life in Britain in the years around WW2, I recommend Andrea Levy's recent SMALL ISLAND. And for a book that attempts a somewhat similar family saga to Atkinson's, but in an American context, I suggest Carol Shields' modern classic THE STONE DIARIES. Both these books are among the best I have read in 2006; BEHIND THE SCENES will make a third.]
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on May 2, 2002
This first novel by British author Kate Atkinson received many favorable reviews with its debut in 1995 and won the Whitbread Book of the Year. It is a story of a young girl's conception, birth, life, decline and death written in an extraordinarily imaginative style. The central character, Ruby Lennox, is conceived in a careless drunken sweaty moment of need on her father's part and disgust on her mother's. Ruby floats around in the womb for nine months privy to her mother's innermost thoughts and observing her family-to-be. When she is eventually ejected into the world, in the rooms above the family-owned pet shop, her journey into an bizarre, often amusing, but ultimately tragic life begins. A difficult task, Atkinson maintains this balance between dark humor and tragedy well until the end when, unfortunately, the suffering takes over.
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on September 22, 2000
I knew nothing about this book before I read it - I didn't even know anyone who had read it -- but now that I've finished it, I can't stop recommending it to people. This book is one of the best surprises I've had this year.
It's the story of Ruby Lennox ("I exist!" she shouts in the first line of the book, describing her own conception): the York, England-born daughter of disappointed Bunty, granddaughter of disappointed Nell, and great-granddaughter of the mysterious but still disappointed Alice, all of whose stories are told and interwoven with Ruby's own.
The story, which manages to cover almost the whole of the 20th century, from World War I to the present, is both hilarious and achingly sad at the very same time. It is rich with details and backstories in a way that does not crowd out Ruby's own story, which is essentially that of a girl trying to grow up in a family that all but conspires to forget she even exists. Her mother, Bunty, can't stand the sight of her philandering husband (and Ruby's father) George, the disappointment of a man that she married after the let-down that, for Bunty, was World War II. Anyone with a sister will recognize the simultaneous disdain and wise counsel that Ruby's dark older sister, Patricia, has for her, and will recognize the torture that Ruby's other older sister, the beautiful, mean Gillian, puts her through.
If it were just a portrait of Ruby's family of assorted losers, even that would have been enough to make a good book, but Kate Atkinson has done us the favor of giving us the stories of Ruby's maternal relatives, from her great-grandmother Alice Barker, who ran away with a travelling photographer, to her grandmother Nell Cook, whose fiances kept on dying on her before she could get married, and all of the other cousins and aunts and uncles in between. Their stories are intertwined with that of the major events of the 20th century, giving the story a sense of meaning and context.
This book is just a great read. Do yourselves a favor and read it. You'll thank me that you did.
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on February 25, 2000
Follow the journey of Ruby Lennox from conception to middle age and enjoy her dysfunctional family along the way.
Ruby is totally centred around her "oneness" and her ability to stand apart from all of her family and see them as who they are ~ or is she?
This novel is a delightfully engaging look at post-war Britain, whilst slowly unwrapping the box in which lies all of Ruby's fears. And what a surprising box that turns out to be!
Kate Atkinson has created a kaleidoscope of characters and situations, all the while juggling humour, satire and family bonds, together with Ruby's very personal own story.
This is a witty, beautiful and sometimes caustic tale of family, sibling rivalry, adopted babies, deaths in the family, the magnificent but hopeless Lucy-Vida, Daisies and Roses, Rubies and Pearls...
The older Ruby says: "I have been to the world's end and back and now I know what I would put in my bottom drawer. I would put my sisters."
Me too. Powerful stuff and compelling reading.
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on May 28, 2000
If you read a lot (more than a dozen books a month for pleasure), then you're probably familiar with the sensation of being ruined by a book. This happens when you realize that you never want it to end, can't bear not to know more, can't believe this is the last sentence, and then can't find another thing to read for upwards of a week because nothing else compares to what you've just read. So it was for me and Behind the Scenes at the Museum. This is likely to be dubbed a "chick book." So be it. If a chick book is an amazing story that deftly spans generations of filial dysfunction and decades of national history, making the reader alternately weep and guffaw, then this is a chick book. It's also one helluva read, twisting, building, then soaring to a climax that shatters the reader while finally making the narrator whole. It begins with the moment of Ruby Lennox's birth, a device that usually bothers me (consider Tristam Shandy), but Ruby more than hooked me by the end of the first chapter, and I wanted her for a blood relative by the time she described her mother's love as "autistic parenting." That this is the author's first novel makes this book even more amazing. Don't miss this one.
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on March 29, 1997
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

In "Behind the Scenes at the Museum", Kate Atkinson has created one of the most original first person narrators of recent years. Her character, Ruby Lennox, is at once witty, fragile, sad, and sassy. Ruby's sharp eye for detail, and the way in which she brings alive the interior and exterior fabric of her life through her voice, engages us with its immediacy.

The novel begins with Ruby's conception in 1951, charts her exit from the warmth and safety of her mother's body, and her arrival into a very strange and alienating world. Her family is eccentric but engaging, living above the pet shop in York that they own and run. Her parents, Bunty and George, are well meaning, but have cracks in their psyches that play themselves out through interactions with their children. Ruby is not an only child: her older sisters Patricia and Gillian are her constant companions, as bizarre as their parents. The novel takes us through the early part of Ruby's life, constructing a magical world where the strangest events seem inevitable and manageable. Increasingly Ruby becomes aware that there is something about her family that she is not being told and, in a brilliantly realized moment of revelation, Atkinson allows Ruby to discover what that secret is, then we watch her come to terms with it.

The past is a strong presence here. Atkinson tells much of the quirky family history through separate chapters called "Footnotes", which take us back to pre-Ruby days, and they do much to explain why her family is as it is, and why Ruby develops as she does.

This novel is never predictable, constantly delighting by the way that Ruby's world-weary sardonic view of adults is wittily expressed. The independence of the voice here is powerful and new. Atkinson has found a way to express the young Ruby's viewpoint without sacrificing the older Ruby's knowledge. This achievement means that even within the grimmest passages of the novel there lurks a longing for the past, and an irrepressible need to find the humor and humanity in every situation. In the narrative, for example, Ruby's parents let her down in many ways, but they are never less than loved, and the older Ruby never lets us forget that fact.

The vigor and passion of this book comes from the language and the forcefulness of its life-affirming voice. At no time do we think that Ruby's life is easy, yet her resilience and refusal to be miserable carries us on with her. The novel begins with Ruby declaring "I exist!" and ends with the words "I am Ruby Lennox." The pages in between the two statements justify the second completely. By the time we reach it, we know exactly who Ruby Lennox is, and we feel reluctant to leave her. This is a mark of Atkinson's success: she has made us love her character.

Some of the cultural references and events that Kate Atkinson utilizes in this novel may be alien to some American readers, but they are not impediments to understanding. "Behind the Scenes at the Museum" is an exhilarating and hilarious read, and its humanity transcends the Atlantic barrier. Ruby Lennox is a unique character, and to let her pass you by would be a great loss.
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on October 1, 1999
Rarely do I read a book more that once; but like Ruby Lennox repeatedly searching for the 'right life', so I am drawn to this story again and again to submerge myself in it's thoroughly intoxicating and humourous web of female existence!
Through Kate Atkinson'companionable story telling, we follow a family of women through the ages. We examine their follies, personalities and often their sad lives, as they allow circumstance, fate and the age they live in to dictate their position in the world. From major events such as world wars, to personal traumas as bad marriage choices, each woman either unhappily accepts or silently battles against her situation, simultaneously hindered and aided by a long line of inherited genes and social beliefs. Only a handful achieve happiness by living for themselves and shunning the expected 'norms' of the time. Together with a relative who immigrated to Canada, one who hid in Austrailia and an irrational, irritable woman who found freedom in her Alzeihmers, Ruby finds her real life in a home she chose.
An inspiring book for women of all ages. We learn from our strong and beautiful female ancestors. We admire them for living in ages confining for their free spirits. We thank them, learn from them and move on!
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