When so many modern novels are about dysfunctional families, why read another one? There are several reasons. Lionel Shriver brings a unique wit to her storytelling. Her tale is fresh and funny. She gives her characters depth but isn't oppressive about it.
The "perfectly good family" in question consists of Corlis, Truman, and Mordecai McCrea, three siblings who must come together to deal with their inheritance after their mother's death. The will leaves each child a quarter of the estate (consisting mostly of the family home) with the remaining quarter going to the ACLU. Truman (the youngest, who has always lived with his parents, even after his marriage) feels entitled to keep the house for himself. Mordecai (the oldest, pushing 40, with three broken marriages and a drinking problem) wants to sell the place and use his share of the money to revive his cash-poor business. Corlis (who was invited to leave her flat in London after her two male roommates discovered that she was splitting her affections between them) has decided to stay in North Carolina but finds herself in the middle of the dispute between the brothers, neither of whom can buy out the other's interest without her help.
A Perfectly Good Family was first published in Great Britain in 1996. Shriver's sixth novel mixes comedy with drama, but there isn't much dramatic tension in the conflict between the children. The drama increases toward the end, as the deadline for selling or refinancing draws near (the ACLU wants its money and isn't inclined to wait any longer), but the mood remains lighthearted. The reader has little reason to invest in either brother; in their separate ways, they are equally childish. Corlis, who provides the novel's point of view (and who seems to be something of a stand-in for Lionel Shriver, who grew up with two brothers in Raleigh, where the novel is set), is a more sympathetic character, although so often adrift and indecisive that it is difficult to cheer for her success. The novel ends on an up note that quickly follows a tragedy, but none of that created an emotional impact that would lead me to recommend the novel as a satisfying family drama.
As light comedy, however, the novel succeeds. The characters are amusing and in broad terms are recognizable as members of typical American families. Shriver's pithy observations about their roles in the family and in life make the novel worthwhile. For instance, Truman looks forward to finishing a product (shampoo or whatever) so he can buy a new one, leading Corlis to wonder "if this delight in dispatching products in order to re-acquire them wasn't a functional definition of the middle class." It's that kind of gleefully irreverent writing that gives the novel its edge, and thus its value. A Perfectly Good Family didn't generate any belly laughs while I was reading it, but it produced enough knowing nods and soft chuckles to make me recommend it as a better-than-average comedic exploration of a family dynamic.