The Family Tree (Paperback)

A Novel

By Carole Cadwalladr

Plume, 9780452286948, 400pp.

Publication Date: November 29, 2005

List Price: 25.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


When Rebecca Monroe—married to Alistair, a scientist who doesn’t believe in fate, but rather genetic disposition—discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to question what makes us who we are and whether her own precarious family history will play a role in her future.

For Rebecca, the wry and observant narrator of The Family Tree, simple things said over breakfast take on greater meaning: a home-improvement project foreshadows darker things to come; the color of one’s eyes, the slope of a forehead are all missing pieces to the truth behind the family tree.

At once nostalgic and refreshingly original, The Family Tree is a sophisticated story of one woman and the generations of women who came before her and whose legacy shaped her life and its emotional landscape.

About the Author

Nominated for the Best Specialist Writer/British Press Award, Carole Cadwalladr writes for newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and lives in the UK. The Family Tree is her first novel.

Praise For The Family Tree: A Novel

"A fast read that might be described as Helen Fielding meets Zadie Smith—takes an unusual spin on the nature versus nurture debate." —The Wall Street Journal

"[Cadwalladr] has a careful, nuanced sense of place and purpose . . . She is fearless, wry, and compassionate." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Poignant and amusing . . . While some have labeled The Family Tree chick lit, don’t be fooled: In fact, this is lit that happens to be written by one very clever chick." —People

"Carole Cadwalladr blends several generations of love stories with an examination of genetics, family and pop culture as she attempts to get at the heart of why we are the way we are." —Publisher's Weekly

"[A] loving, spot-on portrayal of a late 1970s childhood.... Cadwalladr has produced an ambitious book, packed with funny, likeable characters.... [A] lively, rangy, and thoroughly entertaining novel." —Entertainment Weekly

"This is a poignant and intelligent first novel, in which vivid characters engage the reader to ponder the timeless themes of fate and choice in light of the science-influenced sensibilities of the twenty-first century." —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works.


Conversation Starters from

  1. At the start of The Family Tree we are introduced to Rebecca's early fas­cination with words and their definitions. This fascination is fundamen­tal to the book's structure—sections and chapters often begin with definitions of words that relate to the particular section of chapter's con­tent. Discuss the structure of the book and the role of the words Rebecca defines. How do they influence your interpretation of the text? Because she does not often give the entire definition of a word, what is signifi­cant about the parts of the definition she does reveal?
  2. At the end of the novel, Rebecca reveals the truth about her mother's relationship with Kenneth and her father's relationship with Suzanne. She says, "You can retrofit all you like, but the clues weren't there, I've checked. That's the problem with point-of-view narrative." In light of her theory about point-of-view narrative, discuss the "clues" scattered throughout the book about her relationship with Alistair. How early in the story can we see the relationship's demise? Did her explanation about opposites attracting ever seem valid? How much do we "see" as readers that Rebecca does not as the novel progresses?
  3. Motherhood, and the complicated relationship that exists between mother and daughter, is as central to the book as the arguments about genetic inheritance and learned behavior. Compare the relationships between all the respective mothers and daughters. Where do these rela­tionships mirror one another, and where do they diverge? What hopes do we have for Rebecca at the book's culmination, as she becomes a mother to a daughter herself?
  4. . Is Herbert a sympathetic character? Discuss his obsessive-compulsive behavior and his preoccupation with his cousin. In light of Doreen's diagnosis, what can we or do we infer about genetic inheritance?
  5. Consider Rebecca's desire for and decision to have a baby in the face of Alistair's genetic evidence and opposition. Was Rebecca wise to have a child knowing the odds her offspring would inherit certain un­desirable traits? What would you do in her place?
  6. Consider how each character of the book supports the argument for either Nature or Nurture. Which side of the argument has "won"— Nature or Nurture? Of which do you think Cadwalladr is a proponent? Why? What is her final "message" of the book?