Charlotte Philby found the inspiration behind her debut novel in a question that arose from her grandfather’s notorious defection to Russia in 1963: what kind of person walks out on their family?
On the surface, Anna Witherall has the perfect life. Married to her university boyfriend David, she has an enviable job, beautiful home, and gorgeous three-year-old twin daughters, Stella and Rose. Their competent and capable nanny, Maria, is practically part of the family.
But beneath the veneer of success and happiness, Anna is hiding a dark secret, one that threatens to unravel everything she has worked so hard to create. Only one thing is certain: to protect her children, she must betray them.
Charlotte Philby recruits a young woman as her spy in Part of the Family, exploring the relationships she has, how the lines blur between what is real and what might be role-play, or even manipulative behaviour, on someone else’s part. When that woman becomes a mother, she examines whether maternal instincts automatically kick in, especially where childbirth and the postpartum period aren’t easy. She also considers the decision to break ties and whether it’s any more difficult for a mother to leave her children than it is for a father to walk out on his family.
The actual business interests that form the subject of the espionage were a little sketchy and confusing at times but this didn’t bother me too much because I found them to be of secondary interest to the web of relationships around Anna, who is at the heart of the novel.
This is where Part of the Family works particularly well and comes into its own. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to untangle all the relationships and work out who was playing it straight, who was not to be trusted or potentially spying on someone else or possibly even playing a double game, who might be paranoid or controlling, or who might simply be concerned for the children of the house and/or someone else’s welfare.
It’s difficult to work out if or how far Anna goes native, to what extent she makes conscious decisions affecting her life, and how much she remembers she has been recruited for a specific purpose. It’s also hard to gauge how much others suspect or know what she’s doing, who for and why. It was satisfying to see how it all unravels by the end. Part of the Family is an edgy family drama with its tangle of relationships unspooling in a clammy climate of deception and mistrust.
Part of the Family by Charlotte Philby is published by The Borough Press, a Harper Collins imprint. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback (as The Most Difficult Thing) and paperback. It’s the May 2020 Thriller of the Month in Waterstones Books of the Month. You can also find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. For more information on Charlotte Philby and her work, visit her Author Website or find her on Twitter.