Book Reviews

Review: Family Money by Nina Bawden – the value of family

Cover of Family Money, a novel by Nina Bawden

Family Money proved to be a far more rewarding reading experience than my last encounter with a Nina Bawden novel. The Ice House was so disappointing I wasn’t sure I wanted to read another novel by this author but Family Money has restored my interest.

With its references to under-funded health services in the UK and property prices rising far beyond the reach of low paid workers, the novel has a very contemporary feel. Layer on a theme about independence in old age and you have a fascinating novel about families and the rights to inherited wealth.

Family Money homes in on Fanny Pye, a well-provisioned widow who, though she is getting on in years, is in good health and self sufficient both physically and intellectually. Her children think it’s time she sold up and moved out of her large Georgian-style house to somewhere  “easier to manage” .

Fanny ignores their hints. She values her independence; her solo trips to the cinema; the chance to browse among antique shops and buy her groceries at a neighbourhood market. She has no intention of becoming one of those old women who want nothing more than “a nice little bungalow at the seaside” or ” a little cottage in the country with a thatched roof.”

A Life Disrupted

All that changes one evening when she becomes the sole witness of a savage attack. Fanny tries to stop the three young men she sees beating another man senseless, is knocked unconscious and ends up in hospital. Fortunately she’s not seriously hurt but is increasingly worried that she can’t recall details of the attack.

Never previously a nervous woman, one unexpected flash of memory triggers an unsettling feeling that she may be in danger. The young man who lives in a canal boat at the rear of her house is oddly familiar. Each time she encounters him, she’s left more and more nervous. Soon she’s afraid to go out. Each time she ventures beyond her front door, she suffers a panic attack.

She was quite unprepared for the force of the panic that struck her in the street market. One moment she was happily strolling, rejoicing in her new freedom to walk abroad, to be part of the Christmas crowd, to enjoy the coloured lights and the glitter, the next she was pole-axed with terror.

The ‘mystery/thriller’ element isn’t the driving force for the novel however; it’s simply a device to illustrate how Fanny’s character, and her life is changed by one incident. For Family Money is fundamentally a character study that uses irony and humour to point out truths about people’s attitudes to the challenges of advancing years.

Fanny’s children and their privileged friends are Bawden’s main targets. Her ear for the nuances of dialogue perfectly catch the tone of these people with their self pitying tones, pre-occupations with money and condescending attitudes towards people lower down the social order.

Conversations between Fanny’s daughter and son and their respective partners are particularly amusing. They are delighted to learn after Fanny’s accident that she does after all plan to sell the house. It’s really the most sensible solution, they agree. It’s not safe for her with all those stairs.

But it comes as a shock when they learn what Fanny plans to do with the proceeds of the sale. Giving a large sum to a former neighbour/come housekeeper is not what these children had in mind at all.

This is “family money” after all; bought for a pittance by their diplomat father when it was considered a “slum property” but now this area of London has been “yuppified” it’s worth close on half a million pounds. It’s money that should be kept within the family and even if they don’t need it all themselves, there are the grand-children whose future needs Fanny should not ignore.

Compassion For The Older Woman

Bawden’s compassion is reserved for Fanny. This woman has felt throughout her life that she’s been treated as “second fiddle”, first by her more intellectual sister (now an outspoken socialist baroness) and then by her husband Daniel. Now it’s her children who think they can make decisions for her; taking no account that she has opinions of her own.

Although the ending of the novel is inconclusive – it leaves us up in the air quite literally – it does show how Fanny shakes off these constraints and is able to conquer her fears. It would be pleasing to think she is about to embark on a new, more independent phase of her life, but we can’t be sure this is the case.

I’m wondering whether Bowen’s compassion for Fanny is the reason why I thought Family Money a more effective novel than The Ice House. It was written when Bawden was close in age to Fanny so it could be that she had more of an affinity with the world of the mature woman than that of the young wives she featured in The Ice House. 

An amusing novel, but one that raises valid questions about attitudes towards women as they advance in age. It has a lot of similarities with All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West in the way it shows how women in their twilight years become subjected to the designs of well-meaning friends and relatives and have their own wishes ignored or dismissed.

Family Money by Nina Bawden: Footnotes

Nina Bawden enjoyed success as an author of fiction for adults and children. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 with Circles of Deceit and the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010 with The Birds On The Trees. She is one of very few authors to have both served as a Booker judge and had one of their own books shortlisted. Her most celebrated book for children –Carrie’s War – was based in her own experiences as an evacuee to Wales during World War 2.

I’m counting this as book number 5 towards my #TBR21 which is an attempt to read 21 books from my owned-but-unread bookshelves by the end of 2021.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

32 thoughts on “Review: Family Money by Nina Bawden – the value of family

  • I’ve enjoyed several of Bawden’s books for children, never predictable and with that interest in her characters as humans, so this definitely appeals. I must now finish her autobiography which, as with too many titles, I temporarily abandon in favour of something more immediate.

    • I don’t read many autobiographies – I start off with great enthusiasm but too many of them get bogged down by details about their great grandparents or things from their childhood that they couldn’t possibly remember

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  • So glad this was a more rewarding experience for you. I am a fan of Nina Bawden (the Ice House is perhaps a more minor work) and I enjoyed this one enormously. The setting of the house with the canal behind has really stayed with me.

    • Do you have any other recommendations of her books Ali? I’m curious to read more but would like to make sure I read the best first

      • The Birds in the Trees is excellent, A Little Love a Little Learning, The Ruffian on the Stair, Circles of Deceit. Would certainly recommend any of those.

        • I’ve read A Little Love – very enjoyable, Will check out the other recommendations. Thanks Ali

  • This sounds excellent and an interesting central character.

    • Absolutely Liz, its a well nuanced depiction and I really warmed to this woman.

  • I’ve never tried Bawden before Karen and this really appeals. I like an older woman character.

    • Older women characters appeal to me too Cathy, I find there is more substance to them because they’ve had so much more of life to experience

  • Ageing women are few and far between in most contemporary fiction which makes this novel quite an attractive one for me. I think I may even have a copy somewhere.

    • Often those older women are not very favourably presented – sometimes they just end up almost as caricatures but fortunately Bawden avoids those pitfalls

  • All Passion Spent is a favourite of mine. I think I would enjoy this one too.

    • I think Sackville West has the edge in terms of its lyrical qualities but Bawden wins with the irony. So they make a good companion read.

  • Family making decisions on behalf of elders: that remark sparked a bitter grimace from me. Tell me about it.

    • Oh dear, sounds like you’ve been on the receiving end of those “helpful” suggestions.

  • I was thinking of All Passion Spent too. Children just dying to get their hands on mum’s assets. Interestingly, the older women around me don’t speak of downsizing so much as moving into retirement villages, which in Australia at least, tie up your capital and make it very difficult to get it back out.

    • Protecting the assets Is a big talking point in the U.K where if you take a place at a care home run by the state, the value of your property is assessed and used to pay fir your care. So many parents get upset because it means they have nothing to leave for their children.

  • I’ve never found quite the right Nina Bawden for me, though she is critically-acclaimed and well-loved by fans of Viragos (which I usually like). I’ll have to give this one a try. In a way, she reminds me of another English writer I much prefer, Alice Thomas Ellis. I recommend all of her books!

    • I’ve heard the name Alice Thomas Ellis but have never come across any of her books. Just did a little research and Unexplained Laughter and The 27th Kingdom seem to be her most acclaimed novels. Would those be your recommendations for where to begin with her fiction Kat?

    • Just read your post on Modern Interiors – it sounds like one I would thoroughly enjoy so I thought I’d treat myself to a copy. I can get a second hand edition for £46 with £53 shipping. I have to wonder if it has a gold plated cover! The e version is cheaper but I’m really going off reading that way…..

        • Ridiculous to even put that amount as the sales price when the edition is nothing special

        • It’s probably a mistake. I came across one once (in a retail bookstore) that had a ticket price of over a thousand dollars. Whoever entered it and missed putting in the decimal point.

        • If that’s the case, they made the same error twice – for the sales price and the shipping cost!

        • If you haven’t lost heart, can you contact the bookseller?

        • I think there were other options that were only slightly more expensive but yes that bookseller might appreciate knowing there could be an issue

        • Try Today they have a copy in the US for $USD8.00 which converts to about six pounds. I can’t work out what postage to the UK would be, but it wouldn’t be what you’ve been quoted.

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