Kate Atkinson

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum Summary

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995), Kate Atkinson’s debut novel, tells the story of a young girl and her journey to adulthood in twentieth-century England, and her efforts to uncover family secrets. The novel received widespread praise upon its publication and is enjoyed by both critics and general readers. It won the 1995 Whitbread Award for First Novel and Book of the Year. Atkinson is an international bestselling author who lives in Edinburgh. She writes case histories, short stories, and novels.

Ruby Lennox lives in York, England, where she comes from a middle-class family. The narrative starts at Ruby’s conception, and each chapter narrates key points in her life from her birth in 1951 to 1992. Between Ruby’s chapters are family flashbacks from other women in the family, including her mother, Bunty, and her grandmother, Nell. Throughout the novel, Ruby learns a lot about the women in six generations of her family. She also learns of male relatives whose narratives feature more heavily in Atkinson’s later works.

Ruby observes her family’s antics without passing judgment. As the youngest member of the family, she is in a unique position to watch it all unfold. She’s also aware she was an unplanned pregnancy and feels her mother doesn’t love her. When her eleven-year-old sister, Gillian, dies from a collision with a bus, Ruby doesn’t feel that she can turn to her mother; instead, she looks to her older sister, Patricia, for support.

Patricia, however, has her own woes. She’s just had a baby whom she can’t look after. She puts the baby up for adoption and runs away. Ruby is now left with only her mother and father. This doesn’t last long—she catches her father with another woman at her uncle’s wedding, and her father then dies of a heart attack. It’s only Ruby and her mother left, but they don’t grow much closer.

Ruby’s mother gets a new boyfriend eventually. He makes a startling comment—he tells Ruby that she’s responsible for her twin sister, Pearl’s, death. Ruby has no memory of a sister, but she visits a doctor who helps her remember. Gillian convinced both Pearl and Ruby to walk across the ice, and Pearl drowned. Gillian told everyone that Ruby pushed her in; this is why Ruby has never had a good relationship with her mother.

Ruby doesn’t want to be at home anymore and thinks about how to get away. She graduates high school and travels to Scotland for a summer job. She doesn’t return home. Instead, she finds a man to marry. It’s not clear they ever love each other, but he needs a wife to stay in the country, and she simply doesn’t want to go back to England. Ruby has two children with him, but they divorce after only a few years.

Ruby doesn’t know where to go next. She soon learns that her mother has dementia. She goes home to choose a nursing home and meets with her mother. Ruby discovers that her mother loved her after all, and she’s very excited to meet her grandchildren. Shortly after they meet, Ruby’s mother dies of a stroke, and Ruby never gets to choose her a nursing home.

Ruby and her sister, Patricia, get back in touch, too. Together, they decide they’re not going to let any of their children feel the way Ruby felt; they’ll always look after them. They realize that the women in their family felt trapped by their circumstances—they didn’t necessarily want husbands and children, but they had no other options. Ruby doesn’t blame her mother for her feelings. She’s saddened when she thinks of all her mother’s failed dreams, and the twin sister she didn’t know for long.

Between the novel’s opening and these realizations, we learn more about the other women in the family and their subplots. They all experience suffocating marriages and the pain of realizing they’re not living the lives they had hoped to live. For example, her great-grandmother, Alice, didn’t die giving birth but ran away with a French photographer to live a new life. When she came back to find the children she had left behind, she was too late and died without meeting them again.

There’s a sense in this book that Ruby knows the answers to all the secrets she puzzles over—rather, she simply doesn’t want to see them or doesn’t know where to look. There’s also a universal feel that women put up with a lot that they shouldn’t have to through circumstances and feeling powerless—particularly during World War II and the return to normality. A theme apparent by the end of Behind the Scenes at the Museum is that only our actions affect how we are remembered. Each character in the book makes choices which directly affect how other characters—and the reader—remember them.