July 26, 2013 7:17 pm

Family rifts under the French sun

A daughter’s wry, remarkable memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family

Our Hearts Hang from the Lemon Trees: A Family Divided: France, London and the Secrets in Between, by Laetitia Rutherford, Short Books, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

 

When Laetitia Ruth­erford’s father lay dying in hospital, she reached to take his hand. Before she could touch him, he had lashed out and pushed her away. A deep mistrust of sentimentality, and the implied admission of his own vulnerability, prevented his allowing even such a small gesture of filial love.

It is one of many shocking moments in Rutherford’s memoir, Our Hearts Hang from the Lemon Trees. It was 1999, she was in her early twenties, and this was the third death of a loved one that she had endured in as many years. Her best friend and her French grandfather went first, each causing differing degrees of grief, but it has taken many years to find a way of handling the loss of her father.

Malcolm Rutherford was a highly regarded FT journalist. He had covered almost everything, from international affairs to the theatre. His wide circle of friends included the former chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont, with whom he played predictably serious tennis.

His views on writing style were rigorous. There were numerous banned words, such as “values” and “opinion” and he despised “the flabby compromise of the adverb”. Little wonder that it took his daughter – now a literary agent – so long to put pen to paper.

Her remarkable and unusual book opens with what should be an idyllic account of summer holidays spent in Provence with her mother, sisters and maternal French grandparents. Rutherford grew fond of her ailing grandfather, a former diplomat. He was, however, “slippery”, dodging taxes, hoarding stashes of gold coins and maintaining a secret Swiss bank account.

Rutherford’s grandmother was far worse. Originally from Gloucestershire, she had become so used to the dignity afforded a diplomat’s wife that she refused to speak to her son for five years when he dropped the title “Monsieur l’Ambassadeur” from a thank-you letter (though his father had retired). She ran her household with “the theatrical force of a spurned imperial dowager”, and she loathed Malcolm Rutherford for being both poor and clever. She was, at best, indifferent to his daughters. For his part, he was incapable of putting up with people, like his mother-in-law, who bored him. After Malcolm’s death, Rutherford’s grandmother’s behaviour towards the bereaved family was calculatedly cruel and led to a major rift in the family.

Yet this is no misery memoir. Rutherford’s writing reveals tenderness at the heart of her parents’ marriage, despite its tensions, and there is deep affection for her difficult, stimulating and entertaining father.

Even the savage grandmother has a moment of sweet gentleness (though it is directed at a hedgehog), and when their old grand­father clock has its inner workings stolen she draws, hastily with a felt-tip pen, “a mock face” in the hope that her sick husband won’t notice the empty shell.

The book is punctuated by Rutherford’s translations of the poems of Guillaume Apollinaire with whom, it is fair to say, she is obsessed. His work provides the book’s title as well as dispassionate commentary on her life; the poems forming “a way of visiting a place with a melancholy that was controlled, and could relieve me from my disjunction with the bright young twenty-something world.”

Apollinaire’s friend Picasso advised him that “you cannot drag your father’s corpse on your back for ever”. A serene last chapter chronicles Rutherford’s life today – and suggests that her own journey might now be a little easier.

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