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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Drabble’

In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

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I started The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble in Maine last Saturday, and then came back to the last minute cleaning, cooking, etc. and the Christmas Eve and Christmas festivities, and went back to work on Boxing Day, so it took me several days to finish. This is actually part of a trilogy about the same group of characters, centered around three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. When the book opens, one of them, Liz Headleand, a London psychiatrist, is preparing to host a huge New Year’s bash on the last day of 1979. It ends in June 1985, on her friend Esther Breuer’s fiftieth birthday. Which they spend together, along with their third university friend, Alix Bowen.

In the nearly 400 pages between, Drabble spins the story of these women’s adult lives, occasionally dipping into their childhoods, describing the society they live in (mainly well educated but not posh London, and the north of England, where Alix and Liz are from), the disciplines they devote themselves to (psychiatric medicine for Liz, art history and especially the Italian Renaissance painter Crivelli for Esther, literature and teaching it to under-served people, like women prisoners, for Alix), the men they love, and the children they bear.

As I’ve written here before, I love the way Drabble writes about people as they relate to each other — friends, relatives, lovers — and the way those relationships knit together create society. She works into the story politics and culture, literature and art, anthropology and history and myth, but always returns to the relationships. And these not only populate society but also Drabble’s fictional world. Kate Armstrong, the main character of The Middle Ground appears on the edges of The Radiant Way, for example. As in other Drabble books the women here are serious, thinking people no matter how they spend their days, and she captures the way they manage their own needs, goals, ambitions, work with the care of others in a way that really resonates with me.

I’ve read some criticism of Drabble — she gets too caught up in description and explanation, she injects too much (read too liberal) political commentary into her fiction, she writes about privileged people, her novels are uninteresting for all of the above reasons. But I love her lens, I love vicariously living in her England for a few days, and I love her writing, and I’ve started the second book in the trilogy, A Natural Curiosity.

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There are a lot of new books that interest me but lately I’ve turned to the “to be read” shelves to try to chip away at the endless piles of books I have been meaning to get to. Part defense mechanism to keep the Computer Scientist from “tidying” the bookshelves? Maybe. Also, there is comfort in the familiar, and often books I buy are by favorite authors or on favorite topics.  Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Drabble. This was no exception, even though it was a little bit depressing. First of all it’s a novel set in the early 80’s and many of the socio-political issues Drabble mentions are still prevalent — wars, middle east conflicts, economic disparity, cultural misunderstanding, lack of equal opportunity for women, and so on. Also this is a novel about a circle of London friends in middle age, and they’re all a damn sight more successful than I am.

But they are people I’d want to know. Kate Armstrong is a writer specializing in women’s issues. She’s a single mother in London, living what seems to be a fairly charmed life. Except for the hate mail she gets, and the person she thinks it’s from. And several other stressful things. One of the biggest is the end of her long relationship with her best friend Evelyn’s husband, Ted. When Evelyn ends up in the hospital, caught in the midst of a domestic dispute in her job as a social worker, Kate sits with the children until Ted can get home. Then she sits with Ted, talking, and thinks, “They would gaze at one another forever, good friends perhaps, old allies, old enemies, across this impossible void, trying new voices, new gestures, making true efforts to hear, to listen, to understand.But hopelessly, hopelessly.”

She goes on a few sentences later, “Men and women can never be close. They can hardly speak to one another in the same language. But they are compelled, forever, to try, and therefore even in defeat there is no peace.” Drabble looks at that question, of whether men and women speak the same language, through Kate’s complicated web of family and friends, and through Hugo’s and Evelyn’s perspectives as well. The Middle Ground may be about middle age but it’s also about the space between people, even people who are very close.

Drabble makes this very complex thing crystalize in small moments. Her characters and their thoughts drive the novel; to me this is far more compelling than a page turner (although I sometimes crave those as well) even if it’s harder to read a book like this is tiny snippets before bed. I love immersing myself in imagined lives, messy and meaningful as my own is, entirely unrecognizable and simultaneously entirely recognizable. To paraphrase Paul Harding, Drabble’s work is true in a way I’ve always known to be true, but written in a way I’ve never read before.

When I read Drabble’s fiction I am left feeling a little better about the world and little bit expanded, in heart and mind. Which is why I read. Also on my to-be-read shelf, Drabble’s memoir, A Pattern in the Carpet, which was a birthday gift from a book-loving friend. I look forward to reading it soon.

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I heard a piece recently on NPR about The Millstone. I have loved other books by Margaret Drabble, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby, so I sent off for The Millstone on inter-library loan. It’s wonderful. Like much of Drabble’s work, this novel explores the inner life of a woman, in this case a young woman working on her PhD in Elizabethan poetry named Rosamund Stacey. It’s 1960’s London, she’s living in her parents’ flat not far from Broadcasting House, home of the BBC, and it is in that neighborhood that she gets to know George, a BBC radio announcer. George believes Rosamund is having two affairs, when in fact she is dating two men she doesn’t really like all that much but not sleeping with either of them. In fact, she’s a virgin.

She really likes George, and after one brief evening together, she hopes to hear from him again, but he doesn’t call. Shortly thereafter she finds herself pregnant. She considers her options and decides against an abortion. But she also decides against contacting George, “I still could not believe that I was going to get through it without telling him, but I could not see that I was going to tell him either.”

The rest of the book is about Rosamund’s determination to continue her scholarly work, to keep teaching private students who are preparing for university entrance, to try to live as independently as she can and to have her child. The sections about baby Octavia’s birth and the first months of Rosamund’s motherhood are really lovely. Her self-examined life, and her thoughts on her friendships and family relationships, are lucid and observant.

There’s a scene where the baby is in the hospital, and Rosamund sets herself to the task of getting past the old-fashioned Matron who believes mothers shouldn’t be allowed to visit their children, that is delicious. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what she does and who she meets, but this portion of the book is emotionally complex, tender, funny, sharp, and thoroughly entertaining to boot. All the scenes at St. Andrew’s Hospital – before and after Octavia’s birth, focus a sharp lens on women in 1960’s London society. Even the minor characters in these scenes, as well as Rosamund’s friend Lydia who moves in and both complicates and simplifies her life, and other characters we meet only seldom, are fully realized. Rosamund’s parents, who appear only in a letter they write home and in Rosamund’s remembrances of how they raised her, feel like people the reader knows enough about to recognize them.

Drabble writes such beautiful prose. Here Rosamund is taking Octavia home after she’s been in the hospital, “The air was bright and clear, and as we drove past the formal determined structure of the Crescent, ever-demolished, ever-renewed, I suddenly thought that perhaps I could take it and survive.” In that one sentence, the outer and inner worlds intersect, Rosamund notes with perception and tenderness her own resilience, the reader has a sense of her growth as a character and her potential.

Lovely, clear, and without extra words. Drabble is one of my favorite writers and I’m really grateful to NPR for running that piece, which reminded me of how much I love her work.

 

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My column ran in the Concord Monitor today; I’ve pasted it below. Before I get to that, a few words about the book I most recently finished, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble.

I got into a discussion a few days ago with a fellow avid reader about the fact that there are books you have to read slowly and thoughtfully (frequently called literary, but that word is freighted with snobbery for some folks), and those you can tear through quickly. Drabble writes the kind one reads deliberately and carefully — and the kind that leaves you thinking for days. Bookconscious regulars may recall after I read The Peppered Moth I declared my intent to read all of Drabble’s work.

I found The Pure Gold Baby very beautiful and also very thought-provoking. The child of the title is Anna, a “special needs” girl, and the book is about her and her mother Jess and their friends and family in North London. Drabble makes their world deeply interesting even in its ordinary every-dayness, and through her narrator, Eleanor, a lawyer for a nonprofit social justice organization in London and longtime friend of Jess and Anna, she explores mental difference (both that which is evident from birth and that which develops later in life) and the care of the mentally ill or disabled. And even of the “regularly-abled” if you will — much of Eleanor’s reflection touches on the way parenting and childhood as well as mental healthcare has changed over the decades.

This of course opens the book up to related subjects – the old nature versus nurture debate, responsibility and accountability, whether inclusion and mainstreaming or institutionalizing and providing group care works better, etc. It’s a challenging read because Eleanor tells the story through her recollections, which are not always linear and chronological, and sometimes ramble or repeat, as memories do. But it’s a good read.

I’d say like much of the best literature, The Pure Gold Baby is about love — the highest value in most human transactions, the thing that makes us heroes or cowards, that causes our best intentions to go astray, and that sometimes makes us grow beyond our perceived potential. It’s a lovely meditation on friendship — between women but also between the sexes — and family, and how little our human constructs really matter when true affinity exists. And it’s a story, fitting for Jess, who is an anthropologist, of kinship, and the way our connections to each other shape our lives beyond anything else.

In this month’s Mindful Reader, three reviews:

The Mindful Reader: A wonderful read about Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening

By DEB BAKER

For the Monitor

Sunday, November 10, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, November 10, 2013) 

Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakeningsurprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwards’s home, into the lives of his family, their slaves, neighbors, relatives, and yes, even the spiders and insects of colonial Northampton, Mass. Suffering and joy, religious ecstasy and secular sorrow, the conflict between formal theology and individual conscience all make vivid fodder for Stinson’s story, which follows Edwards’s trajectory from 1731, during the religious revival that gripped New England, to 1750, when his congregation dismissed him.

She opens with Edwards sitting in “the big elm in front of his house. . . . People peered up at him through leaves that sifted light, which, he had taught them, was akin to sifting God. . . . Jonathan Edwards ate from pewter plates, not wooden trenchers, which did not go unnoticed in the town. He was useless with an auger, and his wife was better than he was on one end of a two-man saw, but most people who passed by the house on King Street had felt his sermons hammering at their souls.”

Stinson’s writing is clear, dynamic and full of vivid details that evoke early American life. Supporting characters add richness and depth to the story. Through them, we see Jonathan Edwards not only as a minister, but a man. Joseph and Elisha, Edwards’s young cousins, grow up in the shadow of their father’s suicide, which their mother believes Edwards caused with his fervent preaching. Sarah, Edwards’s wife, is a skilled herbalist, has ecstatic spiritual visions, bears 11 children and tries to smooth townspeople’s feelings when her husband stirs them up. Leah, the Edwards’s slave, experiences a personal religious awakening and wonders how people of faith can justify owning other people.

As these stories and others weave through Jonathan Edwards’s accomplishments and setbacks, readers explore the ideas and ideals, conflicts and controversies the characters face. And the big questions Edwards’s preaching raised in a world both very different and very similar to our own, where people’s emotions, resentments, secrets and aspirations color their actions. A fascinating trip back in time and through the human spirit, a story of longing, seeking, loving and struggling that seemed to me as engaging and fresh as anything you might read about a contemporary small town.

For fans of true crime

“The lies you wanted to hear were the easiest ones to tell,” says Lucy to Matt in Lies You Wanted to Hear, Massachusetts author James Whitfield Thomson’s debut novel. In this scene, Lucy and Matt are seeing each other again for the first time 17 years after Matt disappeared with their children. The novel opens with Lucy reflecting on nearly seven years without her family, and then explains what happened. Matt and Lucy are not terribly likeable characters, but Thomson makes them very real. It’s interesting to consider how far people will go in the name of love, and what an enormous claim parenthood makes on the human psyche. Inspired by a newspaper article about a Boston man whose daughters were glad he’d kidnapped them 20 years earlier, this novel should appeal to fans of true crime as well as fiction.

A non-adult book for adults

Monitor Board of Contributors writer Justine “Mel” Graykin wrote her novel Archimedes Nesselrode “for adults who are weary of adult books.” When working at the Philbrick-James Library in Deerfield, Graykin notes, patrons ask her for “something uplifting, in between all the heavy, literary, adult fare.” Her playful title character is an artist whose “creations” appear to be alive, and who shares his home with a basilisk guard, a matronly heron, mischievous marmosets, a bishop who lives in a teapot and many other whimsical creatures. When Nesselrode’s manager, Frank Shekle, interviews housekeepers, he warns them about his client’s eccentricity. Ms. Vivian Mare is undaunted. The household runs smoothly in her capable hands until the full moon, when Nesselrode’s behavior prompts a change in their relationship. By the end of the book, readers learn why Archimedes Nesselrode hasn’t left his house in 10 years, how he creates, what the downsides of his mysterious talents are, and what the future holds for Ms. Mare and her employer.

 

 

 

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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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