Sunday, 12 June 2011

Someone At A Distance

I bought Someone At A Distance as the third of my latest Persephone '3 for a bit cheaper' deal. I was already committed to Round About A Pound and Few Eggs, and I'd really enjoyed They Were Sisters

I started the book a couple of weeks ago and finished it on my first day in Hay - and it didn't disappoint. A quick plot summary from Amazon: "Apparently a 'fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage,' Nina Bawden wrote in her Preface, yet 'it makes compulsive reading' in its description of an 'ordinary' family, husband commuting up to town, wife at home ('Ellen was that unfashionable creature, a happy housewife'). Disaster strikes when a young French woman visits (the scenes back in France are most beautifully described, with touches of Balzac or Maupassant) and calculatingly seduces the husband. He abandons everything for her; then there is no going back."

I loved the characterisation of the North family, and the way that Dorothy Whipple captures their happiness and relationships while also showing us their tics and flaws. And I found Louise loathsome but captivating - from the first moment we see her we know she's not a nice piece of work. Her seduction of Avery - and the end of his marriage to Ellen - is slow and specific, with key moments described in detail through one or both character's views. Although we know through the omniscient narration that Louise is playing a careful game and shifting her aims as she works out her options, as a reader I felt that there was no escape as each incident seemed to lead inexorably to the next. And maybe that is how Avery explained it to himself at first, because none of the individual actions/situations on their own were inexcusable - and many were inappropriate only because of the cumulative impact.

The book left me thinking about three quite different things.
1) Early on, the narrator compares Louise to Madame Bovary in her social ambitions and as I went on reading the book I found that echoes and parallels kept coming to mind. I've not been able to find any reviews on line which explore this properly with quotes and more sharp comparisons - but it sounds like an essay question just waiting to be set!

2) The book ends 'right' with Ellen back on her feet with a new home, kids happy and secure, and Avery and Louise miserable in each others' company. I found myself wondering about Ellen's final reaction - her sense of pleasure and pride that Avery misses her and is so evidently upset. I wondered about whether they would ever find a way to be together again, and whether I would think that a good or bad thing...

3) Nina Bawden's preface to the Persephone edition suggests that although the book was written and set after the Second World War, the overall tone has a sense of nostalgia which might better place the book in the prewar period. I've been wondering about whether that's true - or whether it's just that the big changes of post-war England had much less impact on wealthy country-dwellers. And I was very struck by how much has changed since the 50s in terms of women's lives - we don't have maids any more and we do expect to work - and often to have a career, with all the associated increases in independence and in hard work because we're still expected to keep house and home together.

There are some great reviews around, including on the Persephone Forum and from the Persephone Reading Weekend (Tuulenhaiven and BookGirl). I also thought that Carol Wallace's review picked on something important about how we feel about unpleasant characters when an author/narrator lets us see inside their worlds too. 

1 comment:

  1. Louise was a fun villain. I just tbr'd Madame Bovary - now I have a connection. Love to find these.