Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Slightest Move

It's funny how a book will work for you perfectly at one time, and not at all at another. This is how Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple, has been for me. I got it for Christmas last year and read about 150 pages of it, and I don't remember what else I was reading or doing at the time but I got distracted and stopped. It just wasn't capturing my attention, and I was skeptical of all the blurbs about it calling it "unputdownable". I was, in fact, afraid all my high expectations of Persephone Books were going to be disappointed so soon.

It's a good thing I didn't decide that was the case for sure, since it would have been premature and very sad. I started the book Monday and finished it Wednesday, which for a 413 page book and my recent reading habits is a bit amazing. It was unputdownable; I now believe everything good anybody's ever said about it. Sometimes I had to force myself to put it down and do other things, because it was overwhelming.

As the story goes, the North family, father Avery, his wife Ellen, their children Hugh and Anne, live comfortably in a house in the country in the early 1950s. Ellen keeps house and gardens, Avery takes the train back and forth to London where he is a publisher, Hugh is doing his compulsory military service, and Anne, at 15, rides her beloved horse Roma when she is home from school for the holidays. It's all very lovely and idyllic. When Avery's mother, old Mrs. North, engages a French girl called Louise to come and keep her company, however, things begin to go wrong. Louise is rather a masterpiece of a character. She compares herself to Madame Bovary, and understands and really likes Madame Bovary. It is, in a way, possible to admire her, because she knows what she wants and how to get it, and she takes pleasure in things, in her artfulness about clothing and about manipulating people. But she also hates things the rest of the characters love, doesn't understand why provincial, simple, artless life is appealing, and expects everyone else to grasp that her way of life is better. She just doesn't care about other people's feelings. She has absolutely no sympathy.

I spent almost the entire second half of the book (which I read in one day) feeling like crying, which surprised me; this kind of story doesn't usually make me cry. But I think I must have discovered one of the few stories that does have this effect. It's stories where the characters could be happy, they could fix what's gone wrong, but they are stubborn or proud or both, they make assumptions about what other people want, and they just don't communicate. They let it go because they assume that's what other people want them to do. When of course it never is. While this story was painful to me, it was very, very satisfying. The characters are so real, and their desires (even Louise's, usually), are understandable.
"If we could be seen thinking, we would show blown bright one moment, dark the next, like embers; subject to every passing word and thought of our own and other people's, mostly other people's." (pg. 181)
It is in this that Dorothy Whipple understands her characters, and that we understand them (even when we want to grab them and shake sense into them). This is a good book, one that I put down after the last page and had to recover from. I went to bed and laid there thinking about how much I wanted to fix things for the characters, and about the ending, which works and provides hope without being exactly happily ever after. It's the sort of book that's left me at a loss for my next reading choice, because how do you follow it? It's not a large story, it's not very out of the ordinary, it's making tea late at night and cleaning out a house, dead-heading the flowers in the garden and mailing a letter, but that's what makes it so good.

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