Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Sensible Life

It's always lovely to finish a book you've been reading for ages. It's not that it's long or dense, that the book hasn't kept my interest, or even that I haven't had time, just that I've been distracted. Reading novels has taken a back seat to reading other things, mostly online. Actually, I've been wanting to read A Sensible Life, which is the second Mary Wesley book I've encountered. Or, perhaps more accurately, I've been wanting to want to read it. And this weekend I've finally had the time.

I first discovered Mary Wesley when I saw the miniseries adaptation of The Camomile Lawn, and subsequently read (and wrote about) the novel. It's interesting to compare the two. Both span about 40 years, and have main (or semi-main, in Camomile Lawn) female characters who are 10 years old when the story begins. Both books also follow a cast of characters who were all together once, long ago, as they grow up and go their separate ways. Mary Wesley's books could thus perhaps be called formulaic (the endings are extremely similar, too), but although themes and certain situations recur, the stories, the shape of the cast, and the mood differ enough to make them thoroughly worth reading.

A Sensible Life begins in France in 1926, where English families go on holiday with their children, thinking it good for them to get some sea air and learn some French. Flora Trevelyan is 10 years old, shy, with distant, inattentive parents. This holiday is her first encounter with real families and with love. She falls in love with three boys: Hubert and Cosmo, 15-year-old English schoolboy friends, and Felix, 21-year-old Dutchman. It is the people met on this holiday who step in and out of the rest of the book, getting older and living mostly happy, mostly sensible lives. Cosmo's sister Mabs and her friend Tashie, his parents Milly and Angus, Flora's parents, the Russian immigrant dressmaker Irena, and others.

What shapes this book, and The Camomile Lawn, too, is that it's the events of adolescence that are the brightest, clearest, and most lasting. Everything that happens later springs from or revolves around things that happened on that holiday in France, or during a holiday at Cosmo's house, Coppermalt, five years later. And it takes a long time for things to change, for the relationships Flora begins at 10 years old to pan out in one way or another. Some things take four decades.

It's probably because of the focus on youth that these books are so very bluntly sexual; people have and talk about sex in proportion to how much a part of life it actually is, unlike many books, especially those about this time period (but this was written in 1990). The writing is lovely; some blunt, irrelevant statements somehow sum up entire scenes. Like this one--it may not work out of context, but it's a bit funny nonetheless. They're talking about having lusted after Botticelli's Venus when they were fifteen or so.
Hubert said, "Rubbish," and lay back, stretching his legs towards the fire. For a while neither spoke. Hubert's glass rested empty on his chest; Cosmo let his drop to the floor. Presently, rallying thought from far away, he said: "It wasn't a cockleshell the Venus was standing in, it was a scallop."

Hubert said, "Of course, how silly of me. It was a scallop."
So this was a lovely, satisfying, very real and imperfect book. I'm glad it didn't suffer from my slow reading of it.

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