Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

Weeks ago, I started reading Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. I read a large chunk of it all in one sitting, and then somehow I didn't get back to it for a long time. I kept wanting to read it, but it's so soft and subtle that all the more varied or suspenseful books took precedence. Like the elderly people inside it, the book faded into the background. Finally, in a bid to cut down the stack of books I'm reading, I sat down and finished it.

Mrs. Palfrey, widowed, described as handsome or distinguished rather than feminine, moves into the Claremont Hotel in London. "If it's not nice, I needn't stay," she tells herself, but elderly people like her do seem to stay, regardless. On the other hand, "They Weren't Allowed to Die There." She joins others--Mr. Osmond (who writes endless letters to newspapers), Mrs. Arbuthnot, Mrs. Post, Mrs. Burton (who drinks), this contingent of the old who live in the hotel. Mrs. Palfrey tells them her grandson, Desmond, will be coming to visit her, but he never comes, and she realizes he is not the grandson she had pictured.

When Mrs. Palfrey falls one evening in the street, a young man name Ludo rescues her. He works at Harrods--but not for Harrods; he sits there every day to write a novel. Mrs. Palfrey, embarrassed that her grandson has never come to see her, convinces Ludo to play his part. Ludo soon becomes much more her grandson than Desmond is. Still, Mrs. Palfrey goes on being old.

There is something oddly relaxing about reading this. It's best read in large doses, and if you do so you notice yourself getting into a kind of lulling rhythm. This is by no means to say that the story is boring. Things happen, small dramas, unexpected events. It is often funny. But the tone is so gentle. The characters, despite their many foibles, are never judged, and so somehow you get the impression that the book will never judge you, either. The book seems to say that these people may be silly and old and not always nice, but they're still alive, so whatever they do, it's okay. Which is comforting, despite the unpromising view of old age the book shows. And it gives you a kind of trust in Elizabeth Taylor. You wouldn't mind entrusting your own life to her, you know she would tell it honestly.

I watched the movie a long time ago, and my memory of it is somewhat vague, but I don't think it preserved this quality of the book very well. It was good, and it made me want to read the book, and I remember it better than most movies I've not seen in years. Still, this comforting, trustable feel is one of the best parts of the book, and something that I don't think translates well. And sometimes, the least translatable books are the best, the most whole--they can't be picked apart and put back together again without losing pieces. I'm looking forward to reading some of Elizabeth Taylor's other books, and seeing how she tells other people's stories.

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