Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Quiet Desperation: Not Necessarily the English Way

Margaret Drabble's The Seven Sisters is a wonderful book in the old-fashioned sense: a beginning, middle, and end, all relayed by a character at turns self-pitying, remorseless, droll, and amusing.

Candida Wilton is a woman of a certain ago whose marriage to the pefect Andrew fell apart after he took up with the more alluring Anthea. At least, this is what we are told when the book, told in diary form, commences. We are told a lot of things that turn out to be not quite the case, all the more evidence that to dismiss older women as washed-out fools is our mistake.

Drabble packs a lot into this novel: how technology is changing society, the dismissive attitudes taken toward women in late middle age, dealing with one's adult children, what to do when the life you were raised to live does not work out. Her prose is a feat of economy while incorporating the sarcastic sidelong commentary seen in Atwood:

"Now isn't it wonderful that my spellchecker on this wonderful laptop machine accepts the word 'unladylike' without protest, but doesn't like the word 'ungentlemanly'? Shall I try 'ungentlemanlike'? No, it doesn't like that either. A small triumph, or a small defeat, for the ladies. But which? I love my spellchecker." (42)

"Tuscany, apparently, is out fashion these days. Tuscany has been done to death. Tuscany is old hat and overrun by yesterday's people. In other words, says Julia, the media are tired of Tuscany. They gave birth to it like Saturn and now wish to devour it." (90-91)

Initially Candida has little to do with her time. She's bought a flat in Ladbroke Grove, a chic if dangerous part of London. There she attends a health club that once housed an adult education center, where she briefly took a class on Virgil. It is this class, and the people she meets there, that propel her from solitary living into a new reality.

Drabble, like her sister A.S. Byatt, possesses a formidable command of classical literature and languages, including French and Latin. I do not possess these things, so while I can appreciate the depth of the novel, I know some of it got past me. I haven't read the Aenied, know nothing of mythology, and thus missed any number of allusions to them as they intertwine with the book's plot.

Candida is both shy and achingly proper. To speak to the crying girl in the Health Club locker room is too direct. To telephone her Virgil teacher, the widowed Mrs. Jerrold, is unthinkably direct. The fact that exotic Anais, a friend from the Virgil class, telephones to ask Candida to the movies is amazing, for surely Candida isn't good company. As for her old friend Julia calling up from France, well, Julia always did keep up with her. Heaven knows why.

Gradually Candida moves out of her shell, calling Mrs. Jerrold only to be warmly invited to the sort of English mews house one might find in the New Times Thursday Styles Section. Back home, Candida contemplates her Virgil, stares out the window at the amazing view her dangerous apartment affords, and dreams of traveling in Virgil's steps through Africa and Italy.

When an unexpected windfall allows her just that opportunity, she rounds up a group of women--fat Sally Hepburn, a woman she barely tolerates but cannot seem to escape, and four women from her Virgil class. With guide Valeria rounding the number to seven, the sisters embark on their trip, which brings life-changing news to three of them. Numbers are important to Candida, and play a large part in the book; sevens and threes predominate. Candida, in a courageous moment, buys a lottery card. This momentous purchase, alas, does not pay off. But it does demonstrate growing courage.

The book takes some interesting narrative turns; the first section is narrated in first person, by Candida, in diary fashion. The second half, the Italian trip, moves into third person omniscent. There is a brief interlude narrated by Candida's daughter Ellen, then we are back to Candida. There is more, but I would ruin the plot if I divulged it. Suffice to say Candida does indeed go on a journey and return a changed woman. The ending is not roundly, sappily happy. Instead it is hopeful: Candida has re-established contact with her daughters, has a wide circle of friends, and a few male acquaintances. It is refreshing to read a realistic portrayal of a woman in late middle age; apart from Anita Brookner's depressing ouevre (am I the only person who thinks they are all the same book?) and Atwood's recent Moral Disorder, one doesn't read much about aging women, much less aging women who refuse to capitulate to lives of quiet desperation. Which may not be the English way after all.


Margaret Drabble: The Seven Sisters. New York: Harcourt Books. 2002.

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