Reading this extraordinarily perceptive novel in my garden during the July heat wave, the cover gradually fading in the sunlight and the pages getting crumpled by my fingers greasy with sun cream, I was absorbed into the world of Penelope Lively’s book: one simmering with barely contained emotions and the heat of an extreme English summertime.
At just under 200 pages this book is no epic. Instead, Lively is interested in presenting her reader with an authentic representation of the complex and messy realities of a very insulated set of characters’ lives. In particular, she focuses a magnifying glass on the intensely sensitive relationship between a mother and daughter, Pauline and Teresa.
The novel focuses on Pauline’s tumultuous dismay and empathy as she watches Teresa remain devoted to her charismatic but now unfaithful husband, Maurice – a devastating repetition of Pauline’s own historical mistakes with her ex-husband Harry. Lively frequently thrusts us back into Pauline’s memories of her marriage to Harry. A vivid picture emerges of their passionate love transforming into arguments over his infidelity and eventual marital breakdown. Maurice and Harry bear striking resemblances: from their magnetism, egos and celebrity-like statuses within academic circles, to their total lack of any empathy or shame. Like Pauline, we can only watch helplessly as, with increasing certainty of Maurice’s adultery, Teresa retreats into herself, coming to focus entirely on her infant Luke’s care and refusing to confront her hurt.
Pauline and Teresa know each other so intimately that they sense the minute nuances of each other’s every emotion and thought, rarely requiring words for mutual understanding. One of my favourite passages depicts a silent conversation between mother and daughter in which they communicate their understanding of Maurice’s behaviour:
“There is a silence – a silence in which a wordless conversation takes place, the product of years of intimacy and of intuitive interpretation of the set of a mouth, of the flavour of a glace – the undertow of all that is unspoken. Look, says Pauline – I know. Don’t think I don’t know because I don’t say anything. And Teresa tells her – I know you know […]”
… captivating. I was infatuated with moments like these where Lively would do beautiful justice to Pauline and Teresa’s every facial expression and vocal intonation during certain conversations, as if describing them through a camera lens reduced to slow motion. She skilfully extends what would, in real time, be a split-second eye movement or vocal tone across multiple lines of text seamlessly, while skilfully avoiding any sense of dragging these moments out gratuitously. Such an impression of unspoken understandings extends to Pauline’s relationship with Maurice. The look she gives him after her suspicions of his adultery are confirmed renders accusatory words unnecessary – from here on all their conversations work at two levels, with the surface level of communication constantly undermined by the mutual understanding that Pauline knows of his deception and hates him for it.
The intelligence of this writing creeps up on you gradually. While some readers may feel that Lively drags certain scenic descriptions too far, I loved how these encapsulated the lazy heat of summer sunshine. As far as I’m concerned, every word deserves its place in the book.
Pauline and Teresa’s close familiarity is manifested physically by the fact that their houses – summer retreats in an unspecified English countryside – are adjoining. Combined with the homes being named “World’s End”, a distinct and potentially sinister sense arises that there’s no escape from Pauline’s watchful eye. She’s fiercely intelligent – her job as a copy editor has trained her to be methodically analytical, picking up on inconsistencies and mistakes – and this shines through in her self-awareness, sharp wit and watchfulness of Teresa and Luke. She has a beautifully empathetic comprehension of Luke’s innocent and inquisitive engagement with the natural world, which is so often at odds with the oppressive weight of the adults’ interactions. Ultimately, with the novel’s titular heat wave providing a background that is as stifling as Pauline’s motherly, protective impulses are potent, Lively displays sensitive subtlety in drawing the complex relationships and heightened emotions at work in this fragile family at risk of imploding under the weight of the unsaid.
Overall, this brilliantly nuanced read really moved me. It examines mistakes, rashness, human fault, healing, and the kind of fiercely protective instincts for loved ones that drive people to startling acts. Pauline certainly proves herself a force to be reckoned with. The novel’s concentrated length means the reader anticipates an acceleration towards a dramatic climax, and Lively extends this tension to the extreme, waiting until the very final pages to assault us with the drama we believe, naively, we are ready for.
Three more of my summer reading suggestions: Moon Tiger (also Penelope Lively), Bonjour Tristesse (Françoise Sagan), Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald).
– Naomi Hart
Featured Image and first image are original photos.