After her elderly father’s death, Athene Price and her two siblings are shuffled off out of sight for the summer. Elder brother Sebastian heads north to what he has described to his family as a Buddhist retreat (it’s not), younger sister Phoebe (better known as Beams) is sent to join a sickeningly jolly family by the sea, and Athene herself is bounced from one middle-aged female acquaintance to another – or at least that is the plan. Meanwhile, their mother bounds round the country in search of gentile employment (for, though written in 1973, the book is set between the wars), writing breezy and slightly bossy letters to her offspring to update them on her findings:
My darling Mim, say your prayers, not particularly for us for we have nothing to fear (see Matthew vi.28: lilies of the field) but for the poor people of Putney who are entirely without occupation other than stirring their tea about. The streets round Larpent Avenue are utterly silent and everyone makes a great point of not knowing the people next door. A curious Christianity and I have told both them and this curate and continue to do so. They have not one word to say in reply.
Athene is a model of all the virtues, an ideal daughter and sister, as dependable and calm as she is beautiful. Compared to her siblings, her summer plans seem quite boring: a few weeks with her godmother, then a family friend, and then an aunt. All perfectly respectable and perfectly dull, especially compared to what her siblings have planned. But, of course, things do not go quite as planned. She does quite well at the lifeless hotel where she spends the first few weeks, a period enlivened only by glimpses of a handsome boy, but once she moves on to her next destination things go horribly awry. The next few weeks see Athene running away and spending the night in the cottage of a middle-aged painter before holing up in an empty boys’ dormitory and falling in love with a married schoolmaster. It is only when the summer draws to an end that others discover what an eventful time she has had and Athene herself finally begins to deal with the fallout from her father’s death.
The plot is a little too flimsy and sequential to be all that interesting and the character development is minimal. What is so fun about this book is Gardam’s wonderful way of turning a phrase. What style she has! When discussing the oddness of Athene’s name, Gardam contrasts it with the names that were normal at the time “back when middle-class English females were called breezy, artless names that went well with tennis.” I love that. Gardam also momentarily abandons Athene’s adventures to check in with her siblings. Though Sebastian’s narrative is pretty standard, Gardam allows herself a bit of a freer rein when it comes to Beams, letting us glimpse the young girl’s summer diary:
Part 1, Sub. Sect. 1. Page 1.
My name is Beams, short for Moonbeams (big glasses), Phoebe at the font. Ugly as sin. Alas for me.
I am at present staying in Wales with the Padshaws. I care nothing for the Padshaws and the Padshaws care nothing for anybody. What they care about – all they care about – is things like caulking, tacking and drying facilities. They have a boat. They worship this boat. It is a most interesting thing to observe, this boat worship, and I have already made a small study of it anthropologically. I intend to become a psychiatrist eventually but at present I am studying anthropology as I believe that psychiatrists get pressed for time.
I could happily devour an entire book written from Beams’ perspective.
Not a special book and not a memorable one, but still a very enjoyable read.