Archive for the ‘Persephone’ Category

Persephone Spring

Sorting through the mammoth mail pile that accumulates during a holiday is rarely pleasant but this week it was a delight.  Amidst all the bills and bank statements and junk flyers were three items guaranteed to excite me: the two newest Persephone books (The Exiles Return and Heat Lightning) and the Persephone Biannually.  Now I just have to figure out which of these to read first!

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Princes in the LandSometimes, there is nothing better than starting a book with low expectations.  Everything I had heard about Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan had prepared me for a pretty awful book.  Well, it’s not awful.  It’s clearly not at the level of Hostages to Fortune, another Persephone title which deals with the same subject matter, but it is still a very interesting novel.  I may not have admired the writing and I am afraid the author wanted me to like the intolerable central character but, like most Persephone books, it gave me a lot to think about.

First published in 1938, Princes in the Land focuses on Patricia, a baron’s granddaughter who, after a privileged childhood, chooses to marry Hugh, a young academic.  Indulged by her grandfather and brought up to expect a future with servants to wait on her, Patricia has no idea how to run a home or take care of her husband.  It does not take long for difficulties to arise between the young couple, largely, it seems, because neither of them is at all capable of explaining how they feel to their spouse.  Watching the spirited, horse-mad Patricia try to tame herself to the domestic life is just as difficult for Hugh as it is for her:

In those early years, he was a difficult husband.  Poor but proud – so he thought – he was easily offended.  His Scots reserve involved them in innumerable misunderstandings.  He never said, ‘I hate your having to cook and push the pram.’  He said, ‘It would have been better for everyone if you had learned to cook instead of learning how to break horses.’…Though he must have known better, he persuaded himself into believing the handy old sophistry that women are adaptable and made no allowance for the fact that Patricia was tackling a job that she hadn’t been born or bred or trained for.

But, with time, Patricia learns how to be the kind of wife she thinks Hugh needs and, more importantly, learns how to be a mother to her three children.  As the novel begins, Patricia is proud of August, Giles and Nicola but as time progresses she realises how little she knows each of them.  August, the eldest, makes an awful marriage at a far too early age.  Giles joins the Oxford Group.  And Nicola breaks her mother’s heart by denying any interest in horses, far preferring motors.  As their true characters are revealed, Patricia is horrified by how different her children are from the people she thought them and by how little influence she seems to have on them, these children for whom she’s slaved all these years:

The kingdoms she had won for them they had rejected.  August with his shiny black bag and his bowler hat, his two pounds a week and his gimcrack villa; Giles dispensing God as a remedy for discontent, boredom or sex repression; Nicola without an idea in her head beyond combustion engines – these weren’t the children for whom she’d given up fun and friendship, worked, suffered, worried, taken thought, taken care, done without, suppressed, surrendered and seen her young self die. 

That, really, is the crux of the problem for me: Patricia’s feeling of resentment towards her family, this idea that they owe her something for the changes and sacrifices she has made over the years as she has aged from girl to wife to mother.  Patricia doesn’t push; she doesn’t attempt to control her children’s lives (though, frankly, a little more interference in August’s life would have probably been useful): she just sort of smoulders at them, feeling cheated and hard done by.  She is such a sour woman that it really isn’t a surprise that her children keep their distance from her.  They spend years trying to please her, showing her the sides of them they know she wants to see.  When they dare reveal their true selves they are greeted with nothing but dismay and contempt.

It is hard to take Patricia’s reaction to both Giles and Nicola’s “betrayals” too seriously.  Nicola’s case seems particularly inoffensive: however much you yourself may adore horses, your child not liking them is hardly the dramatic insult Patricia seems to think it.  I can understand her worry over Giles’ sudden religious mania but, again, there are worse fates.  Most of the novel is concerned with August’s fortunes and, there at least, I share Patricia’s concerns.  Having impregnated Gwen, a shopkeeper’s daughter several years older than himself, August thinks the honourable thing to do is to marry her (despite his parents’ reminders that this is really not necessary).  The marriage is not a good one and Patricia must watch as all the energy and vitality seeps out of her outdoorsy son after he and Gwen move to the London suburbs.

Cannan puts a lot of effort into making Gwen appear as unattractive and unsuitable as possible, giving her the kind of aspirational lower middle class tastes and behaviours sure to set Patricia’s teeth on edge.  If you are the kind of person who can’t stand snobs, you are going to loathe Patricia.  (Though I would first ask what you’re doing reading middlebrow 1930s fiction because, honestly, it’s all snobs, all the time.)  I tried so hard to maintain some sort of impartiality while reading these passages but I couldn’t do it: for once, I was in sympathy with Patricia.  I can withstand Gwen’s use of ‘pardon’ but how can you stand someone who buys matching furniture sets, actually likes suburban villas, and, worst of all, uses paper doilies?  It has been more than a month since I read this but I’m still shuddering over the horrible prospect of life with the soulless, materialistic Gwen.  Poor August.  That said, the energy Cannan expends in painting such a relentlessly negative portrait of Gwen and in detailing Patricia’s horrified response seems excessive.  These passages are straight melodrama really, without an ounce of humour – and if there is ever a time for humour, this would surely have been it.

Patricia is intolerable and the writing is mediocre but this is still an interesting book.  I am always intrigued by and love to read about the relationships between parents and their adult children, especially about mothers who must learn the limits of their influence and control.  Princes in the Land proves an excellent guide for what not to do.

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51%2BcSzfloZLWhen I picked up Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey for the first time three years ago, I did so knowing that it is one of those Persephone titles that readers are divided on.  Many loathe it, others adore it.  I am firmly in the camp of the adorers.  I was charmed by it on that first reading and rereading it this month for Simon’s readalong I found it no less wonderful or humourous.

The humour is unapologetically black and the characters – except for a few supporting ones – fundamentally unlikeable.  On her wedding day, bride Dolly Thatcham is hiding upstairs in her bedroom with a bottle of rum while her family and friends – including Joseph, an old lover – mingle awkwardly downstairs.  Kitty, Dolly’s younger sister who is perfectly, horribly, awkwardly seventeen, and their young cousins Tom and Robert, who spend the whole day squabbling over a pair of loud and offensive socks, are the only characters who managed to win any sympathy from me.  Everyone else is awful, which is why I can laugh at their sufferings and delight in doing so.

The genius of the book is its determined lack of sentimentality: no one is treated tenderly, no romance given special treatment or sympathy.  Dolly is at the centre of a love triangle, about to marry Owen, a dull member of the Diplomatic Service, but driving Joseph, a student she had spent the previous summer going out with, almost literally mad with his unprofessed love for her.  And each of them is horrifically unappealing in his or her own way.  But that is what makes the book work.  We see everyone at their absolute worst, hysterical and brittle from the stress of the wedding, and Strachey turns that into comedy.

The first time I read this, I was struck by how it felt much more like a play than a novel (or, given its length, a novella).  Strachey never delves into the inner lives of her characters or even past events: everything is on the surface.  We are privy to exchanges of wonderful dialogue and are given rich descriptions of the surroundings, but that is it.  It was those descriptions that struck me the most on this reading, especially Strachey’s exaggerated use of colour, which she uses to make her characters appear almost grotesque: Kitty disgustingly observes that Owen’s skin appears lilac in a certain light; Dolly makes her face up with a “corn-coloured powder”; and, most strikingly, Mrs Thatcham’s eyes are described as orange.  These are not gentle descriptions but vivid, frequently repulsive ones.

As other bloggers have joined the discussion about this book as part of Simon’s readalong, it has been interesting to see how they reacted to Joseph’s revelation about Dolly in the final scene.  Some seem to take his word as fact but to me that seems problematic for a number of reasons (least of which being that the math doesn’t seem to work).  Joseph spends much of the book in a state of hysterical anticipation, building up to a confrontation with Dolly.  When it doesn’t materialize, he is disappointed, relieved, and still basically emotionally unhinged and desperate for attention.  All this leads to a dramatic tirade against Dolly’s mother, climaxing with some shocking information about her daughter that may or may not be true.  Personally, I am inclined to question it.  There is not one single thing that marks Joseph as a reliable source of information, especially given how he immediately enhances his facts once he begins sharing them and sees how his audience is reacting.

It was interesting to reread this again after a couple of years.  There was something electric about my first reaction to the book – my love for it was immediate and energizing and very surprising – that was lacking this time but I gained a new appreciation for details I had missed.  The experience was different – rereading always is – but it did not alter Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’s position as one of my favourite Persephone books and certainly, in my opinion, the funniest.

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Pretty Persephones

New Persephone Books

My New Year’s gift to myself was a generous Persephone order.  Three weeks later, here they are:

The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

Tea with Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff

I have to admit that I am most excited to read The Children Who Lived in a Barn but it is a sign of my evolving tastes that I ordered not one but two volumes of short stories.

I will not run out of books to read any time soon!

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Christmas Books 2012

Last Christmas, my family showered me with Angela Thirkell books.  This year, they turned to the always reliable Persephone Books (correctly understanding that, with 90% of my wish list devoted to Persephone titles, I might be interested in increasing my collection) and the results were incredibly generous.  In total, I have seven new Persephone books:

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

Patience by John Coates

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

The New House by Lettice Cooper

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson

Of these, I am probably most excited to read The New House but, unsurprisingly, they are all very appealing.  I was lucky enough to be given some other books as well, including Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper, which sounds wonderful.

Christmas cake

Christmas cookies

Though I am obviously excited about my presents, the best part of Christmas (Eve, in our case) is getting to sit around the living room with the rest of the family, enjoying each other’s company and some truly excellent baked goods.  Whenever I read those newspaper advice columns about people dreading the holidays and time spent with relatives, I am thankful for my own friendly family.  It is truly a delight to spend five or six hours together.

Since Christmas morning is a non-event in our house, my mother and I sat down today and watched episodes two through six of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries (we watched episode one a few days ago).  Curled up by the fire and with the rain coming down outside, it was the perfect way to spend the morning, our sighs over Darcy and Elizabeth interrupted only by breaks for tea, oranges, and Christmas cookies.

P&P 1995Now, I’m hoping to spend an hour or two finishing Sylvester before we must prepare to head off to Christmas dinner with my brother’s girlfriend’s family.  Our families get on very well and it is always fun to see them.  It should be the perfect end to a wonderful day!

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08-Good-Evening-Mrs-Craven-webI am slowly coming to love short stories and the more books I read like Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, the faster that conversion will happen.  Published in 1999, this is Persephone Book No. 8, a collection of stories that Panter-Downes, an Englishwoman, wrote for The New Yorker during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ wartime journalism has been collected and published (as Letters from England and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but almost all of the stories in this book had never been printed outside of the magazine until Persephone gathered them in this collection.  And what a service they did us readers by doing so.

The stories are focused on ordinary men and women, examining how their lives and views of the world are disrupted by the war.  This kind of quiet, domestic approach to the effects of war suits my tastes exactly; it is why I am drawn to Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, diaries from women like Nella Last and Clara Milburn, and Persephone’s other WWII-era offerings (House-Bound being one excellent example).  Panter-Downes’ focus is never on the overtly dramatic – there are no dreaded telegrams or major personal tragedies – but that does not make the suffering or disappointments of her characters any less wrenching.  Two mothers brought together through their shared fear for their children in America and Asia in the days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour; a wife trying to hold herself together through the last days of her husband’s leave; a long-term mistress who has no way of knowing her lover’s fate since “the War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses”: these are the sorts of stories that the book is made up of.  Evacuees, rationing, work parties, the home guard…Panter-Downes addresses a wide variety of homefront experiences in a perceptive and direct style that I found irresistible.

The collection is not without humour.  The frustration felt by those hosting evacuees or friends whose London homes were blitzed can be most amusing, as can the gossipy conversations held during Red Cross sewing parties.  To me, though, the most amusing story was the very first one: “A Date with Romance” from October 1939.  Mrs Ramsay, who features in a number of the stories, has come to London to meet an old admirer recently back from Malaya.  Feeling intensely romantic and nostalgic, her fantasy of a tender reunion is quickly dashed by his jolly greeting:

‘Gerald, dear,’ said Mrs Ramsay softly.  She held out both her hands, which Gerald pumped up and down.

‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘old Helen.’  Mrs Ramsay felt a slight but definite chill.

I found the pieces about those saddled with evacuees the most interesting.  Panter-Downes uses a number of stories to address the tensions these situations created and the way lives and households were upset by the addition of outsiders.  “In Clover” is probably the most intriguing, looking at how a young upper-middle class wife’s innocent ignorance is upset by the arrival of a slovenly evacuee and her three children:

Little Mrs Fletcher…had two babies of her own and a husband in the Guards, but her notions about all three were pretty innocent.  On the afternoon her nurse went out, the harsher facts of infant life were concealed from her by the nursery maid, who let her have fun pretending to fool around with two little dears who were always perfectly dry, perfectly sweet-smelling, and done up in frilly organdie tied with ribbons.

By the time the story ends, Mrs Fletcher is no longer quite so unaware of the harsher facts her household had spent years trying to shield her from.

But the story that touched me the most, the one that upset me and actually brought angry tears to my eyes, was “It’s the Reaction” from July 1943.  It is a glimpse into the life of Miss Birch, a lonely ministry employee in London who longs for the friendly camaraderie that had existed between her and her neighbours during the Blitz, when they spent night after night together huddled in their apartment building’s shelter.  Now, they barely even acknowledge one another in the hallways.  Determined not to give up so easily, Miss Birch makes a cheerful and determined attempt to rekindle one of those Blitz-era friendships.  Her effort falls horribly flat and it is heart-breaking.

I found Panter-Downes’ willingness to address such a wide range of reactions to the changes brought on by the war – from earnest enthusiasm to petty but sympathetically-portrayed selfishness – most appealing and, sadly, surprising.  My expectations have been so lowered by other WWII-era books and diaries brimming with patriotic zeal, whose characters or authors would never dare to express any skepticism about the necessity of the discomfort and upheaval the war brought into their lives, that I no longer expect to find anything else.  I am not doubting that there were people – millions! – who exemplified the much-praised wartime spirit but I find it irritating when that kind of sustained optimism and enthusiastic collectivism is treated as the only way to have felt, or, worse yet, the only correct way to have felt.  It is the ability to capture and describe the range of emotions beyong that and to do so without implying any judgment that gives this book so much appeal today, sixty- and seventy-odd years after the stories were written.

The twenty-one stories in this collection are all quite short – most are only around ten pages long – so should theoretically be perfect for those looking for something to dip in and out of.  I say theoretically because I did not dip: I plunged.  Once I started reading, I did not let this book out of my hands.   I now count it as one of my favourite Persephone books and I cannot wait to read Minnie’s Room, a collection of Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories.

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My Persephone Biannually arrived on Friday.  Now, I know I’m not the only one who rejoices when they spot that envelope amidst the rest of the mail but there is something particularly cheering about it arriving on a Friday when you know you have the entire weekend to savour it.

Persephone Books has been much on my mind these past few weeks, as one friend after the other has posted his or her tribute in honour of the release of their 100th book.  I only discovered Persephone a few years ago, in late 2009 when I discovered book blogs.  My quest to learn more about Persephone lead me from one book blog to another, inspiring in me a desire not just to track down certain titles but also to start The Captive Reader.  It is only suiting that I picked my first two Persephone books up from the library the week I started blogging in January 2010.  Since then, I’ve read about two dozen Persephone titles (and accumulated many more) and, while I may greet some with more enthusiasm than others, there is always something about each book that sticks with me.  So far, my favourites are:

Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey

Mariana by Monica Dickens

I didn’t cosy up with my biannually until Saturday night but it was far from the only Persephone reading I did this weekend.  I had quite a little Persephone celebration on my own.  I read The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf on Friday and also dipped in and out of It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst before bed that night, consumed The Priory by Dorothy Whipple on Saturday evening and rounded off the weekend with Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper on Sunday.  Leonard Woolf and I have a few issues we need to work out between ourselves, but Operation Heartbreak was predictably heart-wringing and I adored The Priory.

Now all I want to do is read through the rest of my Persephone collection and, of course, expand it.  My Christmas list is already half-filled with Persephone titles and I am incredibly excited about the two titles they will be printing in the spring: Heat Lightning by Helen Hull and The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal.

Do you remember how and when you discovered Persephone Books?  What are your favourite titles? 


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When I read Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton back at the beginning of February, I didn’t so much read as devour it.  Persephone seems to have a genius for publishing ‘unputdownable’ books and, as with The Home-Maker, Little Boy Lost, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, and The Shuttle, once I picked this up there was no way I was going to put it down until I had read the final page.  This was my first encounter with Crompton and my goodness but could she write an absorbing story.

Family Roundabout revolves around the Fowler and Willoughby families.  Both families are headed by a widowed matriarch, each the mother of five children, each with a very different approach to parenting.  Mrs Willoughby dispenses orders like a general, while Mrs Fowler generally allows her offspring to fumble along with very little interference from her.  Over the course of almost twenty years, from 1920 to 1939, the novel tracks the fates of these women and their children as they struggle with relationships, both romantic and familial.

Mrs Willoughby is my hero.  That is perhaps not what Crompton intended the reader to think but I adored her from the first page and hope desperately to be her when I grow up and have relations to boss about.  She is magnificently confident and has total authority over all her children (much to her sons-in-law’s despair).  There is no problem too small for her notice and she always knows what must be done.  And when Mrs Willoughby tells you what must be done, you do it.  It’s marvellously efficient to have a family so well-trained at taking instructions, though this universal obedience was perhaps the first sign that there were going to be moments and characters that didn’t ring true to life.  For Mrs Willoughby, family is paramount and all-encompassing: cousins, aunts, and all sorts of distant and aged relatives fall under her care.  She is bossy, yes, but also loving and generous: she becomes involved in other people’s lives because she wants to make them better.  When she acquires a daughter-in-law just as forceful as she, she views her not as a rival but as an apprentice to be tutored.  She is overwhelming and probably terrifying if it is your life she’s trying to organize but I adored her.

On the other extreme, there is Mrs Fowler, who is remarkably passive.  Years before, she fell in love with a man who liked weak, silly women so, to win him, presented herself as one.  She has separated herself into two personas: ‘Milly’ is the soft, yielding character her family knows so well, whereas ‘Millicent’ is the one with all the sharp comebacks, who comes out when Milly forgets to silence her.  Now, even after her husband’s death, Mrs Fowler keeps up her Milly-ish appearance so as not to confuse her now adult children who only know her as a dear, foolish lady.  She is generally content with her languid life, passing pleasant afternoons reading in the garden or engaged in other similarly strenuous activities.  Mrs Willoughby’s active interference is utterly foreign to Mrs Fowler, but where Mrs Willoughby drives the actions of her family members, Mrs Fowler’s are driven by her children and their expectations of her.  She dare not travel or let them glimpse her true intelligence, not when they might need her to be there for them to be the simple, sweet mother they know.  She loves her children and is deeply loved in return but knows her limits when it comes to parenting them.  She is always there to support them but would never think of trying to guide them in the manner of Mrs Willoughby.

As the novel begins, these two women and their families are awkwardly united by the marriage of Helen Fowler to Max Willoughby.  Helen was my favourite character from the moment she was introduced as a blunt, managing, unemotional young woman, practical and forthright but unaware of her own heart and of how much she really does love Max.  She was the character I followed with the most interest over the years, as she became fully assimilated into the Willoughby family and was taken up by Mrs Willoughby as her natural deputy (unlike Mrs Willoughby’s own, easily cowed daughters).  Whereas some of the dramatic situations experienced by other characters felt a tad contrived, the minor crisis Helen experiences later in life felt like a very logical consequence of her behaviour.

The novel was going along very nicely until suddenly an extraordinary amount of trouble is experienced almost entirely at once by almost everyone, as through Crompton had decided her characters were all far too happy and that it was now time to upset all their lives on very little pretence.  Okay then.  Max and Helen get off easily, as do his two sisters, but everyone else is tortured to some extent by bad marriages, desperate loves, or…I’m not really sure how to describe what happens to Oliver Willoughby, actually.  That had to have been the most bizarre twist, as he descends from passionate lover to fussy, neurotic bachelor in a breathtakingly short amount of time.  Even allowing for the contrived circumstances under which some of these characters found themselves in these frankly bleak situations, Crompton seems to offer very little hope to some of them for a more cheerful future.

As much as I loved Crompton’s writing style and her excellent sense of humour, in the end I was left pleasantly diverted but not wildly impressed.  The writing is utterly absorbing, the characters are wonderfully realised, and I do think she brings up some fascinating if disturbing points through her characters’ emotional struggles, but for me this was a manufactured drama which admirably served its purpose as entertainment but doesn’t leave you with anything more.  I enjoyed it and will happily reread it but it did not win me over in the way it has so many other readers.  I do know that I will certainly be looking out for more of Crompton’s adult novels (like Frost at Morning).

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Le Pradet, Jeune Femme au Hamac - Henri Lebasque

Having come to the conclusion that there was so much to do that she didn’t know where to start, Mrs Fowler decided not to start at all. She went to the library, took Diary of a Nobody from the shelves and, returning to her wicker chair under the lime tree, settled down to waste what precious hours still remained of the day.

– Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

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I’m a little afraid to talk about The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff, knowing how many people count it as one of their favourite Persephone books.  I liked it (and I love the endpaper).  I am not sure I’ve ever read a more carefully described novel, where all the details are exactly right.  But I would not go so far as to say I loved it.  Indeed, I found it fascinating but difficult to get into and I never really gained any sense of emotional engagement with the story or the characters.

The Fortnight in September is a perfectly observed tale of one unexceptional London family’s annual seaside holiday.  For the last two decades, the Stevens family has taken a two week holiday to Bognor.  Like any long-standing tradition, there is ritual attached to every aspect of their holiday.  We meet the family they night before they set off.  Worrying about the weather, making checklists, and anxiously going over all the last minute details relating to packing and to setting the house, pets, and tradespeople to right before their departure, it’s hard to date when this book was written (it was published in 1931).  All their concerns and thoughts are timeless, reminding me so much of the preparation for the vacations we took when I was a child.

And then they’re off, anxious and excited about their train ride and very, very eager to get to their final destination.  The hassles and fears of travel are flawlessly chronicled (particularly Mrs Stevens worries that either she or the luggage will be misplaced) but, finally, after a very lengthy build up, the family arrives in dear, familiar Bognor.  As he does every year, Mr Stevens has concocted a perfectly planned family agenda, allowing for just the right balance of structure and leisure, and the holiday indulgences (including a large bathing hut rented for their beach days and a medicinal bottle of port for Mrs Stevens) are quickly and giddily obtained.  Then, the family settles down to enjoy their days playing cricket on the beach, bathing in the sea, walking out into the country, and generally taking a break from the stresses of their London lives.  For nineteen year old Mary and seventeen year old Dick, this is the first family holiday where they are both working adults.  Dick, miserable at work, uses the time to reflect on what he wants from life, while Mary, for the first time spending evenings in Bognor separate from her family, falls in love.  For their parents and ten year old brother Ernie, the holiday is less dramatic but no less enjoyable.

All of the emotions of the average holidaymaker are here in eerily perfect detail.   As a portrait of what it feels like to take and enjoy a holiday, Sherriff gets it exactly right.  The resentment when a visit has to be made to an acquaintance, using up precious hours that could be spent on the beach; the thrill of unexpectedly being able to extend the vacation, accompanied by a fear that somehow altering the schedule may make the extra hours less precious; the comfort of staying at the same place, even though it is getting shabbier each year…a jolt of recognition went through me when I read these things, making me think ‘that is it exactly, that is just how it feels.’  But I think it is that perfection that made it difficult for me to grow attached to this book.  The level of detail is extraordinary but there is neither any real plot not, more crucially, is there anything particularly interesting about any member of the Stevens family.  Goodness knows I can do without plot, but, in its absence, the characters need to provide the interest.  The Stevens are perfectly normal people, likeable and recognizable, but deeply unexceptional and, I hate to say it, forgettable.  They are the kind of people you’d be happy to have as neighbours, would always nod to or exchange a kind word with if you saw them, but would completely forget about when they were out of sight.  I was fond of them but did not care about them in the slightest, which made this a difficult novel to enjoy even as I appreciated it.

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