Sunday, April 18, 2010

Another Persephone Book

Once a month or so, my mom asks me “Have you read Someone at a Distance yet?”

So, when I packed my suitcase to go to Seattle for Easter, I popped Someone at a Distance in my bag, confident that her presence would prompt me to get started on the book. It did and I have. What a lovely novel.

Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 book, reprinted by the amazing Persephone Books, is a really lovely, quiet, devastating bit of domestic fiction. Ellen North, the sweet and generous 43-year-old wife, is at the book’s heart, but the omniscient narration keeps her at a distance. And those very English, decorous distances are a theme of the book, beginning with the twin beds, three feet apart, that furnish the bedroom she shares with her husband Avery. Distances can signify comfort or discord and they do both here.

The book explores the devastation that just one unhappy person can wreak on the lives of the contented middle class. At first, that unhappy person is Ellen’s mother-in-law, a widow who feels that she is far from getting her due in attention from her son, daughter-in-law, and their two teenage children. But, when Mrs. North hires a French girl to live-in as a companion, the plot really sets in motion: Louise's unhappiness is the serpent in Mrs. North's beloved suburban garden.

For the long, slow (but not dull) first half of the book, Whipple spools out, Louise’s grudge against the world and her icy quest to get her due alternating with Ellen’s happy, middle-aged contentment in her garden, her marriage, and her growing children. When Louise finally strikes, the devastation is swift and total. From there, the plot picks up, and the denouement is every bit as riveting as the exposition.

The writing is straightforward, not showy but always apt. There are some occasionally really elegant and deft phrases and Whipple goes into the motives and reactions of each of her characters, major and minor, with tremendous sympathy. The book is a masterpiece of middlebrow fiction: not aspiring to the status of literature, but miles better than most plot-driven psychological novels that keep your local Borders stocked and your neighbors’ reading groups talking. This would be a wonderful book to talk about with a friend.

Or your mom. I’m waiting for mine to call me now so we can…

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