This is a semi-early novel by Iris Murdoch (early 1960s), about her sixth or so, and comes across as an both an interesting blend of the early kind of savageness of Under the Net and some of the later mellowing in her longer novels of the 1980s. Murdoch often writes and rewrites different versions of her novels in different settings. Her second novel Flight from the Enchanter is a model that she explores many different times with different kinds of enchanter figures. Another theme she often explores is when a character or characters are given second chances at love (sometimes in the situation of meeting someone anew or through death or divorce) and in this novel we see Hugh, a recent widower, and his son Randall both getting a second chance at love — Hugh by finding an old flame, some 30 years after their affair ended, and Randall by leaving his family behind. In both cases we find that the consequences differ in both situation and severity and the expectations often come into conflict with the reality.
This novel uses religious duty as a leitmotif through which the different choices are explored and tries to make sense of an increasing numbers of post-war divorce. The central image of an “unofficial rose” which I read as a kind of object of observation and consideration not asked for or fairly considered, is one that Murdoch revisits later in her most brilliant work The Sea, the Sea, which delightfully savage results.
Overall, I tend to enjoy her novels. This one feels like a less fully realized version of a later favorite, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Overall, it’s more mild.