This is a 1935 novel from the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. I know her primarily for her novel The Death of the Heart, which always reminds me of the Cure song “Pictures of You”, but I think she’s also as well known for The Heat of the Day. This novel takes place primarily in Paris at a house on a single day. Henrietta has been promised a trip to Menton, the last town on the southern coast before you get to Italy. It’s a seaside town, and she’s very excited. She’s 11. In the meantime, she must wait for the adults to get themselves together. She’s told to hang out with Leopold, a slightly younger boy who also seems to be waiting for something to happen. What we find out is that Leopold, an adoptee, is waiting to meet his birth mother for the first time ever, and needless to say Henrietta doesn’t really feel generous with her excitement.
The novel then jumps back in time to tell the family history that predates these children and leads us up to the present again. We close one last time in the present moment.
The novel is not quite as big M “Modernist” as a Virginia Woolf novel, but does seem to be influenced by her writing, especially I’d say To the Lighthouse. There’s a clear sense of the past being always overlaid on top of the present here. There’s also a very present and prescient narrative voice at play incisively scouring these figures. That voice is almost otherworldly and strange (in good ways) in the opening chapter of the “Past” section.