I read this book on a recommendation from Modern Mrs. Darcy, who said something about this being the sort of book that, upon reading the last page, she immediately turned to the first page and restarted. I have some reservations about recommending this book as whole heartedly – even MMD noted that she was a little exasperated in the first 75 pages or so. On balance, I would say I really enjoyed this book – it was both more than what it seemed as I settled into the first few chapters, and yet still, just a bit less than I was hoping. What I’m saying is, if you’re going to read this book it is best to go into it with lower expectations, which Hazzard will surely surpass.
The plot revolves around two sisters, Grace and Caroline Bell. The novel takes place over a few decades post the Korean War, with flashbacks (primarily war-focused) into the early 20th century. Because the novel takes place in England, when characters talk about the war they have a very visceral sense of what happened – some characters fought in the war, and I think as an American I have heard those stories. But it’s always shocking to me to read about what happened to people living in England while a war was taking place all around them – the stories about children who were temporarily relocated or put to work in some way because the threat of actual bombs falling on them. Grace and Caroline emigrate from Australia with their half-sister, Dora, who has looked after them since their parents death (in a boating accident – and I’m just now realizing that this book might be described as Frozen, but make it tragic). Grace gets engaged to Christian Thrale, whose father is an aging scientist. Ted Tice, another scientist, visits the elder Mr. Thrale for a summer for … science (when did we officially disband the practice of sending young academics to an older professor’s home for a period of time? Why did we ever start this practice in the first place?). While there he meets Caroline and Grace, as well as Paul Ivory, a playwright who is engaged to the heiress in the castle next door. What follows that summer will be the main plot of the novel – you see, Ted loves Caro. Caro loves Paul. Paul is engaged to high society woman, for reasons that are explained closer to the end of the book.
At the start of the novel, all of these main characters are youngish, and Hazzard does an absolutely beautiful job of exploring the ways in which life starts out so expansive, so full of choices – and becomes whittled down with age. Each choice leads to a specific sort of life, and most of us don’t really understand that until we’re right there in it. Almost all of the characters live with regret of some sort. Hazzard also provides an empathetic look at the ways in which the characters attempt – and some struggle with a great deal – to live a moral life. There is a mighty struggle between what parts of ourselves we are obligated to share and what parts we should keep shrouded from others. When do we share our stories?
Hazzard’s writing is so exact that it does take a few chapters to really feel in the moment with the story. Every sentence has hidden beauty. I cannot imagine another author who can so successfully write with as many metaphors and still create something comprehensible. As an example – when visiting a graveyard, a character thinks: “Here lieth all that could die of Oliver Wade.” Hazzard has a husband and wife contemplating diversions from their marriage both ruminate on the power of books – one thinks, “Literature was a good servant but a bad master” (in reference to the volume of love stories that he blames for his restless feelings about his life), while the spouse laments that, in her own straining against their marriage, she cannot find in herself “a state of receptiveness in which another’s torment might reach into her own soul” (ie, she’s in a reading slump). Every word has meaning. Even if this novel is primarily about love and sex and death, as most novels are, it is elevated by such precise writing.
The novel carries you to it’s inevitable end – within the first few pages, there is a preview of what the future will bring for at least one character. There is no misapprehension that this is to be a happy tale where all is sorted out in the end. It is very clear that each beat was planned out, leading to the final part of the novel (called “The Culmination”). That ending certainly does remain with you beyond the words on the page. At the end of the day, I’m glad to have let Paul, Grace, Christian, Ted and Caro’s torment into my own soul.