Spiderweb / Penelope Lively
London: Penguin, c1998.
Stella Brentwood, retired anthropologist, has moved to a small cottage in Somerset. She seems to think that it will be a gentle place in which to spend her time, but, as Lively often points out, rural England is anything but idyllic. For an anthropologist who has spent many years observing cultures in other parts of the world, Stella seems remarkably oblivious to her own. She's settled on this particular cottage due to the influence of her oldest friend's husband -- her friend is now deceased but Stella recalls Richard as the most stable, stodgy, person she knows, and asks for his help in locating a house. He does so, but with more than just the ties of old friendship in mind. Her nearest neighbours, a family of husband, wife and two sons, are quite a creation; Karen, the mother is a completely mad, abusive harridan, and the two sons are scary delinquents. Stella waves at Karen as they drive by one another, assuming she's a nice country lady, and never learns otherwise. She also tries to be cheery to the boys, speaking to them and waving at various times. The boys take this to mean that the 'old bag' is mocking them, embarrassing them, being aggressive. Stella is also faintly surprised that she hasn't really spoken to anyone besides Richard. People keep themselves to themselves in this area.
Stella's determination to be wholly English and rural leads to the climax of the story. She gets a dog and is beginning to settle into being a householder, a settled citizen with house and dog. But her overtures of friendliness are not successful; rather, they stir up the locals, and her two delinquent neighbours, unable to stand her general kindliness, break into her house when she is gone and release the dog, who is later found shot under a hedgerow. This (to Stella) unprovoked violence unsettles and frightens her; when Richard steps completely out of the box she's put him in and proposes to her it completely throws her. Her observations have all been wrong -- and I do wonder whether it is this professional failing alone which precipitates her decision to sell her house and move back to the city. In order to overcome the situation in Somerset and move into more permanent status, Stella will have to stop observing and participate in the life around her. Rather than do that, she sells up and leaves the village, and the book concludes.
It was a fascinating look at how one sees the world around one, and how in turn one is perceived. Stella's anthropological background is an excellent structure with which to study this theme. Like most of Lively's books which I have read thus far, it is a brief novel; in this case, I felt that there could have been much more discussion about rural culture and about Stella's personality if she had decided to stay in Somerset and insert herself into the local surroundings. It would have been a different book altogether in that case; but there were so many tantalizing possibilities that Stella just couldn't reach for. It is rather entertaining actually, how Lively works against all the expected tropes -- Stella does not experience emotional thawing and a more open heart to the world etc. etc. via Richard's interest and a friendly local young person, all the kind of things you might expect in a sentimental book about a lonely female retiree. Rather, she remains utterly herself, unwilling to make those emotional connections and become a part of a community rather than just observing. Lively is never sentimental, just one of the things I enjoy about her writing. Here is Stella, summing herself up:
Her professional life has been that of a voyeur, her interest in community has been clinical. She has wanted to know how and why people get along with each other, or fail to do so, rather than sample the arrangement herself. She has been simultaneously fascinated and repelled. Moving around the world, she was always alert, always curious, but comfortable also in the knowledge that, in the last resort, this was nothing to do with her
Heat Wave / Penelope Lively
London: Penguin, c1996.
This one, briefly, is about Pauline (freelance book editor), her daughter Teresa, and her daughter's philandering husband, Maurice. The three of them are spending the summer in a divided cottage in the middle of a field in the west of England. Appearance are deceiving; the cottages look old and quaint but are fully modernized inside, allowing Pauline to work remotely and Maurice to continue on with his book about tourism in England. The countryside is also not what it appears -- rather than idyllic and peaceful Pauline compares it to a huge industrial factory, with varied farm equipment rumbling up and down the lanes and through fields at all times. Another illusion is Maurice and Teresa's marriage; with a young son and a charming youthful wife, one would think Maurice would be a happy man, but no, he begins an affair with his editor's girlfriend. Pauline sees this clearly; Teresa is in denial. And Pauline also sees it mirroring her early marriage with Teresa's father, another unrepentant philanderer.
The tension builds as the constricted locale, the heat and the inescapable proximity to one another begins to fracture their familial ties. The conclusion comes suddenly and shockingly, even though it is fully supported by the earlier story. Reading this novel about emotion, about jealousy and fidelity, and the appearance of truth vs. its actuality is like being blinded by the summer sun; you dwell in its brightness and one you've finished you emerge blinking. It carries with it a sense of a brooding storm developing over the entire story, like a summer sky does in a heat wave. Compressed within an apparently small, domestic setting, Lively tells an affecting story.