As I was finishing the second of two fantasy novels that I read recently, I had a sudden craving for a story about regular people, something mid-20th century, rooted in everyday life. I have that kind of book on the TBR shelves, but then we had an early Christmas holiday on Friday afternoon, and what better way to celebrate it than with a visit to a bookstore? After reading and loving Lucy Carmichael earlier this year, I have been meaning to look for more of Margaret Kennedy's books. This Dial Press edition caught my eye, and the back-cover blurb intrigued me:
It is 1936, and in British society the decision to divorce still constitutes a major disgrace - an alternative to be considered only in cases of scandalous adultery. But Betsy Canning decides almost unconsciously to leave her husband . . . Together and Apart is a love story of a most unusual kind. It reflects Margaret Kennedy's greatest talents as a novelist: an accurate yet humorous eye for the minutiae of daily living and a sympathetic understanding of its oddities and complexities.A brief introduction by Kennedy's daughter Julia Birley notes that when her mother wrote the book, "she and my father were puzzled and distressed by what amounted to an epidemic of divorce among their acquaintance."
The story begins with a letter from Betsy to her mother, announcing her impending divorce from her husband Alec. She gives several reasons, such as Alec's surprising success writing lyrics for musicals, and her discovery that he has been having an affair. Betsy insists that their minds are made up, that the divorce is the best thing for everyone, including their three children. In return she receives a telegram: "horrified letter am returning england immediately do nothing irrevocable till I see you . . ." But it isn't her mother who arrives at their summer home in Wales. It is someone else, with a decided agenda, and this person's actions will set off a chain of reactions that have completely unintended - and ultimately unfortunate - consequences.
As the chain of events unfolds, the story shifts between Betsy and Alec, their three children, and Joy, a family friend acting as a mother's helper over the summer. Sometimes we see events directly through their eyes, other times at second-hand, through news (or gossip). One section consists of letters, in which we see reports of the Cannings' situation spreading through their friends and acquaintances, with stories shaded to favor one side or the other, and we watch people choose sides - and even switch allegiances. As time passes, we also see the effects particularly on the children, who must make their own difficult choices.
For me this book lacked the warm heart of Lucy Carmichael, but I liked it very much. I could understand each of the characters, why they spoke and acted as they did, and sympathize with most of them - in the end, even with the person whose self-righteous meddling was the catalyst. It was painful watching them make choices that clearly would not lead to their happiness or good, but they acted and reacted in very human ways. On the other hand, sometimes what seemed like a bad decision came right in the end, against my expectations. Actually, much of the story took me by surprise, because I assumed too much from the back-cover description of a "love story." (I'm still not sure whose love story that refers to.) The opening also reminded me of the 1939 film The Women, a wonderful melodrama about a wife who forces a divorce from her husband over his affair, against the advice of her mother. I think that set up some other expectations in my mind. Instead, I found a very different story, of a family torn apart and re-made, of the different faces of love. I wish there was a sequel, to see where these people are in ten years, but then those years from 1936 will bring even greater changes and challenges to them all.
The introduction also describes the book Margaret Kennedy wrote before this one, A Long Time Ago, as "a hilarious evocation of an Edwardian houseparty invaded by an amorous prima donna." I've already put in an inter-library loan request for it!