Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A family together & apart

Together and Apart, Margaret Kennedy

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!


  1. I was just craving a 'domestic' novel too and looking at my little pile of Persephones; but I remember now that *somewhere* here (it looks like a Christmas-themed tornado went through my room!), I have Kennedy's still unread The Constant Nymph. Hmmm...

  2. I've not found any of Margaret Kennedy's other books to have quite the warmth of Lucy, but I'm going to carry on looking. I like the sound of this one and I have it on my shelves, 'A Long Time Ago' sounds wonderful, but as my library doesn't have it and copies are rather expensive I shall be looking forward to enjoying it vicariously.

  3. vicki, I keep seeing references to The Constant Nymph as her masterpiece & most popular book, but I haven't looked for a copy of that one yet. I think Virago re-issued it?

    Jane, I did check for a copy of A Long Time Ago on-line, and I was surprised to see how few copies there were, and how expensive - but then none of them were modern editions. Hopefully inter-library loan will come through.

  4. This sounds absolutely wonderful! I am in a domestic fiction phase right now as I've been reading Elizabeth Taylor novels and am in love - it really is my favorite genre. It doesn't look like this is easily available for purchase - I wish my library didn't charge $6 for an ILL or I'd go that route.

  5. Anbolyn, I saw your tweets about Elizabeth Taylor - an author I haven't read yet. I'm so blessed our ILL department isn't charging yet!

  6. I'm reading this at the moment, coincidentally enough, and enjoying it - it seems so typically 1930s somehow, which can be no bad thing. The only other Margaret Kennedy book I've read was her biog of Jane Austen, which I loved.

  7. I've never heard of Margaret Kennedy, but I tend to like the kind of books she seems to write. Lucy Carmichael does seem like the place to start, though.

    I had to smile at your description of the back cover blurb--sometimes they do seem very disconnected from the actual plot line.

    Interesting subject to tackle--in some ways, 1936 seems like such a long time ago, from a societal standpoint.

  8. Simon, I got her Jane Austen book from inter-library loan, after your review & Clare's. But even though it's so short, I had to give it back before I finished it, and I haven't dared ask for it again. I do want to read it!

    Jane, I only discovered her books this year, through another Jane's review! I do think that Lucy Carmichael is a wonderful place to start - it's one of my favorite books for this year. I wonder too about the back-cover-blurb writers, and the cover artists - they can give such a wrong impression of the book!

  9. I've re-read this post now that I've finished the novel, and I agree - what could the love story refer to?? Certainly none of the central relationships seem to fit...

    That summary of her previous novel sounds a hoot, I look forward to your thoughts!

  10. Simon, I suppose it could refer to Mark & Eliza? That's the only real romance I can think of.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!