Saturday, June 29, 2013

A hot, fraught summer

Heat Wave, Penelope Lively

I think if Penelope Lively hadn't already won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger in 1987, this book would have been a strong contender in 1996.  In my opinion, it is one of her best, with The Photograph (and much better than Moon Tiger).  Re-reading this week, I kept putting the book down to savor its richness, to consider the tangle of relationships past and present at its center, and to marvel at Penelope Lively's genius.

On the surface, this seems a simple story.  Pauline is spending the summer at her cottage, World's End, "a grey stone building set on a hillside somewhere in the middle of England."  It is actually a conversion of three workers' cottages into two.  She lives in the smaller, where she works as a free-lance editor.  In the larger, her daughter Teresa is staying with her husband Maurice and toddler son Luke.  Maurice is a well-known author of "books on quirky aspects of history that flattered the reader by being simultaneously scholarly and inviting."  He is currently writing a history of tourism, which "will discuss the ways in which the natural and the manmade environments have been exploited in the interests of commerce."  It is expected to be provocative and controversial, and so it may lead to a TV series based on the book.  He has retreated to the country to finish writing and editing. 

Thus, World's End, on this May afternoon which shades off now into evening, as Pauline tidies her desk, leaves her study and goes down that odd precipitate staircase to see what she has got in the fridge for supper.  And thus also Pauline, Teresa, Maurice.  Mother, daughter, son-in-law and husband. Neighbours, relatives, poised for this agreeable summer of industry and companionship.

Into this agreeable summer comes James, Maurice's editor, driving down from London with his partner Carol, to spend weekends at the cottage working on the book.  Most of those weekends include a visit to a local tourist site, a stately home, a medieval theme park offering a "Robin Hood experience," all material for Maurice's book.  The weekend visitors bring a new element, changing relationships and upsetting the balance of the group.  Soon Maurice is traveling up to London, for more research and additional meetings on the book.  Pauline watches in growing dismay, concerned first for her daughter and grandson, seeing disturbing parallels to her own marriage to Teresa's father Harry, which ended long ago in divorce.

At the heart of the story is Pauline, and I found her a completely sympathetic character.  We see the events of the story through her eyes.  Frequently in fact she is literally watching, looking out of the cottage windows, standing back from the group, observing, detached.  She is not really detached, though.  She loves Teresa and Luke with fierce maternal love.  She does not love Maurice, whom she knew casually for years before he met and married her daughter, fifteen years his junior.  In addition to her present observations, Pauline is often caught up in sudden memories, sparked by some word or sight, flashing back to her own parents, her marriage, Teresa's childhood.  In one of the early chapters Pauline remembers visiting Teresa in the hospital just after Luke's birth, which segues into her memories of Teresa's birth.  The past and present run constantly together, as often happens in Lively's books.

Penelope Lively weaves together so many elements in this book, keeping them balanced, each adding rich layers to the story she is telling.  Marriage and parenthood are at the heart.  We see Teresa and Maurice's marriage (through Pauline's eyes), while through flashbacks we gradually learn about Pauline's to Harry.  Pauline sees Teresa with double vision, both as her child, with all the memories of their life together over 29 years, but also now as a mother herself.  Luke, at 15 months, is constantly exploring the world around him, absorbing everything, changing daily, in a process that seems to fascinate Lively.  There is also Pauline's work: she is editing a high fantasy novel, which she thinks a good book but not one likely to do well in the current market (which may reflect Lively's own reading tastes).  There are discussions of editing and writing, of the publishing world, mixed in with Maurice's discourses on the historical tourism industry, all of which I enjoyed.  As always, Lively considers too the history of place, in this case the cottage that once housed the workers who worked the surrounding fields.  From her windows, Pauline watches the growth of the summer wheat, musing on agriculture down through the ages, and the reality of life in the country, too often idealized by city dwellers.

From her windows, she can see the crops suffering over the long slow months, in an unprecendented heat wave that threatens the harvest and the farmers' livelihood.  The temperatues rising outside parallel the increasing tension within.  Lively builds this up slowly but relentlessly, and you cannot help but share Pauline's unease, watching with her from the sidelines.  The ending comes like a thunderclap, irrevocably changing all the lives at World's End. I would love to read a sequel, to know where these people are now.  Then I would know how to interpret that final ambiguous paragraph.


  1. I read Moon Tiger a few years ago and was impressed by it but didn't love it. I haven't tried any of her other adult novels yet but will make a note of this one as you think it's better than Moon Tiger. The tourism aspect sounds appealing too.

  2. Nothing like a final ambiguous paragraph. Seem lots of books have that and I find it really frustrating but this book does sound interesting. Living in a country that is very familiar with drought there is a heaviness that lies already w/ people who experience it so sounds like this author has nailed it. Interesting book experience it seems and good write up of it.

  3. This sounds like an absolutely marvelous book--setting, subject, characters. I have a friend who keeps on telling me to read Penelope Lively, but this review has finally convinced me!

  4. Helen, I started with her adult novels and have just recently begun reading her children's/YA books - I wish I'd found them earlier! There is a coolness, a detachment in her books that I think can make them difficult to love.

    Pam, we are two years into an awful drought here in Texas - and we're on the Gulf Coast, we're supposed to be semi-tropical. The pictures especially from the center & west of the state remind me of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl - just heart-breaking.

    Jane, I'd agree with your friend :) City of the Mind is my favorite I think - and my favorite novel about London.

  5. I read a lot of Lively novels in my gap year between finishing my bachelor's and starting my master's and I enjoyed them. I think, however, I might have been a bit too young to really appreciate her writing. I'd love to try her again now that I'm older. I do have City of the Mind sitting on my shelves so it might be time to give it a go.

  6. Anbolyn, she does have a unique style - and then some of her stories can be a bit grim. I do love City of the Mind, though, and I was just looking at it yesterday & thinking it's been too long since I read it.

  7. I'm slowly working my way backwards through Lively's adult novels and haven't yet reached this, so it's good to know I still have some gems to come. I first came to know her work through her children's books and so it's only latterly that I've realised what a wonderful adult writer she is as well.

  8. Alex, I think I've read all of her adult novels but one. I also tried her short stories but didn't get on too well. I need to get back to her children's boos - I've so enjoyed the ones I've read!

  9. I really like her work, and this one sounds very good. I'll put it on my list!

  10. Jenny, I do think it's one of her best. I'm glad to see that her books are mostly still in print - and now available as ebooks too.


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!