Perennial, 2000; 218 pages
First published 1998
Lively's beautifully written novel tells the story of Stella Brentwood, a 65-year-old newly retired anthropologist who's recently moved to a small cottage in Somerset, England to begin her post-employment life. In new unfamiliar surroundings, Stella falls back on tried and true habits of observation and study. She immerses herself in village life, just as she's done in many parts of the world over a lifetime of field work, all the while maintaining a professional distance from it all -- still the anthropologist who can't allow herself to become too entangled in the lives of the people she's studying. But these new "subjects" are also neighbors and friends, and Stella finds that in retirement she has new opportunities for human connection, and even love. Can she make the emotional commitment these new relationships require?
And at the same time, there are those in the village who aren't so friendly or happy to have this stranger in their midst. Woven in with Stella's story is that of the horrifically dysfunctional Hiscox family -- mother, father and their two young teenaged sons. The boys' home life is hellish, and at school they're social outcasts. They see Stella as a crazy old lady, and mistake her attempts at friendship as ominous meddling. Will they pose a threat to Stella and her new existence?
I always enjoy Penelope Lively's books, and this is one of her best. The writing is stunning, as always -- elegant, intelligent, and yet very accessible. The subject matter is thought-provoking and deeply serious, but not heavy or lacking in humor. And the characters are believable and vivid: Lively can delineate an entire character with just a word or two.
I enjoyed the fact that the story is told (not completely, but mostly) from Stella's point of view, without a lot of changing perspectives -- and largely in the present, although a lot of Stella's memories are always on display. Lively does tell us a lot about Stella's past -- we learn about her field work in several different locations, and her long friendship with her University mate, Nadine, and Nadine's husband Richard; we get glimpses of her life with her parents, and we see her through a couple of serious love affairs. Actually, there's quite a lot of story packed into these two hundred pages! All of which is fascinating -- and necessary, of course, to explain the present-day Stella and how she got to this point.
I loved that the book's protagonist is a "mature" woman who's not either dying of a dread disease, struggling with senility, or fighting with her children. Although she's reached retirement age, Stella is active, in good health physically and mentally, has no children and doesn't spend half the novel moaning about that lack. Even though her interpretation of events has been shaped and in some ways distorted by her life-long habit of dispassionate observation, I found Stella a very appealing and sympathetic character.
This is one I can definitely see myself reading again and recommending.