Friday, February 25, 2011

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

At last, Persephone Reading Weekend!  I knew I had to read at least one book this weekend by Dorothy Whipple.  After I read The Priory last December, I knew I wanted to read more of her books, and I got three for Christmas! When it came time to choose the next one I just decided to go with the one I'd bought first.  I know this isn't everyone's favorite Whipple, but I just loved it. I loved everything about it -- except the characters I hated, but I was supposed to hate them.

Essentially, this is a story about a marriage in 1950s Britain, and how it suddenly dissolves.  Avery and Ellen North are an upper-class couple living in the country outside London.  He's in publishing but has inherited wealth; she's a busy housewife who loves to garden, and they have two lovely children.  The oldest, Hugh, is doing compulsory military service before he goes off to university, and the younger, Anne is a horse-crazy teenager at boarding school.  On the surface, they seem like the ideal family.

However, Mr. North's widowed mother, who is wealthy and lives in a large estate, is dissatisfied.  No one's giving her enough attention, so she answers an advertisement from a young Frenchwoman, Louise, and hires her to come and stay as a sort of live-in companion and French tutor.  Louise is bored to death living in a provincial town, and angry at having been thrown over by her secret lover for a more socially advanced fiancee.  Staying with the Dowager North is her ticket out.  She is an interloper, and one thing leads to another, but in a really interesting way.

The beautiful endpapers from the dove-grey Persephone edition
(which, sadly, I do not own).

If you read Dorothy Whipple expecting a lot of plot or action, you will be disappointed, as they're extremely character-driven.  But somehow I never notice this.  Her characters are so beautifully realized that I get sucked in to their world and I want to know more about them.  Even though not much happens on the surface, this book raises a lot of questions about marriages and family dynamics, and what motivates people to do the things they do.  Whipple is really good at getting into characters and letting the reader in on what makes them tick.  They're really dimensional -- when she's writing about the characters you're meant to dislike, she is somehow still able to make them somewhat sympathetic.

My one complaint about this book was that so much time was spent setting up the story and developing the characters, the ending seemed a little rushed in comparison.  After two Whipples, I'm beginning to suspect endings might not be her strong point; in retrospect, I realized The Priory had the same problem.  I did like that it was somewhat ambivalent, and not a completely Hollywood happy ending.  It left open the possibility that the characters might be happy, someday.

I really wish my library had this book and that there were enough copies that I could recommend it for a book group, because I think it would be great for a discussion.  This is a book that I will probably buy and give as gifts to other people, simply so I can discuss it with someone else.  My mother is coming to visit in a couple of weeks and I'm quite sure I will be forcing this on her so we can discuss it -- hopefully before she leaves!  If we do, I'll post her thoughts as well. Mom, if you're reading this, prepare for a guest posting.

This is one of the ten Persephone Classics that are available in here in the U.S.  You might not be able to walk into Barnes & Noble and find it on the shelf, but you can order it online without too much trouble.

P.S. I'll be writing about Persephones all weekend, and don't forget about my dove-grey giveaway in the previous post!  I'm planning another giveaway this weekend as well, so please check back.


  1. "she's a busy housewife who loves to garden, and they have two lovely children"

    This basically sums up how I think about Persephones, honestly. And probably the reason why many of them don't interest me. :/

  2. Don't you think Persephone needs to open a shop here? I think Boston would be a PERFECT place for it...:)

    I'll look for this one in my library...I have to confess that one of the Persephones I'm reading this weekend isn't a Persephone.

  3. Amanda -- yes, this is a story about domestic life, but a lot of Persephones are quite different. I'm now reading my 20th Persephone and there's quite a lot of variety, like Still Missing and The World That Was Ours.

  4. Audrey -- Boston's such an old, historic city, it would be a great place -- or Philadelphia. I wish I lived closer to either of those places. We have our own history here in South Texas but it is so different.

    And I don't think it matters if you're not reading actual Persephone editions. I bought my copy of Flush several years ago before I'd even heard of them, and all the Persephones I've been able to track down through libraries were other editions -- some of them were first editions from the original publishers! I do have a nice shelf with both dove-grey and classic Persephones so I don't feel too guilty.

  5. I have this one on my TBR shelf waiting for me. I'm moving it up the stack for sooner than later thanks to your review.

  6. I am itching to give Whipple a try but can you believe that my library does not have a single one of her books available? I will be trying inter-library loans!

  7. Susan -- it's really worth reading. If you haven't read Whipple you are in for a treat.

    Motheretc -- my library doesn't own a single one either. I've gotten some from ILL and bought the rest so far. The only Persephone edition they have is Miss Pettigrew though they have older editions of a few of the Persephone titles.

  8. I have a wish list of Persephone titles that I want to get my hands on. I'll have to make sure I add this one.

    I'm still in the middle of Mariana-have you read that one? I am loving it so far! :)

  9. Allie -- I did love Mariana! I also got The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens which is one of the most recent Persephones. I haven't read it yet, but I'll be blogging about it when I do.

  10. Oh, do foist it on your mother, Karen!

    It IS domestic but that doesn't equate to dull or emotionless - the wealth of raw emotion in Whipple is breathtaking. Domestic themes of adultery and abuse and taking care of children and being a home-maker are themes as prevalent and as relevant as when they were written.

    I agree about the ending - it was too open-ended and I wanted some sort of resolution/not a hint of reconciliation.

  11. Someone At A Distance is a favourite of mine so I"m so glad you enjoyed it too. Very much enjoyed your review.

  12. I've yet to read a Whipple... maybe next year for PRW. I love it when a book has been enjoyed so much/challenged that we want others to read it to discuss it with. Hope you find someone to discuss it with.

  13. I have just read my first Whipple and I had not considered it before, but I think your idea of endings might fit with that book as well. High Wages has an open ended ending. Somehow, that did not bother me so much with that particular story, while I usually feel very strongly that I'd like to have a more clearly formulated ending. Somehow, I was able to let Jane go her own way.. Anyway, I am happy that you enjoyed this book. And I agree, domestic settings do not mean irrelevant plots or plots that make you yawn.

  14. I definitely agree with what you say about the characters being so expansive that you don't feel the lack of action. They're so well realized, in all their lovable, hateful ways.

  15. i think a good number of the Persephones (most of the 4 I read!) would be GREAT for a book club. Alas, they're too hard to find over here. And too expensive to suggest everyone purchase it.

  16. I sort of skimmed your review as I'm right in the middle of this one now but I agree, I sort of thought the main action of Louise and the affair with Avery would start much sooner in the book. I'm finally now seeing where this is headed. That's a bit odd but I'm loving the book. I have a few other books on my nightstand but this is the only one I want to read right now!

  17. Paperback Reader -- I completely agree, it's domestic fiction but it isn't the least bit boring or twee. This is like real life.

    Joan -- Whipples are so worth reading and seeking out! I hope you find time to read one.

    Iris -- I have High Wages on my to-read shelf but I'm forcing myself to wait. I've heard it's a great one though.

    Tuulenhaiven -- I think that's Whipple's strongest point. The characters feel so real and they aren't usually completely good or bad, even the villains like Louise. I hated her but I sympathized with her part of the time.

    Rebecca -- at least it's available as a classic. Some book groups tend to purchase their own books, so it would work for one of those groups. I don't know if my library would be willing to buy 10 or so copies when they don't own any already. The only Persephone they own in multiple copies is Miss Pettigrew which I adore, but I don't know if it has enough for a book group.

    Illiana -- I could not wait to find out what happened to this family! I felt the same way about The Priory.

  18. Skirmish of Wit -- I can see why this is a Persephone Classic. I look forward to reading all the Whipples -- and they're publishing Greenbanks this fall, hooray!

  19. This book is very interesting in that it seems to describe the typical domestic life, but is actually quite different.


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