Penelope Lively has a dark side that has kept me engrossed on and off all day. The object of picking up her 1996 novel Heat Wave this morning was to digest an English "comfort read" in a one day helping. Well-written but light fare. Clearly I had no prior experience with her writing, but when the dustjacket blurb promises a story of a copy editor spending her summer editing a novel about "romantic love... unquenchable, irresistible love," and the hint of family drama and a generational embrace of poorly chosen love objects, well, ... My expectations were not well-aligned with what was actually delivered.
The choice to write in third person, present tense was the first thing to challenge my assumptions. It soon became clear that this choice said much about the characters presented. Not one of them would ever tell this story as it is presented. The unsaid amongst the characters is brilliantly oppressive. And no outside or peripheral character in the story would have been able to delve this deeply into the story especially into these depths of near obsessive love and sexual jealousy. So this occasionally terse but always keenly observant omniscient narrator is required. For the distance. The careful negotiation between the heat of feeling and the iciness and near shame of the public face it wears.
And after all that the story will sound so simple. Pauline is spending the summer in the country in one of the two cottages she owns on a property called World's End. The other cottage is occupied by her daughter, Teresa, and her husband, Maurice, along with their toddler son. Pauline edits manuscripts all day, Maurice is finishing a book, and Teresa minds her child. All is well until Maurice's editor and his girlfriend begin spending the occasional weekend with them to work through the final revisions on Maurice's book. It soons becomes obvious that Maurice is having an affair with his editor's girlfriend, and Pauline feels not just her daughter's pain but also the pain of her own failed marriage to Teresa's father. "Pauline is carved up by what she sees in Teresa's eyes, by Teresa's painfully level tone, by her own familiarity with Teresa's private darkness."
The story begins in May and ends at the close of summer at wheat harvest time around World's End. As the heat of the summer becomes unbearable, so does the marriage between Teresa and Maurice. The wheat has dried out and it is questionable if it will survive harvesting. The storm, the denouement of the story, will wash what clean? The story is too short to reveal too much. Just read it.
This leaves me with a taste for another writer of short texts named Penelope - Fitzgerald this time. The only unread Fitzgerald title I have on hand is The Golden Child which I have been told is, as many first novels are, just a warm up to better things. But I'm willing to take that chance. It's right next to me now.