Friday, April 17, 2009

A Tale of Two Families

Dodie Smith’s A Tale of Two Families is the fifth and rarest of her novels, and if I hadn’t set out to read her entire oeuvre, I would never have unearthed it. Perhaps the library didn’t stock it. I was familiar with three of her other titles: I Capture the Castle (everybody’s favorite girlhood book), The Town in Bloom, and It Ends with Revelations. But the two best, The New Moon with the Old, and A Tale of Two Families, never appeared on the shelf, or were stolen by mischievous girls in capes (our look back in the day--not that I stole, but I once lost a copy of Ozma of Oz, and refused, in some strange act of civil disobedience, to pay the fine. "I don't pay taxes: I don't owe the money," I announced dramatically. I lost my library card).

This beautifully-written short novel hinges on the decision of two middle-aged sisters, May and June, to move their families from London to the country to live in two neighboring houses, the Dower House and the cottage. Although the houses are beautiful, they are somewhat leery about the move, and with good reason: The sisters are married to two attractive brothers, George, a philandering, wealthy businessman, and Robert, a writer, and attractions flare up with the proximity of the two families.

When May and June’s mother, Fran, comes to visit, this tactful, experienced, seventy-something character unobtrusively becomes the most interesting character in the novel: she has a knack as an observer for solving problems and her wry, sensible interior dialogues about family life balance some of the crazier goings-on (particularly when her sister, Mildred, arrives: Mildred goes around dressed like Little Bo Peep and fantasizes about and meddles in other people’s sex lives). Fran also befriends Baggy, George and Robert’s father, who has switched from living with Robert’s family to George’s in the country.

There is a long, lovely, totally absorbing description of Fran’s shopping trip in the village, interspersed with amused remembrances of a song about a baby elephant learning to cross the street, and as the traffic is heavy, the song amuses her: she lugs a psychedelic shopping bag with her purchases, a suit and a green toy frog, and a scale which won’t fit in a bag, and has a minor accident that makes her aware of aging.

She stood on the kerb watching a steady stream of cars. (A woman standing beside her said resignedly, “Factory going-home time.’) She could see no pedestrian crossing. How did one get across? If there was a momentary break in the traffic on her side of the wide street, cars on the far side were sweeping past. She noted that hardy souls got as far as the middle of the street and then waited. She’d simply have to do the same...and very nerve-wracking she found it, standing there unauthorized by any island, expecting cars to crash into her behind. Really, this country High Street was more dangerous than Piccadilly Circus. At last! She could make it now if she was nippy. She started out - and instantly saw...a truck....She began to run, or rather, she intended to begin, what actually happened was that she found herself incapable of running. She simply could not run - it was like some nightmare in which one had leaden feet. Run, run!...Somehow, somehow, she staggered to safety only a couple of seconds before the truck swept past. And then, for no reason at all, her legs gave way and she sank to the pavement, dropping everything she was carrying. The clanging scales sounded like a car smash.

Fran is unscathed - but this is the first time she has confronted aging. Yet in many ways Fran seems younger than her daughters.

Everyone comes in pairs: May’s daughter, Corinna, a drama student in London, is in love with June’s son, Hugh, who works in the City, and May is appalled, beleiving they may marry and have abnormal children. But she needn’t worry much, because Hugh, it turns out, is sexually cold, and Corinna has to look elsewhere for sex.

If you like The Hundred and One Dalmatians, there is a sweet dalmatian in this novel! Dodie Smith raised dalmatians herself. There are several love scenes between dog lovers. But I won't spoil it...


Ellen said...

The two sisters reminds me of Austen's and so many books, the rivalry too, and I notice the use of the name _Corinna_ (a favorite of Austen's). _I Capture the Castle_ has many allusions to Austen. Of Fran standing in front of traffic, one might think of Emma looking out the window from Highbury, only it's a contrast. I've found myself unable to go through a quick turning revolving door or get on an escalator in NYC at times; the same strong feeling of reluctance and panic and paralysis.



There IS something Austen-ian about this novel. Village life, two families: the beginning seems a little stagey, as Smith was a playwright, but it becomes totally believable and fascinating.