Saturday, July 25, 2009

Love All

There’s more to convalescence than taking pills: a philosophical doctor admitted to me that reading can be part of a cure. I maintain that Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet Chronicles did as much to cure me of an Unidentified Illness as the IV. I’ve read and loved all of Howard’s books, and my ideal vacation would be curling up (pill-free) on a beach in September and rereading them. I picture this as a women's-fiction-a-day holiday.

Love All is an absorbing, beautifully crafted, character-driven novelthat might be dismissed as a romance by a reviewer who doesn't make it to the startling end. Howard’s large cast of characters are linked by place - Melton in the West Country - and by colossal loneliness: It is the late ‘60s, and all know they should have love, but how does one get it? As they frantically try to create the emotion, falling often into unrequited love, only Floy, a garden designer in her late sixties, is level-headed, accepts her life, and doesn’t crave what she can’t have.

Floy’s ideas of love have been shaped by loss, Jane Austen, and selfless caring for her niece, Persephone, whom she raised and still lives with in Maida Vale in London. Percy (Persephone), an attractive twentyish Anglo-Greek, loves her aunt and shares her fascination with Jane Austen, but longs for romance to complete her happiness. She has quit her job in publishing to go on vacation with a man whom she has persuaded herself she loves. He breaks up with her. He’d “simply wanted a jovial extra-marital affair, while she wanted -what? A great love?” Appalled, Percy realizes she has deceived herself about her feelings and has given up a job for a fantasy. When Floy realizes what has happened, she suggests they work together to refurbish a large garden on a millionaire’s estate in Melton. And it is their meeting with the divorced Jack Curtis, the howlingly lonely businessman who has just bought and renovated a mansion, that sets the events in motion.

Jack tries to organize an arts festival to make his mark on the town. The city council is less than enthusiastic, feeling the annual flower festival is sufficient. But after Jack hires Percy to be the festival administrator, she recruits Francis, a council member, neighbor, and painter, who works in a nursery for his brother-in-law, and the two learn the double art of PR and fund-raising.

Percy is at the center, in that most of the men are in love with her. She, however, has become canny: though she has trouble saying no, she knows she has not experienced real love. Proposals begin to make her claustrophobic. She is especially upset by Tom, Francis’ brother-in-law, a widower, who is obsessed by her. Even Tom’s intelligent, concerned sister, Mary, another Jane Austen fan, can’t make it all right.

The women describe love in terms of Jane Austen. Percy feels sorry for Mr. Collins . Floy accuses Percy of being Emma-ish when she tries match-making. Mary wonders if she is Charlotte Lucas as she considers a marriage proposal.

It’s such an entertaining book - definitely not a romance. The ending is a complete surprise - unsettling. I enjoyed this novel very much, though it is sad. Howard is anything but sentimental, and the star-crossed loves of her characters ring true.


Ellen said...

I have an Elizabeth Jane Howard novel in my house; I also have a book of essays by her. I've enjoyed the latter but never been able to get into the former. I need to try at night.


Mad Housewife said...

I don't know her essays, but I have enjoyed her fiction: Getting It Right, Mr. Wrong, etc.

She also wrote an autobiography, Slipstream. She's an interesting writer: married Kingsley Amis (her third husband), so was in his shadow in a way, but I would think would have had a different audience.

The Cazalet Chronicles was made into a Masterpiece Theater series. I haven't seen it, though.