My rating: 7.5/10. I know that Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is something of a pet author among the book blogging crowd, but I find I sometimes have to try really hard to whole-heartedly like her style. I found the writing in this novel rather stilted and distant; I also found the story itself depressing, with the humour being on the subfusc side of the spectrum.
To be quite fair, there were numerous passages of exceedingly enjoyable prose, and I did easily make it to the end of this slight novel without losing interest. And as this is my second time willingly reading this book, it can’t be all that bad! Perhaps the fact that this time round it was hospital bed reading has coloured my review? I’ve just had an unplanned foray into the medical world, with prospects of more blood testing, scans and bed-time to come; this is certainly souring my current disposition. I’m thinking Elizabeth Taylor is not a good author to be reading in that venue. (Or perhaps she is the very best? Highlighting the cynical side of life, and all…)
Nineteen-year-old Cressida (Cressy) has lived all of her life in the exclusive artists’ colony presided over by her patriarchal maternal grandfather, Harry Bretton. The only child of meek mother Rose, and ineffectual father Joe (an Irish would-be writer hand-picked by Harry as a suitably infuenceable husband for his daughter), Cressy yearns for a life outside of the earnestly dull extended-family enclave she is trapped in.
Harry Bretton was once a outré artist whose depictions of Biblical scenes incorporating contemporary settings caused a certain stir. The art world has moved on, and such non-conventional depictions are now the norm, but Harry clings to his old style, supplementing his decreasing artistic income by forays into religious lecturing, as well as taking in well-heeled “disciples” eager to study at the feet of the “Master”, as he has self-styled himself.
Cressy first announces her renunciation of religion, to her mother’s shock and, disappointingly, to her grandfather’s tolerant amusement – he casts an omniscient view over his subservient clan, and patronizingly assumes that this is merely a youthful rite of passage, though more suitable perhaps to a boyish temperament rather than that of a girl. (Harry Bretton has decided views regarding the proper subservient role of the female sex.)
Cressy then finds herself a job doing menial chores at the village antique store, and, in a small sequence of coincidences, meets a middle-aged journalist who is a friend of the antique shop owners, as well as having previously written a sarcastic article regarding Harry Bretton’s establishment. David Little is modestly successful in his field, and, living with his divorced mother, has a comfortable enough life, though he has noticed that of late romantic relationships are becoming more and more unsatisfactory, as all the “good ones” – desirable women with looks, charm and pleasant personalities – are leaving the singles scene for the securities and domestic pleasures of marriage.
David surprises himself by his attraction to childish Cressy’s innocent enjoyment of such worldly pleasures as television, hamburger bars and ready-made clothing, and soon the two are romantically involved, to the initial pleasure of David’s emotionally needy and manipulative mother Midge, who sees in Cressy an unthreatening solution to the long dreaded break-up of her mother-son domain.
Cressy and David marry, and Midge turns her full attention to preserving the status quo by erasing Cressy’s already feeble self-will and ensuring the continued attendance of David at the maternal beck and call. Cressy’s pregnancy and subsequent incompetent attempts at motherhood eventually bring about a shift in the balance of power as Midge becomes infatuated with her new grandson, and David realizes that the only hope for himself and his marriage is a breaking away from his mother’s insinuating grasp.
The ending is ambiguous and could be slanted either optimistically or the reverse; I chose to read into it a hopeful future for all involved, though this is in no way guaranteed by the author’s very hands-off approach.
I felt that the characters were nothing like as fully developed as they could have been; Midge seems to be the only fully rounded person in the story, and might indeed be the main protagonist. Cressy and David came across as mere sketches, though there are glimpses into the depths of each of them; just enough to keep us on their side and hope for an improvement in their relationship and their personal lives. Cressy’s parents and cousins are, in general, sympathetically handled, but one of the most potentially interesting characters, Harry Bretton – the Master himself - is left as a mockable caricature.
Elizabeth Taylor was a decidedly clever writer with a wry and morbidly humorous viewpoint, but by concentrating on the darker side of human nature she walks the edge of being just a shade too cynical for my personal present reading comfort.