Posts Tagged ‘Afternoon of a Good Woman’

afternoon of a good woman nina bawden 001Afternoon of a Good Woman by Nina Bawden ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-00-4674-7. 142 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

Yesterday I did something I seldom get a chance to do: I sat in my favourite armchair with my feet up and I read all day long.

My husband was unexpectedly home from work, and as he was feeling generally tired and rather in between projects – all of the carpentry jobs too big to start on a “spare” day; still too much snow on the ground for planned farm jobs; some before-convertible-season needful work on the pet sports car (our old Triumph Spitfire) stalled because of waiting for parts to arrive; too windy and blustery for an enjoyable walking excursion – he encouraged me to join him in a “proper” day off.

So I did, completely guilt-free. And it was good.

The reading itself ended up not being as purely pleasurable as it could have been, as I was finishing up Ann Patchett’s increasingly annoying The Magician’s Assisstant (see my last grumpy post) and finding it lacking. I then picked up this slender novel by Nina Bawden which I had just acquired on the my Vancouver trip, along with a copy of The Birds on the Trees. Not quite what I had expected – I thought from the cover text that it would be a bit “lighter” than it turned out to be – but definitely an engaging read, and very “1970s”. A perfect Century of Books entry, in other words, as it is very much of its era.

Lots of spoilers in this post, but I left much out as well. Onward!

Back cover blurb:

Penelope has always tried to be a good woman: as wife, mistress, mother and magistrate. But today – the day she has decided to leave her husband – she sits in the Crown Court listening to a short, sad case of indecent exposure and a long, involved incident of theft, and mentally reviews her own convoluted private affairs. And wonders how they would stand up in court.

Penelope, in her day-long musing about how she got to the point of leaving her husband for her long-time lover, (her step-brother Steve – and, oh, yes, the almost-incest of this relationship is a slight thing compared to the rest of Penelope’s complicated personal connections), reflects on the irony of her name. Patient wife though she has been for many years, her own Ulysses – her ineffectual husband Eddie – is not the adventuresome type, unless you consider his habit of painting his face with Penelope’s lipstick and chasing her about the bedroom with a real hatchet (!) as a precursor to sexual arousal.

Eddie has some serious baggage, as his first wife has gone insane and is incarcerated in a facility for the mentally troubled just a few blocks over. Handy for visiting, mind you, and Penelope occasionally sees her predecessor as she visits her own off-kilter stepmother, Eve – her lover Steve’s mother – in the same building.

There’s also a stepsister with a disastrous personal life – separated from an abusive husband (with Penelope’s help – a complex saga detailed in one of the many flashbacks this short novel contains) and continually fighting for custody of a young son. The ex-husband was involuntarily involved in the death of Penelope’s father, and the situation was not improved by Penelope making an untoward advance to him (the stepsister’s ex-husband) as he tries to soothe her as her (Penelope’s) father’s body lies sprawled at the bottom of the stairs he has just crashed down.

Still with me?

Isn’t this utterly too too much? Over-the-top, as a matter of fact, and Nina Bawden includes way too much information on everyone’s bedroom habits.

The point which I believe Bawden is trying to make is that her protagonist is very much on her way to becoming a modern liberated woman, free to live her (sex) life as she so chooses, and the heck with the staid conventions. Penelope has done the marriage thing, and raised two rather gormless daughters who are now at college. She loves her children but doesn’t particularly like them, having no rose-tinted illusions as to their intelligence or ambitions. Now she is ready to strike out on her own, to openly join her long-time secret lover, a decision just possibly triggered by Penelope’s fear that she is pregnant by him.

Ha ha – didn’t see that last bit coming, did you?

Anyway, bleakly absurd and mildly dirty soap opera plot aside, this book is cranked up a notch by Bawden’s more-than-competent writing, and by her under-handed style of sly humour. This is a rather funny book, once one gets over the initial shock of (for example) hearing the state of a flasher’s naughty bits described in analytical detail – it’s all part of the evidence, you see. Penelope is not at all a prude, though she acts in a publically circumspect manner. Her mind is always examining all the possibilities, and she doesn’t miss much.

Or does she?

As we follow Penelope through her day serving as a magistrate in the Crown Court, we become increasingly aware that her analytical tendencies are just a trifle askew here and there. Her assumptions of guilt and innocence prove not to be quite so crystal clear as she at first thinks. (And perhaps Penelope is a wee bit distracted by the proximity of the handsome and mildly flirtatious judge whom she is assisting…)

And then there is that unnerving incident of a threatening anonymous letter some weeks ago, and today, as she prepares to drive off to the station for her big gesture of freedom, the discovery that the brake system on her car has been tampered with. Someone else has apparently been doing some heavy thinking, too.

To sum up, an interesting read, once one comes to terms with the various ick factors. But I am thinking it will ultimately be just a blip on my readerly radar, for it’s rather a light thing when all is said and done.

I think I will tuck it up on the D.H. Lawrence shelf, for though DHL is rather more “literary”, this Bawden left me with the same after-reading impulse to put the book up high where I don’t have to see it, and then go and have a long hot shower.

A keeper, with reservations.

Oh – one last thing. This is indeed the same Nina Bawden who has written a number of highly esteemed children’s books, such as Carrie’s War, and The Peppermint Pig. If you have young readers in the household, you’ll likely be wanting to keep the two strands of her writing well separated. Just a thought.

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