December 19, 2011

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple: Review

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Ellen North is busy, happy housewife living in the country outside of London in the 1950s. If she has one complaint, it's that it's hard to find good help in the country. Her kids are off doing their own thing and her husband is a successful publisher. Ellen keeps a nice house, and a neat garden. When she can, she visits her mother-in-law Mrs North. The visits aren't enough for Mrs North, though you can't blame Ellen for forgetting about her. She's a hard woman to please and spends most of her time complaining about her family.

Mrs North decides to show them all a thing or two and hires a French girl, Louise, as a companion. Louise is quick to ingratiate herself with Mrs North, often at the expense of Ellen. The family doesn't think much of Louise who is snobbish and rude but Mrs North loves her. 

Louise is a spoiled, self-absorbed young woman of humble origins from a small town in France. After her rich boyfriend dumps her for a more socially acceptable partner, Louise takes herself to England. Like Belle from Beauty and the Beast, she wants more than this provincial life. Too bad for the Norths that she sees herself as an Emma Bovary.


I don't know if this next section is spoilery or not. It's kinda obvious where things are going from the beginning. However, if you are someone who likes to know nothing about a book then you should stop right here because I'm going to talk about Someone at a Distance A LOT. Anyway, just go read it and come back so we can talk about it. It's good!

I want to read everything that Dorothy Whipple ever wrote. Everything. Like Carol Shields or Edith Wharton, she has a way of making the most ordinary things extraordinary. There isn't much to the plot. A man leaves his wife for a younger woman. That's not a very original story but in Whipple's hands it is spellbinding. Every person is a complex character, even Louise. I am convinced that she is a sociopath. The woman has no empathy for anyone. She only thinks of herself. However, for one teensy moment, I felt sorry for her. I do think that she loved Paul and that his marriage hurt her deeply. That was a brief bit of sympathy; Louise is a character you will love to hate.

More than any character, I enjoyed Ellen the most. She is a genuinely happy person. Being a housewife is her career, one that she takes great pride in. Unfortunately for her, she gets fired and like anyone who has lost her job is at a loss as to what to do next. I felt proud of her when she finally pulls up her socks and gets things together. Of course there were moments when I was frustrated with her. It wasn't her fault that her husband cheats, if he wanted to he would have no matter what, but as I put it to my husband, "I trust you but there is no way I'd invite some young French twinkie to come live with us." She just can't see what Louise is until it's too late.

Maybe Ellen is naive or perhaps she's been married so long that she thinks her marriage is safe. There are hints of this throughout the story. Ellen isn't bothered by Avery's (her husband) flirting with girls at parties, they sleep in separate beds, and have a relationship that is nearly more like siblings than spouses. When Ellen is left by herself to make Christmas dinner for the family, plus Mrs North, Louise, and her husband's partner, because the regular help hates Louise, she gets frustrated. Where is Avery? He spends the day napping! That's grounds for divorce right there. I mentioned this to my husband (I talked about this book a lot with him) and he observed, "But she let him." And that's the trouble. She doesn't tell him how she feels about this or anything else that bothers her and neither does he. They just sail along like everything is okay... until it's not.

The preface remarks that Someone at a Distance is not a feminist novel. Maybe, maybe not. Ellen loves what she does. She's a housewife and there's nothing wrong with being a happy housewife. There's a feeling of change running under things though. Ellen tackles all the housework herself despite the fact they can afford to have help. It's just hard to find. Maybe this is more of a class issue but then another character named Mrs Beard says to Ellen, "We're not the new sort of women with a University degree in Economics." No, but they know how to get stuff done and Ellen does this with gusto once she sets her mind to it. I won't say what she plans but when she tells people about it they react with a "You can't do that!" Her reply is, "Why not?" Indeed, why not? Ellen can do anything. Then there is Mrs Beard, a woman I can see as Rosie the Riveter during the war. If nothing else, the war taught them to carry on.

Is that you Mrs Beard?
I could talk about Someone at a Distance forever. I keep thinking about all the characters. It's amazingly well written with such insight into a long married couple. Yet it's plan spoken- no long descriptions of the scenery. It's 400 pages but I wish it were longer. If you like characters that are real, then you must read it.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple is my first Persephone Classic and I can't wait to find more. Plus, isn't that cover beautiful?

Highly recommended

Ratings

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9 comments :

  1. I had to stop reading, because I just got this book from my Persephone Secret Santa! But I'm glad you enjoyed it so much, and I will come back to this post as soon as I finish up!

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  2. Wow! You've made this book sound very appealing and the fact that you wish it were longer speaks volumes to me.

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  3. Oh OH OH! I so get you! Wasn't this wonderful?! I know I said something earlier about how fun it was to really intensely dislike the Lousie-tart. GAH. I still am conflicted about the ending. (assuming that I even remember it correctly but I remember being let down of all the great strides Ellen made and then... taking the scoundrel back?!?!? but... see, conflict. But yes, I too, want to read more Whipple. I think I want the Sisters one next.

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  4. Wow. You make this sound immensely tempting. I haven't heard of Whipple before but now I'm sure I'll be seeing her name everywhere! ;) Thanks for such a great review!

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  5. WOW. Whipple has been on my wish list forever because people seem to fall completely, totally in love with her. This book particularly seems to be people's favorite. I must find it!

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  6. Great review, felt like I was reading the book. I wanted more. I'm wondering what happened to Louise once she went to England?

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  7. Col- I hope you like it!

    Kathy- I really enjoyed it.

    Michelle- This was the first book of hers I read. I hadn't heard of her before either.

    Aarti- She definitely wrote in a style I enjoy.

    Lena- You'll have to read it to find out!

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  8. **Spoliers ahead! This is for CARE**


    The ending wasn't too tidy. They have a lot of work ahead of them. I imagine she won't let him off that easily. I think, however, that they realized they love each other and can't live without each other.

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  9. Aint it grand that we both hope they can make it work. :)

    (This is a story Care! It's FICTION! hee hee)

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