Is it me or does the Persephone Project seem to be whizzing by? Already we are on the third of the Persephone titles ‘Someone at a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple and I have to say that my enthusiasm for these series just grows and grows. Whilst I didn’t love it as flawlessly as Monica Dickens’ ‘Mariana’, I was totally engrossed in the pages of this novel, even if I did end up feeling pretty furious at the end. But hang on; I am getting ahead of myself already.
Avery and Ellen North are frankly the most perfect married couple you could wish to meet. Everyone thinks so, even them. In fact as a family unit in their countryside home of Netherfold with their two children Hugh and Anne and the family cat and horse they really couldn’t be happier. Well, okay there is the matriarchal form of Mrs North, Avery’s widowed mother for who no visits would be enough from her family and who looks at the negative in everything they say and do, on the horizon but really she isn’t so hard to bear, from a distance (no pun intended).
However when Mrs North decides to take on a companion, in the form of French girl Louise Lanier, everything changes. As Louise comes from France to escape a life she found unbearable and had made her bitter she sets her sites on money or a way of establishing and furthering herself at whatever cost. It is rather like a 1950’s version of ‘The Hand That Rocks The Cradle’ and without being a thriller by any means it is completely absorbing.
‘You don’t listen to what I tell you, Avery,’ said his mother. ‘I told you all about it. Ellen even suggested she should come with me to meet Mademoiselle at the station. But no.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ said Ellen, looking very like Anne stricken with contrition about the washing-up. ‘I forgot all about it. You should have rung me up. I was so excited about Anne’s coming home. Mademoiselle, do excuse me won’t you?’
‘Madame,’ said Louise, shutting her eyes briefly, ‘since I did not know of your existence, I did not miss you from the platform.’
The Norths were slightly taken aback. Avery’s eyes met Ellen’s with a suppressed twinkle.
For me what really made the book a standout overall was the character of Louise Lanier. I loathed her but I loved to loathe her, I think this fictional form of rage can actually be rather healthy. On top of all the loathing though was an utterly compelling grim fascination with her. Louise is one of the most complex characters that I have come across. She is, and this is not a plot spoiler, so embittered by a failed young love that she spurns it and turns it into an incredibly powerful energy that propels her and also seems to give her some feeling that she is the best woman ever created and can have all she wants, or what she thinks she wants. What she really wants it love the irony of that being that she is possibly one of the most unlovable, and indeed unlikeable, women and seldom people fail to spot it, or if they do then it is far too late as she also has an incredible power to charm and befriend. She is hideously marvellous and Dorothy Whipple has created someone who is like a personification of a car crash that you just cannot stop looking at even when you don’t want to.
Louise smiled wryly. It was a book she knew by heart. The only character in literature for whom she felt affinity even, was Emma Bovary. No one, she often said to herself, understands better than I do why she did as she did. It was the excruciating boredom of provincial life.
The book is also heartbreaking in places. You know from the start pretty much, so this isn’t a spoiler, that Louise is going to wreck the happy idyll of The Norths life. What you don’t know is when or how, and indeed Whipple cleverly almost makes things happen and then suddenly sends Louise away only to turn up again like a bad penny. When the awful thing occurs and you watch it from all perspectives, due to the narrative voice of Whipple’s novel we get into everyone’s head (even Louise’s twisted mind), as everything falls apart and I found several of the chapters deeply emotive. Some of the passages are an unflinching, and occasionally uncomfortable, portrait of heartbreak and despair.
Ellen turned away, sick at heart. She went into the kitchen. Breakfast. They must have breakfast. Whatever happened, you always had breakfast.
I did have a couple of quibbles with Whipple though. Firstly I did find the book a little long, I could have cut maybe a hundred pages out, some of Louise’s too-ing and fro-ing did build tension and an idea of where she came from but they went on a little too much, I also didn’t see the need for an excursion to New York really. I found the sudden shift in Avery from such a family man to pretty much a complete pig, ineffectual to the maximum, odd too yet of course there would be no novel without it.
I also felt I never quite got Ellen. After finishing the book and seeing other people’s thoughts I was shocked to see how unsympathetic people are to her. I felt sympathy for her and the fact that, as another character highlights to her, she was a woman of a generation of women who married young and being a housewife and caring was all they knew what to do. It was the way it was, the generation following were different, and no fault of Ellen’s that she fell in love, had children and lost her ideals and oomph. Yet at the same time she did seem ineffectual on occasion, it was interesting to watch as the novel went on until the end – which utterly infuriated me, had Louise not been such a character and the threat of her been so absorbing even at the end (no spoilers honest) it could have ruined the book, as it was I was just a tad disappointed but then I think that is also the point.
Anyway bar the small blip of rage at the end I really, really, really enjoyed ‘Someone at a Distance’. Louise Lanier is certainly not a character I am going to forget in a long, long time and some of the scenes of the breaking and post wreckage of domestic family bliss were incredible. I am looking forward to seeing what else Whipple has up her sleeve as she is one of the most published authors that Persephone has and I can see why. I would highly recommend you give Whipple a whirl yourselves.
I did actually get a collection of her short stories from the library yesterday which I am keen to try to see how she is condensed, plus is another sixteen months until I am due to read her next Persephone novel ‘They Knew Mr Knight’, number nineteen in the series. Who else has read ‘Someone at a Distance’ and what did you make of it, and indeed Louise, Avery and Ellen too?