Monday, July 26, 2010

366. The Radiant Way – Margaret Drabble

History: This book was published in 1987.
Plot: For the first time in her career, Margaret Drabble is writing about a group of friends rather than a single heroine. Liz Headleand, the hostess of the New Year's Eve party, is a psychiatrist married to an electronics executive. Alix Bowen teaches English literature at a psychiatric prison where economic cutbacks threaten the progressive administration. Esther Breuer, an art historian, lives in a rundown neighborhood where the victims of an elusive murderer turn up year after year.
Having found each other as scholarship students at Cambridge, their twenty-odd years of friendship have caused them to resemble each other.
Liz learns that Charles, her husband of 20 years, plans to divorce her and marry a lady with a title. Maybe it is just as well. Now a stuffy television executive, Charles has left the '60s and '70s, his pioneering documentaries and his idealism, not to mention Liz, behind: "A male world, a world of suits and ties and speeches, of meetings and money. Charles had conquered it. First he had mocked it, then he had exposed it, then he had joined it, and now he represented it." But Liz can support herself in the new economic climate: "She is not threatened by cuts in public spending, by the decline of the National Health Service, by the new and growing emphasis on privatization: her income is derived from a judicious blend of public and private practice."
Not so Alix, who watches her part-time jobs topple in a crusade of cost cutting and bears witness to the demoralization of her husband Brian, a true son of the working class who has moved upward through teaching adult-education courses into white-collar unemployment. She muses, "Brian would turn sour. Already he had become unreasonable; later, he would, like everyone else, become sour." Esther too must face straitened circumstances, once the funds for her occasional lectures on art and evening seminars dry up.
These characters struggle with their fates against a crowded background: rising joblessness, the Falklands war, national strikes by steelworkers and miners, inner-city race riots, the appearance of AIDS. What is more, Drabble's heroines can secure scant sanctuary for their domestic lives amid the din of external change. Alix finds the severed head of a former student on the front seat of her battered old Renault; Esther discovers that she has been living for years in an apartment one floor below a mass murderer. Liz, the best insulated of them all by virtue of financial well-being, must still unearth a childhood secret that the past, perhaps mercifully, had hidden from her long ago.
Review: Her book begins with a grand New Year's Eve party, as if to welcome back her readers. The party, with echoes of the balls in Tolstoy, takes place in an opulent cream-and-gold house on Harley Street in London. The conversation is clever and wide-ranging, and the presence of Anthony Keating and Kate Armstrong, characters from earlier novels, has a comforting effect. But before the party is over, a political argument ends in a bloody nose and an overturned houseplant. And as the novel picks up momentum, it becomes plain that The Radiant Way will be anything but a drawing-room entertainment.
In earlier books, particularly The Needle's Eye, Drabble chronicles the shabbiness of England in decline: the failure of businesses, the brutalization of architecture, the diminishing of expectations. In the ironically titled The Radiant Way, which deals with the first half of the 1980s, the situation is even bleaker. What is new here is the way fear and violence have come to replace resignation in English life. Avoiding, for the most part, the easy target of Margaret Thatcher and her party, Drabble describes the influences, big and small, of this ruthless decade on the lives of her characters.
Opening Line: “New Year’s Eve, and the end of a decade.”
Closing Line: “The sun stands still.”
Quotes: "They have pooled their discoveries, have come back from outer regions with samples of leaf, twig, fruit, stone, have turned them over together. They share much. The barriers between them are, they think, quite low."
Rating: Awful, hated it.

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