It’s always a mistake to plan reading – I knew it, I knew it! I had wanted to read this for quite some time and ordered it from the library – as it just turned up I felt obliged to read it, and I’m so glad I did – very impressed!
The Persephone page for the book quotes the New Yorker: ‘A suburban matron, harassed by wartime domestic problems – her husband is overseas – finds herself implicated in the murder of her young daughter’s extremely unattractive beau’ and goes on to state: This tense and fast-paced novel is about maternal love and about the heroine’s relationship with those around her, especially her children and her maid.
The novel was first published in 1947, and the wartime setting is very realistic and it’s also interesting to see how this affected the USA. The heroine, Lucia Holley, is living outside New York with her father, teenage children Bee and David, and loyal maid/household help Sybil. Bee, who is at art school, is starting to reject her mother’s rather passive, traditional female role and is attracted by lively types who she can’t see are actually very bad types! After her aforementioned beau is murdered, Lucia is forced into action to protect those around her and starts to come into contact with the kind of people she would never usually go anywhere near – blackmailers, bootleggers, petty thugs and the like. Her certainties gradually unravel and the novel is certainly very, very suspenseful. I had to read it in two large chunks because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens.
One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that it worked on many different levels. There was the mystery itself, and Lucia herself being thrust into dealing with people and situations she’d never come across before – and proving how strong and resilient she was. However, there were a number of subtexts as well. Lucia’s relationship with Sybil was pivotal to the plot and as the novel progressed we found out about Sybil’s life, marriage and the unfair treatment of her husband. This revelation informed Lucia’s attitude to the law later in the book and there seemed to be a discreet but definite critique of racist attitudes – even early in the book, Lucia says straight away they will not deal with a particular trader because he is rude to Sybil.
There is also the attitude displayed towards Lucia by her family. Her son David is actually very bullying and patronising, and Bee also dismisses her mother out of hand for marrying young and having no experience of life. She is therefore very, very puzzled when her beau revealed as a wrong ‘un which her mother could see instantly, but she couldn’t! As the novel progresses, Lucia is appalled when she realises how much at the beck and call of her family she is and how she can barely have a moment alone without one of them wanting her, or wanting to know what she’s doing. Only her father seems to accept her as Lucia the person and not just the cipher of a wife and mother. When her actions stray out of their accepted norms, the children are shocked and immediately assume that the man she is spending time with to try to avert trouble is a lover – obviously the concept of male/female friendship doesn’t exist in their world!
This character – Martin Donnelly – is one of the most interesting in the book. Although on the wrong side of the law, Lucia can’t help liking him and he ends up being the only person who can get her out of the mess her daughter has got the family into. Martin obviously comes to care quite deeply for Lucia although this of course never goes anywhere. I won’t say too much more as I really don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but suffice to say the resolution is excellent. This is one of Persephone’s best re-releases and comes highly recommended if you want a well written, complex, exciting and intelligent thriller!