[Her] new novel...shows the artist at the height of her technical powers, jump-cutting among three generations and flaunting her knowledge of everything from molecular biology to waste management as she grapples with emotional and social issues she does not pretend to have resolved.
Washington Post Book World
Are we doomed by genes and environment to repeat the failings of our parents? Or can we reshape our circumstances and ourselves?
Such age-old questions inform Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, an absorbing, if uneven, novel that chronicles the lives of three generations of women from a coal-mining town in Yorkshire, England.
The story begins at the turn of the last century in Breaseborough, "a small, mean town, full of small, mean people." Bessie Bawtry, the sickly but precocious daughter of an electrician, finds her escape in a scholarship to Cambridge. At Cambridge, she holds her own academically but is often hobbled by depression and self-doubt.
Bessie returns home and marries Joe, her hometown sweetheart, but never fulfills her potential. She and Joe have two children. One, the rebellious Chrissie, also aspires to a better life but weds a womanizing rogue who treats her to a life of "broken crockery, bruises and bailiffs." Chrissie's daughter, Faro, winds up with her own dead weight: a down-in-the-dumps boyfriend who is dying of pancreatic cancer (or so he says), "pulling at her like a sick old dog" and intoning: "Descend with me."
A writer of wide-ranging curiosity and trenchant wit, Drabble has wrestled with the issue of free will vs. determinism in some of her 13 previous novels. This latest cements her reputation for serious, meaty fiction.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One scarcely recognizes Drabble's (The Witch of Exmoor, etc.) customary satirical verve in this thinly veiled fictional account of her mother's life. According to the author's afterword, it was painful to write; moreover, it's painful to read. The essential unlovability of the central character is accentuated by Drabble's tone throughout, which she admits is "harsh, dismissive, censorious. As she was." The fictional Bessie Bawtry is born in a Yorkshire coal-mining town during the early years of the 20th century. From childhood on, she is precociously intelligent and fastidious, carping and contemptuous. A manipulative martyr, Bessie is determined to escape her dowdy family and dismal surroundings, but though she wins a scholarship to Cambridge, her ignominious return to her hometown after graduation can be lived down only by marriage to affable Joe Barron. Forever dissatisfied, Bessie thereafter uses her caustic tongue to inflict her bitterness and resentment on her husband and children. Drabble animates the narrative somewhat through Bessie's daughter, Crissie, who manages to surmount her own dreadful marriage, and Bessie's granddaughter, journalist Faro Gaulden. Readers accustomed to Drabble's trenchant commentary on social conditions will welcome her interpolations on anthropological theories, gene research and social migration, all of which add depth to the story. At least one scene, of a funeral attended by the deceased's two wives, five mistresses and many offspring, legitimate and otherwise, represents Drabble at her best. But an author must have some sympathy for her protagonist, and Drabble seems to have none for Bessie. Her statement, again in the afterword: "I feel, in writing this, that I have made myself smell of dead rat" says it all. 3-city author tour. (Apr.) Forecast: Readers looking for insight into Drabble's background, and that of her sister, novelist A.S. Byatt, will find this book interesting and illuminating, but most of her fans won't be pleased with this outing, which should dampen sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Do our genes predetermine our family stories, or are we able to create ourselves from our own unique set of circumstances? The nature/nurture debate comes to the fore in Drabble's fictional exploration into her family's genealogy and her attempt to come to terms with her mother's unhappy history. Against a backdrop of scientific inquiry into biological determinism, Drabble limns a history of three generations with particular focus on Bessie Bawtry, who comes of age as a cosseted, sickly girl in Yorkshire in the Twenties. Remarkably, for those unenlightened times, she is encouraged by her family and teacher to attend Cambridge University, where she is overwhelmed by the intellectual and social milieu. This is the start of her lifelong tendency to retreat to her bed in the face of social discomfort. Despite her fortunate beginnings, marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and relative prosperity, Bessie is never able to rise above her demons and, as seen through the journalistic eyes of her granddaughter, that mystery is never resolved. Ultimately, this novel fails to catch fire. Nevertheless, Drabble is sure to be in demand, and public libraries will need to purchase. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.]--Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Drabble's 14th novel (The Witch of Exmoor, 1997, etc.), firmly rooted as always in the English class system and the trials of her intelligent, attractive heroines, but more notable for its unusually bleak portrait of an angry, unhappy woman the author freely admits is based on her own mother. Bessie Bawtry, born into the South Yorkshire working class in the early 20th century, is smart enough to get a scholarship to Cambridge but too neurotic to withstand the university's social and academic pressures. She's beset by illnesses (her depressive response to every challenge), barely manages to graduate, and winds up back in her despised hometown. She marries local boy Joe Barron, whose success as a lawyer can't assuage Bessie's permanent sense of grievance. She inspires a mix of pity and rage in her daughter, Chrissie, who runs wild in her teens and barely survives a crash-and-burn first marriage to settle down with a kind, aristocratic fellow archeologist as her second husband. Bessie is some years dead when the story opens with a present-day conference, about mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent, attended by Chrissie's daughter, science journalist Faro Gaulden. Moving smoothly back and forth in time, guiding readers with the direct authorial address so common in Victorian novels, Drabble considers Bessie's painful impact on Chrissie and the matriarchal heritage's more indirect consequences for Faro. Like the peppered moth, which survived 19th-century industrial pollution by evolving darker wings, Drabble's characters are the products of both their environment and the choices they have made in response to it. Chrissie and Faro are goodhearted, fallible but not overlyself-destructiveprotagonists of an appealing sort familiar from such previous novels as Jerusalem the Golden (1985); pinched, tormented, and tormenting Bessie is a darker, in many ways more interesting, figure about whom the author clearly still has strong unresolved feelings. A blend of psychology and social commentary: not to everyone's taste, perhaps, but those who appreciate its central importance in the evolution of English fiction will find Drabble a thoughtful modern practitioner of this approach.
From the Publisher
“Margaret Drabble is writing, not about an individual, but about a generation, or two, or more – of women.…This is a sad tale, tenderly told, embedded in a robust family chronicle.”
–Doris Lessing, Sunday Telegraph
In the late nineteenth century, lepidopterists observed that the pigmentation of the Peppered Moth differed according to its environment. In the industrial North, it adopted a speckled pattern of pigmentation, effective camouflage against predators among the soot and grime. In her latest novel – a mosaic of fiction, lightly fictionalised family history, memory and social history – Margaret Drabble adopts the Peppered Moth as title and emblem of her themes, most particularly those of genetic inheritance and survival.”
–Independent on Sunday
“The Peppered Moth achieves moments of real insight and pathos.…This is by any standard an exceptional book.”
“This is an intensely moving, thought-provoking piece of writing whose central portrait – of a life marred by inertia and lovelessness – thumps in your head long after the last page is read.”
–Mail on Sunday
“Drabble’s excavation of life in the north from the 1920s to the 1940s is rich in social and domestic detail.”
From the Hardcover edition.