Photograph, The - Today Show Pick #21

Photograph, The - Today Show Pick #21

3.5 2
by Penelope Lively

"Searching through a little-used cupboard at home, TV history man Glyn Peters chances upon a photograph he has never seen. Taken in high summer, many years before, it shows his wife, Kath, holding hands with another man." "Glyn's work as a historian should have inured him to unexpected findings and reversals, but he is ill-prepared for this radical shift in perception…  See more details below


"Searching through a little-used cupboard at home, TV history man Glyn Peters chances upon a photograph he has never seen. Taken in high summer, many years before, it shows his wife, Kath, holding hands with another man." "Glyn's work as a historian should have inured him to unexpected findings and reversals, but he is ill-prepared for this radical shift in perception. His mind fills with questions. Who was the man? Who took the photograph? Where was it taken? When? Who else knew? Had Kath planned for him to find out all along?" As Glyn begins to search for answers, he and those around him find the certainties of the past and present slipping away, and the picture of the beautiful woman they all thought they knew well distorts, changes, grows mistier.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Penelope Lively's engaging new novel, The Photograph, is a testament to the virtues of lightness. Though her subject is not light -- it is in fact death, and the hold the dead have upon the living -- her method is subtraction, lightness, the quick, telling stroke. In this, her 13th novel, Lively, winner of numerous awards (including the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger), tempers sprightly enthusiasm with perfect command of the form. — Valerie Martin
The Washington Post
The Photograph is one of Lively's most satisfying novels: cleverly conceived, artfully constructed and executed with high intelligence and sensitivity. It is also a surprisingly suspenseful story, with developments unfolding in two directions, as Glyn and the other characters find out new things about a past they thought they knew and as their radically altered perceptions and feelings continue to sway their relationships. Lively has exceeded herself in her portrayal of these characters. Not only has she created a cast of memorably distinctive and believably complex individuals, but she has also succeeded in the subtle and difficult task of showing us how their feelings and conceptions are being transformed, both by the revelations about the past and by their ongoing, sometimes painful, encounters with each other in the present. — Merle Rubin
The New Yorker
Scrounging around in a cupboard stuffed with three decades' worth of papers and academic debris, Glyn Peters, a recently widowed landscape historian, discovers an envelope marked "Don't Open-Destroy" in his late wife's handwriting. Is there anyone on earth who would obey such an injunction? Certainly not Glyn, who opens the envelope to find a photograph of his beautiful, feckless wife hand in hand with her sister's husband. Determined to understand his wife's affair, he delves into her past with a historian's tenacity and a good deal more interest in her than he managed to muster while she was alive. This search branches out to encompass a small circle of friends, all of whom have a share in the narration. But Lively doesn't stop there, and her characters' questions about the dead woman provoke questions about themselves and the roles they played in her life.
Publishers Weekly
Lively likes historians. Her most famous novel on this side of the Atlantic, the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, told the story of a popular historian; her latest narrates the quest of a "landscape historian" in search of what Proust called "lost time": the living past of his dead wife. Glyn Peters, a famous British archeologist, discovers a compromising photograph of his wife, Katherine Targett, sealed in an envelope in a closet at home. Peters specializes in excavating the long defunct gardens, buried fields and covered-over roads of the British landscape. Reverting to professional habits, he treats Kath's infidelity as a sort of archeological dig. The photo depicts Kath and Nick Hammond, the husband of Kath's sister, Elaine, surreptitiously holding hands on some outing, with Elaine and Mary Packard, Kath's best friend, in the background. Glyn decides to interview this cloud of witnesses, beginning with Elaine. Elaine is a successful, and somewhat cold, landscaper; Nick, her polar opposite, is a man one degree away from being a Wodehouse dilettante. Lively, who is never shy of letting us know her opinion of her characters (like Trollope), makes her disapprobation of Nick plain. Elaine, after learning of the affair, kicks Nick out. He takes refuge with Polly, their daughter, in London, and goes rapidly downhill. Glyn, meanwhile, has searched out Nick's ex-business partner, Oliver Watson, who took the photograph, and Mary Packard. Lively is always a discerning, keenly intelligent writer. This, for instance, is how she describes, in three irrevocable words, Elaine's pregnancy: "She is pregnant: heavy, hampered, irritable." Unfortunately, Kath, a demon-haunted beauty with little depth, remains unconjurable. Her insubstantiality and the much-foreshadowed nature of her death, not revealed until late in the novel, drains this story of its full emotional impact. 5-city pre-pub tour. (June 2) Forecast: Lively has strong name recognition, but her sales on this side of the Atlantic continue to be modest. Her latest is unlikely to break the mold, but her steady, reliable output (this is her 13th novel) should help keep her on readers' radar screens. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The chance discovery of a long-buried photograph and an accompanying love note gives Glyn Peters evidence of a recent affair between his dead wife and her sister's husband. The discovery causes him to question everything he believes about the past. Although the photographic evidence is unclear-a couple is seen from behind holding hands-the note leaves no doubt that the two were romantically linked. As Glyn shares the discovery with his sister-in-law, the two injured spouses behave as if this were a fresh betrayal. Glyn is a landscape historian accustomed to digging under the surface, and the photograph leads him on a journey through the past to learn whether the affair was a one-time dalliance or part of a pattern of betrayals. As successive layers are peeled back, the revelations create a ripple effect in the lives of those close to the couple and shed light on the mystery of how Glyn's wife died. This captivating novel will please Lively's longtime fans and may win her new ones. Recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/03.]-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A beautiful woman continues beyond death to fascinate her survivors, in this 16th novel from the Booker-winning British author (Spiderweb, 1999, etc.) also well known for her children’s fantasy fiction. The neatly turned plot is initiated by 60ish landscape historian Glyn Peters’s discovery (in an envelope marked "don’t open--destroy") of a photograph showing his late wife Kath in a pose of obvious intimacy with her brother-in-law. Glyn, accustomed to "excavating" the truth about people from structures they leave behind, shares this unwelcome information, producing seismic tremors in several interlocking relationships. Kath’s older sister Elaine, a sophisticated "garden designer," abruptly dismisses the errant Nick, a vagrant freelance journalist and lifelong underachiever, from their home, and their marriage. Their single daughter Polly, a distracted Web designer, tries and fails to make her parents reconcile. Glyn, meanwhile, questions old friends who might also have been Kath’s lovers, including arts festival exec Peter Claverdon (who’s gay) and publisher Oliver Watson (who took the offending photograph, but is otherwise innocent). Eventually, reclusive potter Mary Packard, who appears to have known the willful, probably unstable Kath better than any of them, arrives as a dea ex machina to reveal the motives behind Kath’s partially secret life. Lively handles this oddly unremarkable story skillfully, building a teasing fragmentary portrait of Kath from others’ memories of her--while clearly developing her manifest theme: the unknowability and mystery of other people’s lives. Only in the characterization of Elaine, a confident and capable woman sentient enough to understand and accepther own limitations, do the wit, constructive skill, and verbal facility lavished on what’s really a very slight story bear significant fruit. Always a pleasure to watch a pro at work, but Lively has done better than this. Agent: Emma Sweeney/Harold Ober Associates

Read More

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
Today Show Book Club Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.38(h) x 0.88(d)

Read an Excerpt


Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.

The landing cupboard is stacked high with what Glyn calls low-use material: conference papers and student references and offprints, including he hopes an offprint that he needs right now for the article on which he is working. The strata in here go back to his postgraduate days, in no convenient sequential order but all jumbled up and juxtaposed. A crisp column of Past and Present is wedged against a heap of tattered files spewing forth their contents. Forgotten students drift to his feet as he rummages, and lie reproachful on the floor: 'Susan Cochrane's contributions to my seminar have been perfunctory …’ Labelled boxes of photographs - Aerial, Bishops Munby 1979, Leeds 1985 -are squeezed against a further row of files. To remove one will bring the lot crashing down, like an ill-judged move in that game involving a tower of balanced blocks. But he has glimpsed behind them a further cache which may well include offprints.

On the shelf above he spots the gold-lettered spine of his own doctoral thesis, its green cloth blotched brown with age; on top of it sits a 1980s run of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. Come to think of it, the contents of the landing cupboard are a nice reflection of his own trade - it is a landscape in which everything co-exists, requiring expert deconstruction. But he does not dwell on that, intent instead upon this, increasingly irritating, search.

He tugs at a file to improve his view of what lies beyond and, sure enough, there is a landslide. Exasperated, he gets down on hands and knees to shovel up this mess, and suddenly there is Kath.

A brown foolscap-size wallet file, with her loopy scrawl across the flap: Keep!

She smiles at him; he sees her skimpy dark fringe, her eyes, that smile.

What is she doing here, in the middle of all this stuff that has nothing to do with her? He picks up the file, stares. He cannot think how it got here. Everything of hers was cleared out. Back then. When she. When.

Hang on, though. Here underneath it are a couple of folders, also with her handwriting: Recipes. Since when did Kath go in for serious cooking, for heaven's sake? He opens the folder, flicks through the contents. Indeed, yes - cuttings from newspapers and magazines in the late 1980s, but petering out fairly rapidly, which signifies. He investigates the second folder, which contains receipted bills, many of them red-flagged second demands, which signifies also, and an incomplete series of bank statements, indicating a mounting overdraft.

It would seem that this assortment of her things got pushed in with his papers by mistake during the big clearing-out operation. The hurried, distracted clearing-out operation. Elaine had volunteered to sort out and dispose of Kath's possessions. She missed this lot. And here they have lain ever since, festering.

Well no, not exactly festering, but turning a little brown at the edges, doggedly degrading away as is everything else in here, doing what inanimate objects do as time passes, preparing to give pause for thought to those whose business is the interpretation of vanished landscapes.

The wallet file is brown anyway, so degradation is not much apparent. He dumps the folders on the floor and goes to sit on the top step of the stairs, holding the file.

He opens it.

Not much inside. Various documents, and a sealed brown envelope containing something stiff. Glyn sets this aside and goes through the rest.

A jeweller's valuation for a two-strand pearl necklace and a pair of drop pearl earrings. Originally her mother's, he seems to remember. Kath wore the earrings a lot.

Her medical card. And her birth certificate. Aha! So this is where that was, the absence of which caused considerable nuisance back then, necessitating a visit to Somerset House. No marriage certificate, one notes. That too had gone missing, making difficulties. And is still lost, it would seem. Not that that is, now, a problem.

Her 0-level certificate. Seven subjects. A grades in all but one. Glyn scans this with some surprise. Well, well. Who'd have thought it?

The injunction on the file's flap was presumably to herself. This was the repository for items she knew that she must hang on to, but - knowing herself - that she knew she was only too likely to lose. He experiences a stir of fondness, which disconcerts him. And he has been entirely diverted from the hunt for that offprint, which is a matter of some urgency. Fondness is overtaken by annoyance; Kath is getting in the way of his work, which was not allowed, as she well understood.

There is also a National Savings Certificate for £5, bearing a date in the mid 1950s. When she was about eight, for heaven's sake. And some chequebook stubs and a Post Office savings book showing a balance of £14.58, and a clutch of letters, at which he glances. The letters are from Kath's mother, the mother who died when she was sixteen. Glyn sees no reason to be interested in these and pushes them back into the file unread.

He is left with a semi-opaque folder, which turns out to hold a sequence of studio portraits of Kath. She is looking at him in glossy black and white, now made entirely manifest. Young Kath. A backlit Kath with bare shoulders, head turned this way or that, eyes to camera or demurely lowered, provocative smile, contemplative sideways gaze. These would date from the aspiring actress days, long before he knew her. Very young Kath.

Glyn studies these photos for quite a while.


He returns everything to the file. There is now just this brown envelope. He notices for the first time that something is written on it. In her hand. Lightly pencilled.


And for whom is this second instruction intended?

He opens the envelope. Within are a photograph and a folded sheet of paper. He looks first at the photograph. A group of five people; grass beneath their feet, a backdrop of trees. Two members of the group, a man and a woman, have their backs to the photographer. Of the other three, Elaine can be identified at once, visible between the two whose faces cannot be seen. Near to her stand another man and woman, whom Glyn does not recognize.

One of the back-turned pair is Kath - he would know that outline anywhere, that stance. The someone else, the man, is at first a bit of a teaser. Familiar, surely - the rather long dark hair, the height, a good head taller than Kath. A slightly hunched way of standing.

Glyn brings the photo closer to his face for more minute inspection. And then he sees. He sees the hands. He sees that Kath and this someone, this man, have their hands closely entwined, locked together, pushed behind them so that as they stand side by side in this moment of private intimacy, this interlocking of hands would be invisible to the rest of the group.

Except to the photographer, who may or may not have been aware of what had been immortalized - the freeze-frame revelation.

And now Glyn recognizes the someone, the man. It is Nick.

He turns to the folded piece of paper that accompanied the photograph. He feels as though gripped by the onset of some incapacitating disease, but this paper requires attention.

Handwriting. A brief message. ‘I can't resist sending you this. Negative destroyed, I'm told. Blessings, my love.'

No signature. None needed. Neither for Kath then, nor, now, for Glyn. Though confirmation is needed. Somewhere he will have an instance of Nick's handwriting. A signature. A letter from way back when he was a consultant, or some such nonsense, on that landscape history series Nick published and of which he endlessly and ignorantly enthused, as Nick always did.

The disease now has him by the throat. The throat, the gut, the balls. What he feels is ... well, what he experiences is the most appalling stomach-churning, head-spinning cauldron of emotion. Rage is the top-note - beneath that a seethe of jealousy and humiliation, the whole primed with some kind of furious drive and energy. Where? When? Who? Who took this photograph? Who presumably passed it on to Nick and destroyed the negative?

The telephone rings, down in his study. Such is Glyn's powered state, his consuming purpose, that he is at once on his feet and halfway down the stairs to pick it up and snap: 'I am not available. Sorry.'

I cannot be doing with you right now because I have just learned that the woman who was once my wife had an affair with her sister's husband apparently - at some time yet to be identified. I am evidently a dupe, a cuckold. My understanding of the past has been savagely undermined. You will appreciate that for the foreseeable future this requires all my attention.

The phone stops. Of course. The answerphone is on.

©1998-2003 Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Read More

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"One of Lively’s most satisfying novels: cleverly conceived, artfully constructed and executed with high intelligence and sensitivity." —Los Angeles Times

"An ingenious premise for a novel and Penelope Lively... spins it out with expert skill." —The Washington Post

"Engrossing... engaging." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Lively’s [novel] maintains the high standard her fans have come to expect. It’s another shining winner." —The Boston Globe

"Original... bracingly intelligent. Rarely has a subject as elusive as life’s messiness been pursued with such unflagging rigor." —The Atlantic Monthly

"In her delicate, spot-on prose, Penelope Lively ruthlessly takes her microscope below the surface of two middle-class marriages and magnifies whatever it is that is left behind when passion is gone, when couples become immune to one another." —The Times (London)

"To read Penelope Lively's book is like slipping into the finest cashmere: beautifully wonven, fluid and expensive. Once experienced, it is impossible to enjoy inferior materials." —The Evening Standard (London)

"The Photograph is Penelope Lively's 14th novel, but she shows no sign of running out of inventiveness or of failing to write books that are hugely pleasurable to read. This one is deftly edged with humour." —Independent on Sunday (UK)

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Photograph, The - Today Show Pick #21 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Penelope Lively does a wonderful job at making you 'think' and analytically absorb the story plot and characters that she has woven throughout novel. Her British style of writing is refreshing and you can close your eyes and be taken quickly to Great Britain and the countryside to join the characters on the pages. Enjoyed it tremendously and I will seek out other books written by Ms. Lively, as this is my 'first read' by the author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I could not make it through this book, struggled through the first 100 pages and then gave up. Seems like it would be great but i was totally dissapointed.