Seven Sisters

( 1 )

Overview

When circumstances compel her to start over late in her life, Candida Wilton moves from a beautiful Georgian house in lovely Suffolk to a two-room, walk-up flat in a run-down building in central London—and begins to pour her soul into a diary. Candida is not exactly destitute. So, is the move perversity, she wonders, a survival test, or is she punishing herself? How will she adjust to this shabby, menacing, but curiously appealing city? What can happen, at her age, to change her...

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The Seven Sisters

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Overview

When circumstances compel her to start over late in her life, Candida Wilton moves from a beautiful Georgian house in lovely Suffolk to a two-room, walk-up flat in a run-down building in central London—and begins to pour her soul into a diary. Candida is not exactly destitute. So, is the move perversity, she wonders, a survival test, or is she punishing herself? How will she adjust to this shabby, menacing, but curiously appealing city? What can happen, at her age, to change her life?
In a voice that is pitch-perfect, Candida describes her health club, her social circle, and her attempts at risk-taking in her new life. She begins friendships of sorts with other women-widowed, divorced, never married, women straddled between generations. And then there is a surprise pension-fund windfall . . .
A beautifully rendered story, this is Margaret Drabble at her novelistic best.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE SEVEN SISTERS
"Reading a Margaret Drabble novel has always been like cozying up with a cup of hot tea by a gas fire with a dull English winter rain misting the window, and contemplating the story of one's own life."-The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
Engaging the emotions and the intellect simultaneously and possessed of a rare technical ease, "The Seven Sisters" is an unusually satisfying novel.
Stephanie Foote
Recently divorced from her perfect husband and estranged from her three adult daughters, Candida Wilton moves away from the English countryside to a London flat. Drabble's fourth novel begins as Candida's diary and concentrates on those moments in which Candida experiments with different ways to tell the story of her life. A master of quirky, richly drawn characters, Drabble is attuned to people on the brink of unexpected change, and Candida, somewhat tentative at the beginning of the novel, ultimately becomes a seductive and confident narrator. Echoing much of Drabble's fiction, this novel tells us that narrative anchors and shapes people's lives, and it reminds us that reading is always an act of self-creation.
From The Critics
Recently divorced from her perfect husband and estranged from her three adult daughters, Candida Wilton moves away from the English countryside to a London flat. Drabble's fourth novel begins as Candida's diary and concentrates on those moments in which Candida experiments with different ways to tell the story of her life. A master of quirky, richly drawn characters, Drabble is attuned to people on the brink of unexpected change, and Candida, somewhat tentative at the beginning of the novel, ultimately becomes a seductive and confident narrator. Echoing much of Drabble's fiction, this novel tells us that narrative anchors and shapes people's lives, and it reminds us that reading is always an act of self-creation. Author—Stephanie Foote
Publishers Weekly
The narrator of Drabble's teasingly clever new novel, like several of her fictional predecessors (in The Witch of Endor and The Peppered Moth) is a lonely, middle-aged woman disillusioned with her life and wary about her future. Betrayed and divorced by her husband, the smug headmaster of a school in Suffolk, and estranged from her three grown daughters, Candida Wilton moves to a flat in a rundown, slightly dangerous London neighborhood. To fill her days, she takes a class in Virgil, until the adult-ed building is taken over by a health club, which she joins for lack of anything better to do. The first section of the narrative is Candida's computer diary, in which she tries to make sense of the circumstances that have led her to this narrow place in her life, and her tentative efforts to reach out and make new friends. Though she apologizes for "the bleating, whining, resentful, martyred tone I seem to have adopted," Candida's account has the fresh veracity of someone who's a newcomer to London and to the state of being single. While Drabble paints her as sexually cold and maternally reserved, given to French phrases and snobbish assessments, Candida is a character the reader grudgingly admires as she tries to maintain hope that she can turn her life around. Then a small miracle occurs. A financial windfall allows her to take some of her fellow Virgil aficionados and two old friends on a trip to Tunis and Sicily, following the footsteps of Aeneas. Candida learns more about her companions as the trip progresses and gains some insights into her own behavior. The narrative takes several surprising turns, throwing the reader as off-center as Candida has become and proving that Candida herself has not been candid. But Drabble has: Candida's evasive account accurately charts the psychological territory of one who is suddenly cast adrift. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Drabble returns with another novel featuring an intelligent woman facing late middle age alone. Like the protagonists of The Peppered Moth and The Witch of Exmoor, Candida Wilton finds herself in a sad predicament partially of her own making. Although the divorce following her headmaster husband's betrayal was shattering, Candida's subsequent estrangement from her daughters has roots in her rather cold personality, and it was wholly her choice to move from her Suffolk home to a seedy section of London. Naturally reserved and more than a little snobbish, she nevertheless struggles to build a new life, recording her progress in a laptop computer diary (in which Candida reveals herself as the least candid of narrators). A sudden change in finances sends Candida to Tunisia and Italy, following the journeys of Virgil's Aeneas in the company of six spiritual "sisters," which leads to unexpected plot twists. The author's clever observations and well-crafted prose move the narrative along and manage to sustain reader interest in, and even arouse sympathy for, a character who describes herself accurately as having "much to be ashamed about." For most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/02.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Following The Peppered Moth (2001), a novel based on her mother’s life, Drabble goes even closer to the bone in a tale of late-middle-aged discontent.

Recently dumped for a younger woman by husband Andrew, Candida Wilton is angry, estranged from her three daughters, and, as an abandoned housewife with no skills or prospects, disinclined to be patronized by overbearing Suffolk neighbors like Sally. She moves to a shabby section of London and begins studying The Aeneid at an adult education center; when it’s shut down, she warily joins the trendy health club that replaces it. The first half, "Her Diary," offers Candida’s bitter but often sharply funny observations of her smug ex, her status-seeking offspring, health-club members, and other residents of the new, multicultural London. Readers may agree when she writes, "What a mean, self-righteous, self-pitying voice is mine," but this long, grim opening section skillfully sets up "Italian Journey," the hesitantly happy description of a trip taken by newly affluent Candida (an unexpected pension windfall) to Tunis and Naples. She’s following in Aeneas’s footsteps under the guidance of the elderly Mrs. Jerrold, who taught the defunct Aeneid class. Other companions include childhood chum Julia, a bestselling novelist past her commercial prime; cheerfully hedonistic Cynthia, married to a wealthy gay art-dealer; and the loathsome Sally. All seven are no longer young, each wondering what Julia bluntly asks: "So what is the point of us?" Candida: "The solution to the problem is death." Part Three suggests that this may be the author’s final answer, though her middle daughter angrily refutes many of Candida’s previous assertions. Almosteverything we thought we knew gets upended in Part Four, where Candida has built a new life and offers cautious hope for her future.

Tough-minded, uncompromising, and not always a lot of fun. But Drabble’s longtime admirers will cheer to see the author of The Needle’s Eye and The Ice Age once again following her muse into uncomfortable places.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156028752
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/13/2003
  • Edition description: First Harvest Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 322
  • Sales rank: 804,729
  • Lexile: 920L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble

MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of The Sea Lady, The Seven Sisters, The Peppered Moth , and The Needle's Eye , among other novels. For her contributions to contemporary English literature, she was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2008.

Biography

With her shrewd, mannered descriptions and dialogue, Drabble can say a lot. Take this line from The Witch of Exmoor: "He bites his nails between grapes, and avoids eye contact. A mother -- but perhaps not his -- would note that he is too thin." The British author, who has been writing surprising and clever novels for some 40 years, tends to remain focused on female protagonists; but she is inventive when it comes to narration, sometimes where you least expect it. The Witch of Exmoor, for example, has a wry, omniscient narrator who begins with a godlike, "Begin on a midsummer evening. Let them have everything that is pleasant." In 2002's The Seven Sisters, the first section of the book is the main character's (often self-critical) computer diary, and unexpected shifts in perspective follow.

Her variations in narrative structure and her injection of political and social commentary into her works makes Drabble a particularly challenging and interesting writer. Her return to fiction after a seven-year gap, 1987's The Radiant Way, became a trilogy (completed by A Natural Curiosity and Gates of Ivory) that veered slightly into international adventure territory. Ivory, for example, flips between psychiatrist Liz Headleand (one of the three women first featured in The Radiant Way) and the writer friend for whom she is searching, a man who has gone to Cambodia for research. Unfortunately, several of Drabble's early and highly praised novels (including the first two books of the aforementioned trilogy) are out of print in the U.S. It's a shame, because those books are the ones that established Drabble as an important writer, and are the templates for Drabble's independent, intelligent heroines on the road to self-discovery.

A few critics who have been admirers of Drabble's since she began writing in the 1960s have gone sour on the author in her later years. On the release of The Witches of Exmoor, a Toronto Sun critic wrote, "I am so sad and sorry to report that Margaret Drabble, once one of the best novelists on earth, is past her best," calling the novel a "rehash." Of 2002's The Seven Sisters, the story of middle-aged divorcee Candida Wilton's experiences as a newly single woman, a critic for Britain's Observer lamented the book's unconventional and somewhat cagey approach toward the end. "Altogether, Candida is alive enough that the novel's truncations ache like phantom limbs," the critic wrote. "The realised heroines of Drabble's magnificent books from the 1960s or 1970s would say to Candida, Tell me what it is like to be you."

Ultimately, part of the push and shove over Drabble's work comes down to a tension between literary invention and reader satisfaction; she has often been criticized for not caring enough about her characters to make them engaging. The New York Times wrote of The Gates of Ivory, "It's about politics and literature, terrorism and atrocities, love and life and death.... But ideas do not make a novel. Characters do. And we need to care about them, deeply." However, consider The Nation's take: "What I love about this novel is what I love about the best of Drabble's works -- it's rich and complex and allusive and textured and intertextual and takes on the big questions: life and art, representation and responsibility, the possibility of political action, the question of human nature. It's a novel of ideas at a time when most fiction seems deliberately lobotomized."

Good To Know

Possession author A. S. Byatt is Drabble's older sister. There was too much competition," Byatt says about her childhood relationship with her sister. "We didn't get on."

Drabble was an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company after she graduated from college, and was an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave; she married fellow RSC actor Clive Swift in 1960. The two divorced in 1975, and Drabble later married biographer Michael Holroyd.

Also a scholarly writer of biography and nonfiction, Drabble has written several forewords to editions of Jane Austen's work as well as lives of novelists Arnold Bennett and Angus Wilson. The nonfiction includes a 1990 analysis and critique of property law, Safe as Houses.

Drabble has also written several plays including Laura, Isadora, and Bird of Paradise. She adapted her novel The Millstone as the 1969 film A Touch of Love.

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 5, 1939
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sheffield, England
    1. Education:
      Cambridge University

Reading Group Guide

When Candida Wilton arrives alone in London, recently betrayed, divorced, and rejected, she wonders what more can happen, at her age, to change her life. And yet, as she climbs the dingy communal staircase with her suitcases, she feels both nervous and exhilarated. Candida confides the details of her progress to a diary that slowly takes on a strong persona of its own, as it often scathingly comments on the trappings of modern life, and uncovers the layers of her past and present life. And when Candida receives a sudden windfall, she takes a group of six friends, women who in one way or another find themselves straddling generations, on a trip she has long dreamed of to Tunis, Naples, and Pompeii, with surprising results. Lively, beautifully rendered, rich in literary allusions and psychological insight, The Seven Sisters is a splendid, broadly appealing novel about starting over.


From the Hardcover edition.

1. In what ways has Candida been betrayed, and in what ways might she have contributed to those betrayals or have betrayed others? What circumstances, reasons, and consequences are associated with each betrayal in Candida's story? What instances of forgiveness and reconciliation are there?

2. What does Candida mean when she says, referring early on to her life in gloomy London, “in this trap is my freedom”? What images and circumstances of entrapment and imprisonment are presented in The Seven Sisters, and what images and circumstances of freedom? To what degree is freedom acquired?

3. Candida favours solitaire with real cards over computer solitaire because the former lets “you lift a card to see what might havebeen.” Computer solitaire “won't let you follow an alternative, unchosen route, even out of curiosity.” How important are unchosen routes? What alternative, unchosen routes does Candida recognize in recounting her past and confronting her present?

4. Candida remarks of her arrival in her London flat, “As a nun enters a convent in search of her god, so I entered my solitude.” With which specific women does she compare herself, and what other references to “her god” occur? How might we interpret the final sentences of “Italian Journey”? “Who is that waiting on the far shore? Is it her lover or her God?” What does Candida reveal about herself with these comparisons and references?

5. Speaking of the flaw in her windowpane, Candida comments, “The flaw in the glass is always there.” What flaws or distortions in seeing things occur in the novel? In what ways is Candida's vision-actual and metaphorical-flawed, limited, or distorted? What are the results, negative and positive, of distorted vision?

6. What is the significance of Virgil's Aeneid to Candida and her sense of herself and to the action and movement of the novel? In what ways do the events of Candida's life parallel the adventures of Aeneas, from exile from his homeland, through a descent into the Underworld, to the establishment of a new life in Italy? To what extent is Candida correct in concluding, “My journey, like that of Aeneas before me, was foreordained”?

7. What does Candida mean when she refers to “my other self,” as opposed to “my former self”? What or who prompts the emergence of this other self? What might be the relationship between one's circumstances and the self that one recognizes as one's own and presents to the world? What might be the significance of “the ghost self” that Candida envisions in connection with the ghost orchid?

8. Drabble writes of the “shapes and patterns” of the Mediterranean, in relation to the “cold and bitter children of the cold north,” as “the very shapes and patterns that are carved upon the antique heart, and you know them as your birthright.” What comparisons and contrasts does she establish between the worlds of the North (Britain and Finland) and the South (Africa and Italy). In what way are the shapes and patterns of the Mediterranean Candida's birthright? What does she learn regarding the energies, dangers, and rewards of life in the two worlds?

9. How did you react to the shift from the first person of “Diary” to the third person of “Italian Journey”? What was your further reaction when you learned that Candida wrote both parts, and, later, that she also wrote “Ellen's Version”? Why does Drabble construct her novel, alternating between narrative voices, in such a way as to call into question, with each new section, the accuracy and reliability of what has gone before?

10. Of the seven Virgilians, Drabble writes, “These women keep faith with the past, they keep faith with myth and history.” In what ways do the seven sisters keep that faith? To what extent do the past, myth, and history repay their faith? How important is it to candidly weigh the relation of the past personal, cultural, and historical-to the present? How successful is Candida in this regard?

11. “Submit, whispers the wizened Sibyl . . . Be still . . . Be still. Submit. You can climb no higher. This is the last height. Submit.” How might we interpret these whisperings? How might we interpret the statement and question that follow? “But it is not the last height. And she cannot submit”? Where do the Sibyl's whispers originate?

12. In addition to the Seven Sisters area of London and the seven travelers in Tunis and Italy, to whom and what might the title phrase refer? What actual implied or expressed references occur in the novel? How might the most significant of these references be related to Candida and her story's primary themes?

13. What does Candida mean when she writes, at nearly the end of her account, “This is simply the place where I wait”? How do you further interpret her closing statements? “I am filled with expectation. What is it that is calling me?" and "Stretch forth your hand, I say, stretch forth your hand.”

Discussion questions provided courtesy of Harvest Paperbacks, a division of Harcourt,Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2002. Published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. Written by Hal Hager & Associates Somerville, New Jersey

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