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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.
“A provocative and hugely entertaining novel.”
–Globe and Mail
“A demanding, risk-taking and rewarding masterpiece.”
“Margaret Drabble is a writer of shining wit and splendid seriousness.”
“Drabble combines the humanity of Alice Munro and the intelligence of Margaret Atwood with her own crystalline wit.”
“The Radiant Way, with its brave perceptivity and bite, stands as a modern Middlemarch, an ultimately inspiring achievement.”
“A perceptive, contemporary novel.…Drabble has a dry wit and unflinching eye for the ridiculous.…”
“Splendid.…The Radiant Way leaves us profoundly depressed by the ailing condition of England and yet exhilarated by Drabble’s considerable accomplishment in this richly conceived novel.”
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
Posted October 25, 2008
No text was provided for this review.