At age sixty-five, retired anthropologist Stella Brentwood buys a cottage in Somerset, England, and slowly acquires neighbors, a dog, and a professional curiosity about the country village where she intends to settle and put down roots for the first time. The drama of life in the West Country alternates with Stella's powerfully vivid memories of lovers, friends, and her anthropological sojourns in such exotic places as the Nile Valley in Egypt, the island of Malta, and among farmers in the Orkney Islands off the ...
At age sixty-five, retired anthropologist Stella Brentwood buys a cottage in Somerset, England, and slowly acquires neighbors, a dog, and a professional curiosity about the country village where she intends to settle and put down roots for the first time. The drama of life in the West Country alternates with Stella's powerfully vivid memories of lovers, friends, and her anthropological sojourns in such exotic places as the Nile Valley in Egypt, the island of Malta, and among farmers in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland. She has spent her life studying communities of people - their families, social structures, how they welcomed outsiders into their midst - remaining an observer, privileged to share in their intimate life but not obliged, and finally unwilling, to tie herself closely to any lover, friend, or social group. In Somerset, Stella once again finds an opportunity to become part of the web of relationships that make for human society. Her oldest friend's husband, now widowed, is interested in something more than friendship with her. Her neighbors turn out to be a dangerously violent and unstable family, a threat to the entire community as well as to Stella herself. An old friend, an archaeologist, poignantly seeks her out for companionship. How will independent-minded Stella, always reluctant to make an emotional commitment, respond?
While Lively's novels always reflect the ironies that life delivers to people looking elsewhere at the time, their insights generally occur in subtle, satisfying observations about society and human nature. Here again she writes of a woman whose interpretation of events is distorted by inbred expectations and the failure to see clearly. Newly retired, unmarried and childless, social anthropologist Stella Brentwood buys a cottage in England's West Country, a region of stolid farmers and bucolic charm. Yet she finds it difficult to settle in: for a professional observer who easily integrated herself into communities in Egypt, Malta and the Orkney Islands, she feels oddly unmoored in her native land. Two people with whom she reestablishes contact--the widowed husband of her best friend at Oxford and a former colleague, a female archeologist--awaken memories of Stella's youth, of her one great love, another man who wanted to marry her and the demands of a peripatetic life that prevented her from establishing bonds or maintaining commitment. As Stella adopts a dog, learns about such local institutions as the general store and ruminates on the passage of time and the long shadow of past decisions, she remains unaware of the whirlwind of verbal abuse and simmering violence in the house just down the lane, where an emotionally deranged woman, her husband and her damaged adolescent sons are time bombs about to impact on Stella's life. Lively wisely avoids melodrama in the denouement, choosing instead to suggest Stella's poignant realization that her detachment, independence and self-sufficiency will determine her future as well as her past. Though the leisurely pace and purposefully digressive narrative are somewhat slow to build suspense, Lively's perceptive vision about the insularity of modern life rings true. Apr.
Anthropologist Stella Brentwood, who has lived in tents, mud huts, and tiny studio apartments, is about to retire, so she buys a cottage in Somerset, England, and sets about learning to live the country life. Of course, Stella is still an anthropologist, observing the strange customs of her neighbors--a point Lively (The Five Thousand and One Nights, LJ 1/96) has the grace and good sense to state up front. In the process, Stella gets reacquainted with the husband of her oldest friend, now dead, whose life was decidedly more domestic. (There's some room here for comparing fates, but it's hardly strident or ideological.) Stella also has occasion to encounter her neighbors, a family that seems far more uncivilized and violent than any Stella may have encountered during her work. Stella's new life is, predictably, shattered by a terrible incident involving this family. Lively makes her point, but the pieces of this story don't quite fit. Stella's slow settling into country life is nicely told, but her neighbors never seem quite believable in their ugliness; they're more a device. Buy where Lively is popular.--Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Although Stella studies lineage and connections, she herself is an anomaly, a self-sufficient woman with no desire for normal domestic bonds....Lively's careful focusing on Stella's romantic history, coupled with her depiction of Stella's present situation, suggests a keen desire to create a portrait of a woman who...genuinely yearns...not to be tied down.
— The New York Times Book Review
A strong addition to the already impressive list of Lively's fictional accomplishments (Heat Wave, 1996, etc.), this contemplative tale features a social anthropologist who proves increasingly unable to cope with retirement in her new pastoral home in the west of England, where entanglements good and bad threaten to undo a life of complete self-sufficiency. Unmarried and otherwise unburdened after a career of studying family lineages from the Egyptian Delta to the Orkney Islands, Stella has loved the peripatetic life, but at 65 something appeals to her in the thought of owning a country cottage, not far from where the husband of her dearest and recently deceased friend had also elected to live out his days. Nearby is an archeologist crony, semiretired, and between them Richard and Judith provide all the company that Stella requires, although she also adds a slavishly devoted spaniel to her entourage as a way of convincing herself that she is indeed living the good (rural) life. Old habits die hard, however. Stella can't keep from turning an objective eye on her community, and so begins to feel like as much of an outsider as she had anywhere else. Reflections on the loves of her life, one a globetrotting journalist, the other an Orkney farmer-both of whom retreated before her unassailable independence-only enhance her alienation, and nothing in the companionable urgings of Richard and Judith can stop the process. When the trouble brewing in a dysfunctional family down the lane spills over into Stella's life, she realizes that she must remain true to who she is and always has been with the inevitable consequences. A quietly compelling drama with many shades of sadness, this is also ascrupulous portrait, both honest and sympathetic, of the proverbial rolling stone. .
Penelope Lively was born in 1933 in Cairo and spent her childhood there, moving to England in the last year of World War II. She has written many prizewinning novels and collections of short stories for both adults and children, including the novel Moon Tiger, which won England's prestigious Booker Prize in England in 1987, and most recently Heat Wave. She lives in Oxfordshire and London.
Good To Know
In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:
"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."
"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"
"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."
"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."
"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."