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The Needle's Eye

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"Simon Camish, an embittered, diffident lawyer in a loveless marriage, would not have particularly noticed Rose Vassiliou had he not been asked to drive her home one night after a dinner party. Yet at one time she had been notorious - her name constantly in the news." "Now, separated from her Greek husband, she lives alone with her three children. Despite all the efforts and sneers of her friends, she refuses to move from her slum house in a decaying neighborhood to which she has become attached." Gradually, Simon becomes aware that Rose is a
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Overview

"Simon Camish, an embittered, diffident lawyer in a loveless marriage, would not have particularly noticed Rose Vassiliou had he not been asked to drive her home one night after a dinner party. Yet at one time she had been notorious - her name constantly in the news." "Now, separated from her Greek husband, she lives alone with her three children. Despite all the efforts and sneers of her friends, she refuses to move from her slum house in a decaying neighborhood to which she has become attached." Gradually, Simon becomes aware that Rose is a woman of remarkable integrity and courage. He is drawn into her affairs when her husband takes legal action to reopen the question of custody of the children - a scheme for getting his wife back. And, while the precise nature of their ties eludes him, Simon comes to realize that Rose and her ex-husband are forever and inextricably bound to each other.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE NEEDLE'S EYE
"Though I have admired Miss Drabble's writing for years, I will admit that nothing she has written in the past quite prepared me for the depth and richness of this book." -Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times

"The Needle's Eye is that rare thing, a book one wishes were longer than it is."-The New York Review of Books

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394479668
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/1972
  • Edition description: 1st American ed.
  • Pages: 368

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.

Andrea Barrett is the author of five novels, most recently "The
Voyage of the Narwhal," and two collections of short fiction: "Ship
Fever," which received the National Book Award, and "Servants of the
Map."

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

Read an Excerpt

HE STOOD THERE AND WAITED. He was good at that. There was no hurry. There was plenty of time. He always had time. He was a punctual and polite person, and that was why he was standing there, buying a gift for his hostess. Politeness was an emotion- could one call it an emotion, he wondered? that was how he regarded it, certainly-an emotion that he both feared and understood.

There was only one woman in front of him in the off-licence, and she was certainly in no hurry either. She had not even got round to asking for anything yet, because she was too busy telling the man behind the counter about her granddaughter. Two weeks old, this child was, and the lady had just finished knitting her a pram-cover in stripes of white and blue: it didn't matter that it was blue and not pink, the daughter had said, she didn't like pink anyway. The man behind the counter was interested in the story: not merely polite, but interested. One can tell the difference. The woman was short and broad and she was wearing bedroom slippers. What raffish districts of London his friends inhabited: NW1, this was, with all its smart contrasts. They depressed him unbearably, the well-arranged gulfs and divisions of life, the frivolity with which his friends took in these contrasts, the pleasure they took in such abrasions. It appalled him, the complacency with which such friends would describe the advantages of living in a mixed area. As though they licenced seedy old ladies and black men to walk their streets, teaching their children of poverty and despair, as their pet hamsters and guinea pigs taught them of sex and death. He thought of these things, sadly.

Though the old lady did not seem sad. On the contrary, she seemed happy enough, this new grandmother: pleased with herself, pleased with her pram-cover, pleased at the prospect of the evening she was just about to set up for herself-for she embarked, now, on the purchase of one bottle of Guinness, two of pale ale, and one of fizzy orange. The man wrapped them up for her carefully in tissue paper, while she thought about other things that she might want. A box of matches, she decided on, and then (curious order of choice) a packet of ten Players: one might have thought that that would be all, but it wasn't, because her eyes then lit upon the plastic display of crisps, and she thought she'd have one of cheese and onion and one of salt and vinegar. Also a bar of chocolate. And while she was at it, a small packet of aspirin. Listening to her, watching her look around this obviously familiar spot for yet more purchases-(nuts? tobacco? small cherries in a jar?)-She felt such violent waves of nostalgia possess him that he nearly spoke. He knew where she came from, this woman: it was a world from which he was forever exiled. But he knew it: he knew its domestic interiors, its pleasures, its horizons. And he knew what she was doing, with her purchases: she was trying to get out of being in that shop the exact experience of being in it, she wanted to exploit it to the full. But imagination failed her: she had to admit defeat. That'll be all, she said, regretfully. In front of them on the counter stood a small gyrating plastic advertisement for a brand of lager: while the man added up her purchases she inspected it, and when he had finished she asked him how it worked. It worked off the light, he said: no battery, no switches, nothing, it just went round and round for ever as long as the shop lights were on. He was proud of it: a new acquisition. She was impressed. She gathered up her bits and pieces and thrust them into her large shabby peeling bag, nodding her approval as she did so. What will they make next, she said. Marvellous, isn't it, said the man. Thanks a lot, Mrs Donovan. Thank you, Mr White. Give my regards to your daughter, Mrs Donovan. She'll be in herself shortly, Mr White, that I'll be sure, said Mrs Donovan, and they both smiled and she shuffled out. Her legs, for so stout a woman, were thin and twiglike, her stockings wrinkled. He felt a pang of loss as she left, and the man turned to him, politely, his expression entirely changed, businesslike, inhuman, obsequious, almost but not quite repudiating the quality of his previous transaction: 'What would you like, sir?' he asked, and Simon, politely, said, 'Could I have a bottle of Vermouth, please, and twenty Gold Leaf?'

There was no point in making any effort: no point in commenting on the weather, or the revolving lager advertisement. He received his purchase in silence, paid in silence, said thank you as one must, and left.Diana and Nick lived just round the corner, but he thought that he might as well take the car right there with him, so he got back into it and drove himself fifty yards and parked. Diana and Nick: Nick and Diana. Perhaps he would enjoy himself after all. Better than eating alone at home, anyway, and that was surely why they had invited him: or was it out of some more positive desire to corrupt? That would be setting their interest in him too high perhaps, but he couldn't conceal from himself the fact that he had noticed that they (and one or two others) were always pretty quick off the mark to ask him round whenever his wife was away. He would have been touched, if he hadn't been slightly shamed by their alacrity: how had he let them in on it, how had they guessed, when had he so carelessly revealed himself? Not at all, maybe, not at all, surely: it was simple goodwill on their part, there was no need to be suspicious, or if they had an intention to corrupt it was so universal, so benevolent, that it implied no particular knowledge of him or of his circumstances. Old friends, they were, and what more natural than that they should invite him round for an evening while his wife was abroad? Julie herself had probably put them up to it: she had probably given Diana a ring and explained that she was off to New York for a fortnight and what about keeping an eye on poor Simon. The rage that possessed him as be thought of this was so acute and so bitter that he wished he hadn't allowed himself to speculate: though it was not rage against her, but a raging defence of her naïveté that so stuck in his throat. How could he protect her, when she was a free and adult woman, quite capable, all too capable, of lifting telephones and ringing up anyone to ask for anything? Ah well, forget it, he said to himself, and lifted his hand to ring the doorbell. He rang it, but there seemed to be remarkably little response: no answering sound within, and only the dullest sensation of indentation, so he decided that the bell was broken and lifted his hand once more to the knocker- an attractive knocker, a new one, a smiling and serene brass woman's face with grapes in her hair, a standard pattern but one that he had always liked. But before he had time to knock, the door opened, and there, silent and noiseless on the polished wooden floor (silent because of small gold cloth slippers) stood Diana, smiling with an equal calm.

'Simon, hello,' she said, and he stepped forward and kissed her on the cheek: a cheek which she offered, always, with no prospect of refusal, and anyway one would not be likely to wish to refuse such a nice brown even surface. A generous attitude, hers.

'I do like your new knocker,' he said, when he had greeted her and handed her his gift: following her up the stairs to their first-floor drawing-room. 'I was going to use it, I thought your bell didn't work.'

'One can't hear the bell from outside,' she said, 'we made it ring upstairs because we could never hear it.' 'How well organised you are,' he said, following her into the room: where their conversation immediately lost itself in faces, drinks, introductions and the soft bright interior of the room itself, which glowed diffusely, elegantly inhabitable, fashionably quaint, modern with a modernity that had no hard edges, no offence, no bravura in it. He had always liked the room, bearing signs, as it did, of so much in both of them, as well as of the hard-earned affluence that kept them together: for who could have guessed, watching the pair of them as they circled attentively with drinks and olives, so blending and agreeably harmonising with their choice in colours, their framed pictures by their own three rather talented small children, that this time a year ago they had parted for ever, with the great and customary acrimony that attends such separations? There had been much speculation both about their parting and their reunion: he himself had always had faith that a genuine affection had brought them back together, an affection supported not too ignobly by a reluctance to abandon so much comfortable bourgeois texture. What would Nick have done, in a horrid little flat away from all these deep piled carpets, or Diana, drifting desolate around a house that did not interest her as a refuge, but only as a meeting place, a place to receive in, a place to display? It was not, he felt, weakness that had brought them back to one another (though he thought this perhaps with bias)- it was more a sense that they augmented rather than diminished each other, they were better, more operative together. He had seen them both, singly, over their months apart, and though neither of them had confided in him (for he knew himself to be too discreet to invite real confidence) he had noticed that there was no sense of relief in either of them, but rather an exasperated self-assertion so unnecessary and so unnatural to both that he was sure it was the responsibility of independence that they had abandoned with a sigh of relief, rather than, in the first place, each other's company. They flourished, in this setting: even Nick, whose impatience at monogamous domestic claims had been real enough, thrived on it. It was not surprising, it was a setting that would encourage most kinds of growth: Simon, sinking into the corner of a deeply-upholstered off-white settee, and resting his feet on a luxuriantly waving, almost grotesquely verdant, silky rug, reflected how much affluence was, quite simply, a question of texture-a point that both he and Nick, with their similar histories of success, and their similar points of origin, were well placed to appreciate. The threadbare carpets of infancy, the coconut matting, the ill-laid linoleum, the utility furniture, the curious upholstery (running his fingers as he reflected, over the dense knobbly undyed tweed of the chair-arm on which his arm, itself softly if soberly clothed, now lay)-they had all spoken of a life too near the bones of subsistence, too little padded, too severely worn. Of gloss there had been a certain amount, for polish had been cheap enough: in Nick's semi-detached it had glowed on trolley and sideboard and peach-coloured mirror, hiding poor quality in ´eclat, and in his own home it had been a veneer, a thin and penetrable barrier against scorn and decay. Cleanliness costs you nothing, his mother used to say: a statement not wholly accurate, as she must have observed herself when adding up her grocery bills. Bleach, disinfectant, furniture polish, shoe polish.

Copyright © 1972 by Margaret Drabble
Foreword copyright © 2004 by Andrea Barrett

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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