The Pure Gold Baby

The Pure Gold Baby

4.0 3
by Margaret Drabble

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Jessica Speight, a young anthropology student in 1960s London, is at the beginning of a promising academic career when an affair with her married professor turns her into a single mother. Anna is a pure gold baby with a delightful sunny nature. But as it becomes clear that Anna will not be a normal child, the book circles questions of responsibility, potential,


Jessica Speight, a young anthropology student in 1960s London, is at the beginning of a promising academic career when an affair with her married professor turns her into a single mother. Anna is a pure gold baby with a delightful sunny nature. But as it becomes clear that Anna will not be a normal child, the book circles questions of responsibility, potential, even age, with Margaret Drabble’s characteristic intelligence, sympathy, and wit.

Drabble once wrote, “Family life itself, that safest, most traditional, most approved of female choices, is not a sanctuary; it is, perpetually, a dangerous place.” Told from the point of view of the group of mothers who surround Jess, The Pure Gold Baby is a brilliant, prismatic novel that takes us into that place with satiric verve, trenchant commentary, and a movingly intimate story of the unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Anna, the eponymous golden baby, is born to anthropologist Jess Speight in 1960s London. Anna is sweet-natured, pretty, and, it turns out, developmentally disabled: she’ll never live on her own or learn to read. And though she’s fatherless, her mother is smart, dedicated, and loving, and the two are surrounded by a community of mothers who watch over each other. One of these mothers narrates Jess’s story from the vantage point of a friendship that has lasted to the present day. The passage of time—the narrator often compares their “innocent world” where cholesterol hadn’t yet been “invented” to the less innocent but more politically correct present—is a primary focus of the book, as is aging, changing views about care of the challenged and the disabled, and the randomness not only of genes but destinies: how much did Jess’s early trip to Africa influence her life? Why does one of the children in Jess and Anna’s neighborhood end up in jail? But the book merely circles these issues. Occasionally, as when Jess takes up with dashing photographer Bob, the narrator’s tone grows breathless, even ominous, and we expect a big event, but there is none. In the end, very little happens, and though Drabble’s intelligence is evident, the story drags. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"Achingly wise…Lamenting and steely, gentled by compassion. Admirers of Marilynne Robinson will find themselves very much at home in this book." —Wall Street Journal

"Moving and meditative...I found a kind of somber bravery in the story of this unwavering, intelligent woman and her guileless and beautiful child. I'm so glad that Margaret Drabble, like her characters, just decided to keep on going." —Meg Wolitzer, NPR's All Things Considered

"Feelings of age, of history, and of hindsight permeate the book...The novel’s true preoccupation is social history, and it powerfully evokes the changes of recent decades." —The New Yorker

"The Pure Gold Baby is a closely observed group portrait of female friends, a patient insight into the joys and pains of motherhood, and an image of how society has changed and how it has not." —Harper's

"It is a testament to the intensity and skill of Drabble’s writing that part of this novel’s suspense has to do with our waiting for definitions, diagnoses, and certainties that are never offered; and that part of our satisfaction lies in our acceptance that they cannot be…These are characteristic Drabble maneuvers: to take us all the way to death and madness and then back, to life defiant and friendship itself defying time by living fully within it." —The New York Review of Books

"Insightful and wise, The Pure Gold Baby chronicles the deep challenges of parenting under any circumstances — yet it also captures the almost unbearable vulnerability of being human." —Boston Globe

"The Pure Gold Baby is as deep as it is wide: resonant, recursive and contemplative." —The Kansas City Star

"The Pure Gold Baby is an unexpected gift from a great author. How do we treat the child who walks among us in a different way than most? In Margaret Drabble's hands the answer is with a depth of empathy few master." —Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones

"Margaret Drabble has written a compelling portrait of a mother whose care for her disabled child unfolds against a world of shifting mores. This is a panoramic survey of the way social attitudes toward difference have shifted--of what has been gained and of what has been lost. It is above all a humbling portrait of time, a stern reminder that what we know to be true today may well be untrue tomorrow. It is written with acuity, wisdom, and grace." —Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree

"An intimate look at a small family and its circle, told with wit, sensitivity, and deft knowledge of the household details of its setting...[Drabble] is a masterly storyteller and a preeminent chronicler of modern life...Readers who yearn for well-crafted fiction full of thoughtful ideas and observations should welcome this heartily." —Library Journal (starred review)

"[A] deeply intellectual, though never pretentious consideration of our intricate connections and obligations to others. Thoughtful and provocative, written with the author’s customary intelligence and quiet passion." —Kirkus

"Dame of the British Empire Drabble is in peak form in this marvelously dexterous, tartly funny, and commanding novel of moral failings and women’s quandaries, brilliantly infusing penetrating social critique with stinging irony as she considers what life makes of us and what we make of life... Given Drabble’s standing as one of the giants of world literature, elevated attention will be paid to her first novel since The Sea Lady (2007)." —Booklist (starred review)

Kirkus Reviews
Drabble (A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, 2011, etc.) enfolds the moving personal story of a single mother's care for her mentally disabled daughter within a somber narrative of aging families and declining social optimism. Anthropology student Jess Speight's affair with a married professor resulted in Anna, born in a National Health hospital that "is now a moderately expensive hotel for foreign tourists." (One of the novel's themes is the contraction and decay of a once-expansive welfare state.) Anna is "a pure gold baby," sweet and happy, but it soon becomes clear that she is severely developmentally delayed and will never be an independent adult (no exact diagnosis is given). The unnamed narrator, one of the other mothers among the young families in their North London neighborhood, chronicles the way Jess' life is shaped by her daughter's needs--she separates from both a husband and a lover when she decides the men interfere with her commitment to Anna--and also traces the trajectory of their community: Kids grow up and marriages break up, some people move to more affluent areas as North London fills with more recent immigrants, everyone gets older and sees their futures shrinking to a decreasing number of days and possibilities. Jess remains haunted by memories of a field trip to Africa, where she observed physically deformed children functioning well within their accepting tribe; the novel closes with her and middle-aged Anna taking a trip there with her husband (still a friend after decades of separation), who snaps a photo of Jess kneeling among some local graves. "She is old now, and she is in the process of transfiguration....Time has come full circle, and the river flows with time." The Victorian explorer David Livingstone, William Wordsworth's poetry, Auguste Rodin's sculpture and Marcel Proust's novels all play a part in Drabble's deeply intellectual, though never pretentious consideration of our intricate connections and obligations to others. Thoughtful and provocative, written with the author's customary intelligence and quiet passion.
Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
Anna is the daughter of anthropologist and writer Jessica Speight and is her "pure gold baby"—a happy and loving child with special needs and capabilities. As a single mother in 1960s London, Jess navigates career, relationships, and the National Health Service with compromise, determination, and the help of a close-knit circle of friends, including the narrator, an attorney and mother. Readers follow Anna and Jess for four decades amid frequent musings on parenthood, aging, mental health care, and London's changing neighborhoods. Through it all are woven accounts of Jess's lifelong anthropological research interests, studied mostly at a distance. This is an intimate look at a small family and its circle, told with wit, sensitivity, and deft knowledge of the household details of its setting. Drabble, the distinguished author of more than two dozen novels (e.g., The Radiant Way; The Seven Sisters) and works of nonfiction (The Oxford Companion to English Literature), is a masterly storyteller and a preeminent chronicler of modern life. VERDICT Readers who yearn for well-crafted fiction full of thoughtful ideas and observations should welcome this heartily. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/13.]—Jennifer B. Stidham, Houston Community Coll. Northeast

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

What she felt for those children, as she was to realise some years later, was a proleptic tenderness. When she saw their little bare bodies, their proud brown belly buttons, the flies clustering round their runny noses, their big eyes, their strangely fused and forked toes, she felt a simple sympathy. Where others might have felt pity or sorrow or revulsion, she felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy. Was this a premonition, an inoculation against grief and love to come?

How could it have been? What logic of chronology could have made sense of such a sequence? And yet she was to come to wonder if it had been so. Something had called upon her from those little ones, and woken in her a tender spirit of response. It had lain dormant in her for several seasons, this spirit, and, when called upon, it had come to her aid. The maternal spirit had brooded on the still and distant waters of that great and shining lake and all its bird-frequented swamps and spongy islands and reed-fringed inlets, and it had entered into her when she was young and it had taken possession of her. Was this the beginning, was this the true moment of conception? Was this the distant early meeting place that had engendered the pure gold baby? There, with the little naked children, amongst the grasses and the waters?

She had never heard of the rare condition which afflicted some of the members of this poor, peaceable and unaspiring tribe, and the sight of it took her by surprise, although Guy Brighouse, her sponsor and colleague on this expedition, claimed that it had been well documented and that he had seen photographs of it. (But Guy was a hard man who would never admit to anything as vulnerable as surprise.) It was then popularly known as Lobster-Claw syndrome, a phrase which came to be considered incorrect. (It is now more widely known as ectrodactyly, or SHSF, but she did not then know that. She did not then know any of its names. The acronym SHSF discreetly encodes the words Split Hand Split Foot.) In some parts of the world, with some peoples, in some gene pools, the fingers fuse. In others, it is the toes. In this part of Central Africa, it is the toes that form a simple divided stub or stump. A small group of forebears had produced and passed on this deviance.

The little children seemed indifferent to their deformity. Their vestigial toes functioned well. The children were agile and busy on the water, and they were solemn on the land. They punted and paddled their little barks deftly, smartly. They stared at the anthropologists gravely, but without much curiosity. They were self-contained. They posed on the edges of their canoes with a natural elegance, holding their spear-like poles steady in the mud. They did not speak much, either in their own language or in English, of which their elders knew some words. They were not of the tribe the team had come to study; they were a side-show incidental to the longer journey, and the team did not stay with them long or pay them close attention. They were a staging post. But in the two days that the group sojourned there, Jess (so much the junior of her team, so young that she was considered almost as a lucky mascot) observed the little children as they played a game with stones. It was one of the simplest of games, a kind of noughts and crosses, an immemorial game, a stone age stone game. Red stones, black stones, white stones, moved in a square scratched out upon the sun-hardened reddish-ochre mud. She could not follow the rules, and did not try to do so. She watched them, the simple children, playing beneath the vast African sky.

Bubbles rose from the mud of the shallow inlets, bubbles of marsh gas from a lower world. A watery shifting landscape, releasing its spirits through the green weeds. There were floating islands of tufted papyrus, a sudd that was neither water nor land. On the higher banks, the mud dried to clay. From the clay, the children had moulded toy bricks and thimble-sized beakers. They had placed them in a little circle in the rushes. A small party, awaiting small spirit guests.

The next day, on the team’s onward journey, she saw a shoebill. Their guides were pleased to have sighted this primeval bird, rare, one of its kind, primitive, powder-blue, much sought after by birdwatchers. The shoebill represents its lonely family. It has its own genus, its own species. Maybe it is allied to the pelican, but maybe not. Tourism was already making its slow way towards the lake, and the guides thought their troupe would be pleased by this sighting, and so it was. But Jess, although she liked the distinguished shoebill, was to remember the children with their simple stones and simplified toes. They were not on the tourist route.

They were her introduction to maternity. She went home, she continued her studies, but she did not forget them.

They were proleptic, but they were also prophetic. And she began to think, as time passed, that they reminded her of some early memory, a memory so early she could not recapture it. It had gone, buried, perhaps, beyond recall. It was a benign memory, benign as the children were benign, but it had gone.

She took home with her a treasure, a stone with a hole in the middle of it, a stone age stone that could make rain. It was a stone of the small BaTwa people of the lake. Had the children been of the BaTwa family? She did not know, but thought they might have been.
The BaTwa’s territory had receded and diminished. They had taken refuge not in the bush, as most displaced African tribes have done, but amongst the reeds and in the water.

Jess was to keep the rain stone with her all her life.

The pure gold baby was born in St Luke’s, a National Health hospital in Central London, an old institution now relocated in the suburbs. The building where the baby was born is now a moderately expensive hotel for foreign tourists. There is a mural in one of the public rooms evoking a medical past, with surgeons in white coats and busy nurses. Some guests think it in questionable taste. The smell of disinfectant has not been totally banished from the woodwork.

The quality of this small girl child was not at first evident. She looked, at first sight, like any newborn baby. She had five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot. Her mother, Jess, was happy at the birth of her firstborn, despite the unusual circumstances, and loved her from the moment she saw her. She had not been sure she would do so, but she did. Her daughter proved to be one of the special babies. You know them, you have seen them. You have seen them in parks, in supermarkets, at airports. They are the happy ones, and you notice them because they are happy. They smile at strangers, when you look at them their response is to smile. They were born that way, you say, as you go thoughtfully on your way.

They smile in their pushchairs and in their buggies.

They smile even as they recover from heart surgery. They come round from the anaesthetic and smile. They smile when they are only a few weeks old, the size of a trussed chicken, and stitched up across their little breast bones with thread, like a small parcel. I saw one once, not so long ago, in the Children’s Hospital in Great Ormond Street in London. As I was introduced to her, and was listening to a description of her case and her condition, she opened her eyes and looked at me. And when she saw me, she smiled. Her first impulse, when seeing a stranger, was to smile. She was a black-haired, red-faced, wrinkled little scrap of a bundle, like a bandaged papoose, snug in her tiny crib. She had come safely through major surgery. She smiled.

Meet the Author

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.

Brief Biography

London, England
Date of Birth:
June 5, 1939
Place of Birth:
Sheffield, England
Cambridge University

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The Pure Gold Baby 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
The Pure Gold Baby tells the story of Jessica, a single mother of a special needs child, Anna. The book thoughtfully examines friendship, love, motherhood, and aging. The narrator is a friend of Jessica's, older now and reflecting back on their lives, so we get to see how attitudes in mothering (and especially toward special needs children) have changed throughout the years. For me, the narrator was an unnecessary, extra layer between Jess and Anna's story, and me as the reader. The insight she offered into what Jess's friends thought and felt about her situation was interesting, but... mostly, I just wanted to be enveloped by the story itself, without the narrator's commentary. I didn't feel as connected to Jess and Anna's characters as I maybe should have been. As I wanted to be. There were too many times when my interest waned and I had to struggle to read on. So I felt torn, because Margaret Drabble's writing is exquisite! This was my first encounter with her work, and I loved how she presents thoughts and ideas with such breathtaking style. There was much I could connect with, even though my specific life experiences are very different from Jess's. Drabble pinpoints emotions and anxieties so many women feel, but which are difficult to express, and she does so with uncanny precision, sensitivity, and finesse. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author might make you feel that you have never read such a wonderful author before. I wish I could have known her and been able to just listen to her talk. She will give your vocabulary a painless boost.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago