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Liz, Alix and Esther were best friends. They knew each other better than they knew themselves. Each of them led charmed lives. They were lucky, and it was good to know they had each other when that luck began to run out. A new novel by an acclaimed author.
Posted April 27, 2002
Margaret Drabble's The Radiant Way is a novel of rich variety. Even after ten years have passed since I first read it, I still want to pick it up and start reading it. With a Dickensian cast of characters and a provocative insight--however pessimistic--into our times, Drabble presents a novel, her tenth, that requires thought and causes wonder. Consider the first three sentences of the novel: 'New Year's Eve, and the end of a decade. A portentous moment, for those who pay attention to portents. Guests were invited for nine.' Juxtaposing the individual and the societal, the domestic and the historical in this emphatic position, Drabble provides an appropriate clue to reading and understanding the multiplicity contained in her tour de force. First and foremost, The Radiant Way is the story of three friends: Liz Headleand, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, who met at Cambridge in 1952. The narrative spans five years, from the 1980 New Year's Eve party at Liz's home that opens the novel to their 1985 get-together on Esther's birthday. Drabble regards their fate as exemplary because they were in the mold of the hardworking people, coming out of a disadvantaged background, who could use education as a vehicle to achieving success and mobility. Indeed, the novel, at points, argues aptly the value of education. For education opens the doors of opportunity. The representative status with which Drabble endows the three women obliges us to consider the question, What is the extent to which the elite, privileged education these three women have acquired helped them to achieve and to realize expectations? Liz Headleand is a classic example of upward social mobility. Since Liz is the most well-off, her life is virtually devoid of financial worries. She studied her way out of the 'prison kitchen' of her youth on Abercorn Avenue to a Cambridge education--truly believing that hard work pays off. She became a respected psychotherapist. She married twice, and Drabble appropriately emphasizes her life with her second husband, the high-powered Charles Headleand, whom she tags as the 'archetypal boss.' Drabble's treatment of the 'high-powered' Charles is relentlessly critical throughout the novel. Though they enjoyed a chic modern marriage together for twenty years, it is about to collapse when the novel opens. We enter into Liz's inner life as she tries to come to grips with this new development. We are brought closest to Liz's internal processes as she also tries to make sense of other things in her life. The aspects of Liz's self and how she copes with the stressing events in her life are emphasized. Not so with the other two, especially Alix. Alix also married twice, but she lost her first husband in a tragic accident. Alix Bowen became a social worker and teacher of literature. She is a wonderfully kind and sympathetic person, who elicits the reader's sympathy by virtue of her bad luck. Money worries insistently plague the happy marriage of Alix and Brian Bowen. Drabble suggests, however, that the Bowen's straitened circumstances owe less to ill-luck and more to an unfavorable society. The spiritual dimension of their marriage fares finely even though material wealth does not keep step with their desires. Brian, whom we see politically entangled wherever he is, whether at the Adult Education Institute or at his new post in a community program, lives his socialism. Alix, in short, is a paradox. That Alix, despite her privileged education, has not become affluent puzzles her and even brings her to despair. Drabble does weave in the explanation of this paradox and, in so doing, she criticizes a politically divided nation, a nation of warring factions in a terminal struggle. For it is the national disarray, to a considerable extent, that accounts for Alix's difficulties and frustration. Esther never marries and remains a true scholar, whose great interest is the Italian RWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.