The Radiant Way

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"Ambitious and artful...Drabble reminds us why we still love to read."
Liz, Alix and Ester have been part of one another's lives since their Cambridge days twenty-five years ago. Liz is a successful psychotherapist, Alix is a wife and mother, still pursuing politics, and Esther is an academic. As we follow them through the next five years we see their world changing around them, and we see each woman ...
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1987 Hard cover American ed. New in new dust jacket. Brand New Book. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 407 p. Audience: General/trade.

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The Radiant Way

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"Ambitious and artful...Drabble reminds us why we still love to read."
Liz, Alix and Ester have been part of one another's lives since their Cambridge days twenty-five years ago. Liz is a successful psychotherapist, Alix is a wife and mother, still pursuing politics, and Esther is an academic. As we follow them through the next five years we see their world changing around them, and we see each woman confronted with difficult, often painful, truths—about this new world, and more profoundly, about herself within it.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
One cannot read Drabble The Ice Age without being aware of the culture in which she writes; her novels are as much social and political commentary as they are acute character studies. This latest work gives us another grim picture of Britain in the '80s, a country still preoccupied with class divisions, increasingly torn by labor strife, being sucked into the chaos of random violence. The ironic title comes from a children's reading primer, which pictures a world proceeding in rational, peaceful, cooperative fashion; it is also the title of a TV documentary made by Charles Headleand, the husband of one of the three protagonists, all of whom met at Cambridge in the '50s. Liz Headleand is a Harley Street psychotherapist and mother of a large family; Alix Bowen teaches ``the poor, the dull and the subnormal'' in government sponsored programs; Esther Breuer is an art scholar who has pared her life to minimal terms. Among them these women experience divorce, the death of a parent and of a lover, the loss of a job and a resulting sense of dislocation, an intimation of vulnerability as a ghastly murder affects their lives. In the course of the five-year span of the novel, each comes to terms with her own nature, and with her future. As exemplars of female roles in modern culture and as reflectors of the forces fragmenting British society, Drabble's characters sometimes sound like spokespersons for her pessimistic philosophy, and there are sections of the novel where pure exposition weakens the narrative tension. On the whole, however, this is one of the best of Drabble's books, immersing the reader in a credible, relevant world. October 2
Library Journal
Drabble's major new novel, her first in seven years, charts the fortunes of three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. Liz becomes a successful psychotherapist, Alix a teacher of literature in a women's prison, and Esther an art historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance. Their stories unfold against the sweep of post-war England, a period of decline, disillusionment, and radical social change. As the novel progresses, we delve more deeply into each woman's past, discovering how their lives intersect and how their relatively privileged status contrasts with that of people living on the fringe: a disturbed young girl, even a serial murderer. The title itself taken from a childhood reading primer becomes an ironic commentary on lost ideals. A long, satisfying book, full of characters, full of talking, full of ideas. Laurence Hull, Cannon Memorial Lib., Concord, N.C.
From the Publisher
“Enormous in scope and profound in sympathy, it hits every note from exquisitely trivial detail to ludicrous daily comedy to numbing tragedy. Essential reading!”
–Margaret Atwood

“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.”
–Alice Munro

“Drabble combines the humanity of Alice Munro and the intelligence of Margaret Atwood with her own crystalline wit.”
–Sheila Fischman

The Radiant Way, with its brave perceptivity and bite, stands as a modern Middlemarch, an ultimately inspiring achievement.”
Vancouver Province

“A perceptive, contemporary novel.…Drabble has a dry wit and unflinching eye for the ridiculous.…”
Kitchener-Waterloo Record

“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.”
Hamilton Spectator

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394561431
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/12/1987
  • Edition description: 1st American ed
  • Pages: 432

Meet the Author

Margaret Drabble
Margaret Drabble was born in Sheffield, England, in 1939, and studied English at Cambridge University. Her novels include The Radiant Way, A Natural Curiosity, The Gates of Ivory, The Witch of Exmoor, The Peppered Moth, and, most recently, The Seven Sisters. Among her non-fiction works are Arnold Bennett: A Biography, A Writer's Britain, and Angus Wilson: A Biography. She is also the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.

Margaret Drabble has three children and is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd. She lives in London, England.


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

Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2002

    Three Friends and Their Society

    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 R

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