Lovers search for authenticity and self-knowledge.
Ursula is the daughter of an ardent activist for nuclear disarmament; Jerry, the son of working-class parents, rails against inequality. Meeting as teenagers, they are drawn by their shared “righteous indignation” and feeling that they are misfits, outsiders to the bourgeois values of 1980s Britain. In her engaging second novel, Woof (The Whole Wide Beauty, 2010) follows Ursula and Jerry as they try to make sense of their world, their love, and the meaning of their lives. Disillusioned by the “parochial attitudes” of the Revolutionary Communist Party that meets in their community center, they decide to create their own organization, complete with manifesto, and to dedicate themselves to becoming autodidacts. Jerry’s plan, though, is undermined when he receives a scholarship to Oxford. He accepts, reluctantly, “in order to highlight the absurdity of privilege.” Ursula decides to go to India, where she will teach disabled children. These paths change them profoundly: Jerry comes to believe he can be a political force. Ursula discovers spirituality. Her inner journey—oneness with nature, annihilation of the ego— unfortunately seems generic: living with monks, she experiences overwhelming transcendence. After she returns, gaunt and ill, Jerry admonishes her. “Tell me one good thing that comes from this kind of passive spirituality,” he says. “You’ve come back like a passive-aggressive space cadet.” Jerry eventually becomes disillusioned with politics, and Ursula throws herself into acting. Each marries, and Ursula has a son. Failed mothering forms an insistent theme: Ursula’s bitter, angry grandmother was demeaned by her mother; Ursula’s mother devotes more energy to her causes than to her daughter; and Ursula’s career gets in the way of her relationship with her young child. The history of neglect, she comes to realize, trails back “through generations, the failure to love a child enough.”
In precise, lyrical prose, Woof creates empathy for her characters’ struggles and desires.