AN EASTER EGG HUNT by Gillian Freeman


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Freeman (The Marriage Machine, The Alabaster Egg) is a quiet, clever writer--and here she quietly, cleverly turns a grim little period tragedy into a satisfying short novel. . . by sneaking up on it rather than wringing it dry (what most writers would do). The story comes in three, teasing pieces. First: an anonymous, discreet ""true story"" supposedly published in a 1917 London mystery magazine--about the never-explained 1915 disappearance of 17-year-old Madeleine Maurel, who was sent from France to spend the war years as student/prefect at the small English boarding school run by her cousin, ""Madame"" Marie Pennington; beautiful Madeleine vanishes on Easter Sunday, while the other girls (many of whom worship her) organize an egg-hunt for the Red Cross. . . and while Madame P. pours out her mounting distress to her shaky suitor, Dr. Ford. Then--a 1926 follow-up by the still-anonymous (but now admittedly female) author, repeating the same story from a more in-the-know viewpoint, elaborating on hints dropped the first time around: we learn that Madeleine had sneaked off for trysts with a roving-eyed cadet from the nearby flying school, that he died in a training-flight crash, that Dr. Ford was secretly obsessed with Madeleine, and that on Easter eve she begged him to abort the child she was carrying. The total truth, however (including the author's identity), doesn't emerge until Part Three: a 1939 addendum in which the author finds the late Dr. Ford's own tortured diary, with its unsurprising but painful explanation of just how Madeleine disappeared. Freeman, an occasional screenwriter, works in a somewhat cinematic style here--with glimpses and sketches and selected resonating details rather than full-fleshed portraits. But the result, if neither fiercely involving nor deeply thoughtful, is evocative and delicately sorrowful--as the layers of rampant duplicity and girls'-school cheeriness are peeled back to expose a dark anecdote of familiar, Hardy-esque simplicity.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 1981
Publisher: Congdon & Lattes--dist. by St. Martin's