From veteran novelist Drabble (The Pure Gold Baby, 2013, etc.), a meditation on modern old age spiked with astringent humor on a subject “too serious for tears.”
Fran Stubbs, “well turned seventy,” works for a charitable trust to create better housing for the elderly, but she herself lives in a shabby, poorly maintained North London apartment building for the sake of the garage and the view. She’s not ready to move into expensive exurban retirement like her friend Josephine, and she’s relieved not to be housebound like her terminally ill former husband, Claude. Yet Fran is wryly conscious of her fading memory and increasing scattiness as she bustles around to conferences, brings ready-to-reheat meals over to Claude (with whom she’s resumed friendly relations a half-century after their divorce), and lets Josephine talk her into seeing a production of Happy Days. These typically self-aware Drabble women agree that Samuel Beckett could have spared himself all that angst about impending death when he was in his 20s and 30s: “There’s time for that later, plenty of time.” Mortality is much closer at hand for Bennett, an elderly historian living in the Canary Islands, and his considerably younger but now middle-aged lover, Ivor. “Who will push [my] wheelchair?” Ivor wonders, fearful that he will be alone and destitute once the man he has tended for so long dies. The link between these two storylines is Fran’s hard-drinking son, Christopher, a television arts presenter who has a professional connection with Bennett, and numerous other vividly drawn characters swarm in a text notable for Drabble’s customarily sharp social observations and willingness to let her plot amble where it will. The final destination of several key figures should come as no surprise, given their age, but the author evokes a palpable sense of sorrow and loss nonetheless.
The lack of narrative drive may irk some readers, but those who appreciate her able combination of intelligence, wit, and rue will willingly follow Drabble into the sunset.