An intense melancholy pervades the latest novel from the prolific and always thoughtful Drabble (The Red Queen, 2004, etc.), as she untangles the twisted strands of a 50-year relationship between a marine biologist and a well-known feminist.
Celebrity-scholar Ailsa Kelman makes plans to accept an honorary degree from a university in northern England because she knows it’s a chance to see her old love Humphrey Clark, who is also receiving a degree. Although unaware that Ailsa will be there, Humphrey has a foreboding that an unpleasant surprise awaits him. As they travel to Ornemouth from London, Ailsa by plane and rental car, Humphrey by train, they relive their pasts. They first met as children during a summer vacation on the coast near Ornemouth. Humphrey, mainly concerned that his best friend Sandy had fallen under the sway of Ailsa’s attractively devilish brother, barely registered Ailsa, who was herself full of longing and resentment as she tagged along with the boys. When they met again in their 20s, Ailsa was an actress, Humphrey at the start of his career in science. They fell passionately in love, but their brief marriage was doomed once their lives took different paths. Each entered unsuccessful second marriages, and each parented a child with whom there developed a degree of estrangement. Ailsa dropped acting to become a scholar and social commentator. Humphrey had a successful career as a marine biologist of some renown. Neither publicly acknowledged their relationship or marriage. Now in their 60s, they both look back on their accomplishments and failures with a certain regret. Ailsa works a little too hard at her high-energy persona while Humphrey has become stodgy and almost timid. Drabble mixes sociology, psychology and philosophy—not to mention marine biology—into what is at heart a bittersweet autumnal romance.
Emotionally reflective and intellectually invigorating.