PERFECT HAPPINESS by Penelope Lively


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Though lacking the sparkle and cultural resonances of Lively's recent, irresistible fiction (Treasures of Time, Judgment Day), this graceful novel does invest the most conventional outline--a recent widow's recovery from grief and achievement of selfhood--with effectively restrained compassion and charming, warm-textured wrinkles. Frances Brooklyn, 49, functions regally but is still numb eight months after the sudden death of husband Steven, an academic/BBC celebrity whose busy life and strong opinions were all-consuming. Then, rushing to Venice to visit her (adopted) son Harry, hospitalized after terrorist-bomb injuries, Frances has a minibreakdown, imagining that Steven is still alive. Her rescuer? An American spinster-librarian in a pants-suit, shrewd and kind behind the tourist facade. And Frances' ability to respond to this woman's friendship is the beginning of her emergence from depression to self-sufficiency--Lively's nicest touch. (""Steven would not have cared for Ruth Bowers. Steven would have found Ruth Bowers tedious and ultimately uninteresting. Which she is not, Frances thought. Which I think she is not."") Back in England, then, Frances moves house; she has a one-night-stand with a new neighbor, a boozy and surly married writer for whom sex with Frances is revenge on Steven (whom he's always envied); and, after a tender, unromantic affair with a sad, divorced musicologist, she ends up ""neither happy nor grieving, looking not backwards into the day but on into the next."" Lively attempts to broaden and deepen this fairly slight and predictable scenario with parallel developments in the lives of two other women: Frances' sister-in-law, tart and homely journalist Zoe, proudly unmarried and casual about sex, does suffer dreadfully when her sometime lover marries somebody else; and Frances' adopted daughter Tabitha agonizes when her first grand passion dumps her. But these variations on the quest for ""perfect happiness"" don't really add much (or add up)--while a subplot about the revelation of Tabitha's secret parentage (Auntie Zoe is her real mum) is an extraneous contrivance. Still, both Frances and Zoe are modestly engaging creations; the supporting cast (the American librarian above all) and the Venice/London backgrounds are smartly done. And, within the very distinct limitations of the widow-rediscovers-life genre, this is elegant, gently affecting fiction, only occasionally marred by flat and sentimental obviousness.

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1984
Publisher: Dial/Doubleday