THE HANDYMAN by Penelope Mortimer

THE HANDYMAN

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KIRKUS REVIEW

This impeccably crafted novel from the author of The Pumpkin Eaters belongs to that familiar English genre of witty but mild drama which Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner keep on perfecting. The problem here--and perhaps in the genre in general--is that all that quiet despair of faded characters can get tiresome after a while, and only flashes of comedy lift a novel beyond it. What does a woman in her 60s do when her husband unexpectedly dies? Here, the widow Phyllis devises a ""formal dance"" to make her son feel in charge of his father's funeral (while at the same time relieving him of all responsibility). Then, at her daughter's request, she moves to a cottage in a small village. But her neighbor is a dried-up writer in hiding who dislikes any creature that disturbs her gardening; her daughter Sophia and her son Michael are both too busy (her daughter with her children, and her son with his publishing work) to visit her. And so it is only the handyman, Fred, who comes regularly to fix up her bathroom and stays a bit every time to chat, who dispels her utter loneliness. She becomes more and more attached to him, until one day--in a scene both terribly sad and funny--he starts unbuttoning her dress, and she runs away in fright. ""Then I can't help you, can I?"" says Fred as he leaves. Gone is the ""furtive nourishment taken by her heart"" in his companionship, and she is left alone again with nothing to fill her life. ""How could she go on without Fred, without Gerald [her husband] ?""--in other words, without a handyman--is what she asks herself. As expected in these mild dramas, no one has much of anything here: Sophia has a husband who fools around; Michael has literally nothing except a desire to erase himself; and her neighbor, Rebecca, has only a writing block and a suicidal daughter. Finally defeated by loneliness, Phyllis decides to move to a Home, but as she is frantically preparing for a Christmas celebration with her family, she slips on the stairs (which the handyman never got around to fixing) and dies. She obviously cannot live without her handyman. Although lightened by the cutting wit, the drab despair hangs a bit heavy here. Still, this is entertaining fiction from a talented writer.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 1985
Publisher: St. Martin's