A sweet, adorable, clever story about a beautiful and beautifully mannered ex Miss Alabama who has decided to jump in the river. Maggie has made a list of pros and cons and the pros have won out. For months, Maggie makes preparations for the day. She has donated all her clothes and jewelry to the local theatre, arranged to have flowers delivered to the graves of her parents for the next 25 years, written a letter to her cleaning lady with $500 and her gold watch, closed her bank account and given away the money to charities, cleaned and shined her leased car and her rented apartment, and left her old tiara and baton to an old friend of her mothers who worked at the local department store and always called her up when there were sales. But in the cab on the way to the river where she’s hidden away weights and a raft, she is commissioned to sell her favorite house in the world, Crestview. For the sake of the beautiful old house, and for the sake of the small happy firm to which she is devoted, Maggie feels she must put off the big day. She comes back home, whites out the date on the ‘To Whom It May Concern Letter’ she has left in her kitchen, and gets to work.
Nan localizes Nantucket. Charmed, beautiful, slightly eccentric, she is at that age where she can get away with mostly anything: trespassing or swimming naked or wearing scarlet lipstick everywhere.
Nan lives in a huge old house where she has decided to run a bed and breakfast for summer guests. It is this house which brings together a handful of curious, complicated personalities: Michael, Nan’s son, Bea and Daniel (a soon to be divorced couple), Daphne (a divorced real estate agent) and her hormonal and horrible daughter.
Nan eases and re-invents the lives which assemble around her; she couples, amuses, and converts her guests, into friends, into family.
Gwenda gets off the boat at Plymouth, hires a car, looks for village to live in. And finds one: a perfectly charming cottage with aga, a kitchen garden and flowered wallpaper. Gwenda moves in with her rosewood, her mahogany, her papermache, her chintz and all the fabrics of domesticity. She feels from the start that the house and the garden are familiar; she knows in advance where the doors are and where they ought to be, she imagines the wallpaper of a room and then discovers the very same wallpaper in a boarded up cupboard. There is something uncannily familiar about the house from the start.
By the end of the first week she has had one or two hallucinations, and thinks perhaps that she is going mad. She meets Miss Marple who suggests that there may be another way to explain her familiarity with the house. Perhaps she has lived in the house before. Which is of course a perfectly sensible English alternative to Freud: “You are not mad; your house is old, your ancestors are ugly, your hallucinations are memories and best avoided.” But this is impossible. Gwenda is from New Zealand, and she is curious.
What she finds unsurprisingly is murder.
How fun to be a stubborn, sensible English widow who takes up decorating or hotelkeeping or moves to Brighton. The kind of fun that takes time: not like those television garden shows that demonstrate
“how to transform an entire garden in a matter of five hours while the lady of the house [goes to] visit her mother in the next town. …A team would move in. They would spend an inordinate amount of money on mature plants, containers, garden furniture, trellising and ceramic slabs… Towards the end there would be moments of panic because the wife was due to walk in the door in precisely seven minutes time…”
No, Caroline has fun slowly. She sells her old house at Bath slowly, she moves to Brighton slowly, she fixes her old house slowly, and then converts a new house into flats, slowly. Meanwhile she discovers that she’s “…got a wonderful eye for fabrics, window treatments, lighting, decorating, color schemes and so on … even furniture.” Then, very slowly, she turns her builder into her friend and her friend into her partner, slowly, sensibly, with a happy division of labour:
I’m asking you to design while I carry out the practical part.
There are very few perfect beginnings to a story. Beginnings which move through images at the same rate as they move through text, rolling into a plot detectibly, sensibly, unhurriedly. A boy, for example, making the rounds on his bicycle, delivering the daily papers:
…At Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook’s, he delivered The Times and the Daily Graphic. At Mrs Sweatenham’s he left The Times and The Daily Worker. At Miss Hingecliff’s and Miss Murgatroyd’s he left The Daily Telegraph and The News Chronicle. At Miss Blacklocke’s, he left The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail. At all these houses, and indeed in practically every house in Chipping Cleghorn, he delivered every Friday, a copy of the North Benom News and The Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, known simply as The Gazette. Thus on Friday mornings, after a hurried glance at the headlines in the daily paper…. most of the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn eagerly opened the Gazette and plunged into the local news. After a cursory glance at correspondence, in which the passionate hates and feuds of rural life found full play, most of the subscribers then turned to the local column.
We can easily sketch in our mind a series of houses, in front of which stand assorted sizes of mailbox, and in which kitchens sit the inhabitants of this happy English village, eating their singular English breakfasts, reading the headlines, the correspondence, the local news, and then, more likely than not, the Classifieds, in which are published up to the minute or almost up to the minute ads, as relevant and localizable as Tweets.
Only Anne Tyler can make an off-license church appear as American as apple pie, and it’s off-beat flock, a fumbling but cuddlesome assemblage. The Church of the Second Chance is both a hovel and haven of forgiveness, a familial supplement to a family no longer familiar, a family askew.
In 1965 Mrs Bedloe was one of those mothers who believed that life, her life, was perfect, and that everything that happened in life, her life, was perfect. “Her marriage was a great joy to her, her house made her happy every time she walked into it, and her children were attractive and kind and universally liked.” Indeed, in 1965 the Bedloe family had been perfect, or close to it as you got on Waverly Street, in Baltimore. Mr Bedloe was a high school math teacher and the coach of the baseball team, Danni worked in the post office, Ian dated the prettiest girl in his junior class and dressed in high top sneakers held together with electrical tape.
Afterwords, after the Bedloe family had lost Danny and Lucy, whom he had met in the post office, and married, and who had worn red lipstick and stockings with too straight seams, what remains are Lucy’s three children — Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne, and Ian, and his parents, and the house, with its attic converted into bedrooms for the extra children.
A house too old, with too many rooms and too many academics — all the elements of a ghost story, without a ghost. Summer dissolves into eating, gardening, coupling, and conjecture: who is in the house?
“Don’t you know I’m going to live happily ever after anyway?”
After painting, waxing, polishing, wallpapering, and flowering up her old Nantucket house, Nan tells Sara about a man she met and loved. Sarah replies: but wouldn’t it be nice if you met him again and fell in love and lived happily ever after…?
It is then that Nan replies: “Don’t you know I’m going to live happily ever after anyway?” Thus an overgrammatical, nervously detailed book about women becomes a different kind of woman’s book. For it is a woman’s book. Men do not want to read about hypercritical wives with unemotional husbands. No, men do not want to read about the thousand layers of feelings baked into 3 women with marital problems. But then neither do women.
This is not just another old-woman-who-turns-an-old-house-into-a-bed-and-breakfast-and-finds-X (money, god, sex, success) book. This is a book about Nan, a lovely, lipsticked, free and sentimental gardener who smokes and bikes and lives in a big old house alone. Nan gathers around herself an assemblage of half couples, gay, divorced, confused and lonely. Somehow they mix and change each other — if only for the duration of a summer.
Why isn’t this a Doris Day movie? Perhaps because Rock Hudson would never have accumulated old washing machines and bowling balls in the garage; and Doris Day’s anger never lasted longer than a bubble bath. Otherwise, Doris Day could have played this pretty, perky, 53 year old wife who breaks dishes, gets so mad at her husband she can barely speak, gossips with girlfriends, keeps herself trim, honks twice every time she drives past her sister’s house, and is everybody’s favorite third grade teacher in Parker, PA. And of course Doris Day would have redecorated the house after Rock Hudson moves into the next door neighbor’s bachelor house — during the break up phase. There is never any doubt that boy and girl will end up …. married.
The skinny long legged girl with patch pockets shimmies down the fire escape to meet him, and hovers just a little bit above the ground, hanging, swinging above Castle street, in his dream, and forty years ago. After the dream, the old man wakes up, and hears the neighborhood kids destroying the neighborhood. He jumps down to the sidewalk, and shoots up and into the night at them. One of the kids dies. He sweeps up the broken glass in front of his house before he man goes to prison.
He is Tess Monaghan’s first client. She needs the business. Her second client is a sassy business woman and a liar. But Tess takes her case too.
The past comes back like a prisoner or a dream. There is no place for it, no place to put it.