The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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November 17, 2010

A Game of Hide and Seek

Elizabeth Taylor is a 'forgotten' author who I've known about but have never read. {I just looked in the reading journal I've kept since college, and that's not true: I did read one of her novels, A Wreath of Roses, about 20 years ago.} But I'm old enough to remember when the Virago Modern Classics were first coming out (in the 1980s, I think?). I collected some of them then and when it was announced that this book was the Cornflower Book Group book for November, I even thought I might find it on my shelf (I didn't).

But I'm very glad that I found it at the library, and that I've had this chance to read another of her novels. This one is the story of a romance (it's deeper than that...a love) between Harriet and Vesey, two only-children who meet when they are young and reconnect, obsessively, hiding and seeking, when they are middle-aged. (There's a 20-year break in the story that you don't notice right away, until you find yourself, at a dance, on the other side of it.)

In a café one afternoon, he saw a little girl who reminded him of Harriet as a child. Her long hair straggled over her shoulders, her thin arms were covered by a tight jersey. She sat at a table with her father and two younger children. When the tea was brought, her father nodded at her with a casual and flattering gesture. Colour rode up in her cheeks. She stood up and lifted the tea-pot with two hands. Vesey could see that the father, so apparently relaxed, was ready to spring to her rescue. The wobbly stream of tea descended into his cup. He took it from her with careless thanks. She smiled. She shone with relief. ‘This was my first time,’ she said, ‘of pouring out.’ Vesey looked away. He felt a personal guilt toward the grave, successful and beloved little girl, besides a tardy guilt toward Harriet. ‘Love is not difficult,’ he thought. In the child’s father it had seemed the simplest thing, as was the expression of it. He began to hope that the mother was merely resting for the afternoon, and not dead. But having seen so much happiness, he desired more. He imagined the mother at home in child-birth. ‘I will take the children out to tea,’ the husband had said. When they returned, he would run upstairs. He would be excited, not anxious, over his fourth child. He would call his daughter to come and see… ‘But perhaps after all the mother is dead, he thought, as he paid his bill. ‘Perhaps it is their first holiday without her. He is trying hard: and succeeding so much better than those who think they have no need to try.’
To me, neither of the lovers is an especially sympathetic character. When he is 18, Vesey is self-absorbed, smug, even a little cruel; later, when he is regretful, it's too late for that to matter. Harriet at 18 is awkward and unsuccessful (in ways that matter to other people); I loved the sentence early in the book when Taylor describes the way they talk to each other on a walk ('They had not yet learned to gush. Their protestations were of an oafish kind.') She has a little more spunk, and is a little better able to connect with the people she finds herself living among.

‘You think I want to enliven my old age by dwelling on your affairs?’

‘I do not. What a horrible idea! And I have no affairs.’

‘I know otherwise. Although I ask no confidence of you…’ She paused and looked around the room, as if it were somewhere strange to her. ‘No, I really don’t care to know,’ she said, when Harriet remained silent. ‘So depressing! Modern love-affair seem such sordid, morbid little concerns. Drinking gin in bars, cars parked at roadsides — imagine making love in a car! It is beyond me to think how such a thing could be done. The gears, as I believe they are called…’

‘Believe? You know perfectly well.’

‘And once I saw a film … a middle-aged couple in raincoats, and it all took place on a railway station…can you believe me? In my day, we should never have cared for that … we did such things at home, in the proper place… when our husbands were out …’

‘You conjure up such a lovely picture of salmon –pink satin boudoirs and lace negligees. What if the husband should come back in the middle?’

‘The middle! The middle of what?’ Julia sounded aghast. Miss Bastable was bringing in the tray. ‘We will discuss this when we are alone.’ Her voice became loud and toneless.

‘We will do nothing of the kind,’ Harriet said. ‘We will leave it there, in the pink boudoir, if you please.’
Some of those people (the salesladies in the gown shop and her mother-in-law, 'mad, raffish, unselfconscious' Julia Jephcott) are so funny and so wonderfully drawn. This is another funny scene with Julia, and a little enigmatic (does she really know about Harriet, or she making things up to draw attention to herself?) but what happens next is one of those bits of writing that catches at you. (Miss Bastable is Julia's sad, spinsterish companion.)

Julia was now -- affectedly, laboriously -- discussing the lengthening daylight, as if to imply to Miss Bastable that nothing more intimate could be mentioned in her presence. 'That little spell after tea before we light the lamps, so very welcome,' she said in a high-pitched social voice. 'And one is so grateful for it in the early mornings. The birds singing,' she added vaguely. 'Soon it will be summer. That's another thing, you'll notice,' she said in a lowered voice to Harriet, 'the way the seasons go flying by.'
Towards the end of the book, as Harriet and Vesey come together and apart, I found myself wanting to know what would happen next (the sign of a good storyteller!) without wishing that anything would. I did think the ending (the very end) was well done, with everything left a unsatisfied.

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