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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August 9, 2010

The Tortoise and the Hare

Have you ever found a book that you wanted to read and read and read, but, at the same time, you wanted to ration it a little, only so many pages at a sitting, so your time with it wouldn't end too soon?

I wish I could remember where (on whose blog) I first read about this book, so I could thank her for the joy of reading it. Wherever it was, I was intrigued enough, by an old book from an author I'd never heard of, to put it on library reserve. But I didn't start it right away when it came in, because I was sidetracked by the author note on the back cover:

Elizabeth Jenkins -- historian, novelist, and distinguished biographer of Jane Austen, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Elizabeth I -- lives in Hampstead...
I love to read biographies of my favorite authors, and since I've read all (or most) of the contemporary ones on Jane Austen, I was intrigued by the idea of reading an older one. (I am grateful every day to live in an area with a wonderful 30-town library network, which means I'm able to get almost any book that I look for.)  The biography was a very enjoyable read (more on it here), and in a way I'm glad that The Tortoise and the Hare was set aside for a little while, because I had time to linger over it.

The novel is essentially the story of a marriage, between Evelyn, now a successful lawyer, and Imogen, his beautiful wife.  The opening scene, set in a struggling antiques shop, introduces them and gives us a first glimpse of their personalities:  Evelyn is distracted and condescending, Imogen is there to help the shopkeeper by making a purchase, but is unhappy because she can't, and Paul Nugent (a friend, or more than a friend?) is quiet and deeply kind.  Over the first few chapters, we start to meet many of the other characters, some who become central to the story and others who seem to be there just to add color or contrast:  Blanche Silcox, a woman of middle-aged breadth and intimidating hats; Gavin, the Gresham's eleven-year-old son; the strange and modern Leepers; Mrs. Leeper's sister beautiful and dramatic sister Zenobia; Paul's much younger wife, Primrose; Imogen's silent and civil friend Cecil; Evelyn's friend Hunter, who was briefly married to Zenobia; Miss Malpas, the Gresham's 'odd, enigmatic and acute' housekeeper; and the Leepers' young son Tim, who begins spending most of his time at the Greshams'.

The Tortoise and the Hare is written in the style of novel-writing where the characters are mostly defined by the narrator, who comments on their actions and feelings.  Some of this commentary is very funny:

'Blanche Silcox, crowned with one of her large-domed felt hats, batting with a frantic salmon, was not, on the face of it, a sight to seduce errant affections.'
at other times sharp:

Imogen's attractions, more even than most women's, depended on her feeling successful and secure. Unhappiness and lack of self-confidence would reduce her charms to the condition of some fragile garland, meant to float in mid-air over a festive scene, blown down and lying rain-soaked on the pavements.
and at times beautifully descriptive:

London was steeped in that gracious quietness that descends for a brief time in late summer; it cannot show itself over the city as a whole, which is covered with a mesh of screaming traffic at every season of the year, but it is felt in strange midday pauses and early morning quietness, in a blessedly empty space of pavement here and there, an unexpected calmness at a street crossing. Every moment of such relief, every charm of sound and sight, added to their happiness. In Imogen's case the happiness was that of an enclosure, outside whose walls pain is kept back for the time being.
Instead of a plot, it moves forward with a series of mostly domestic scenes that are underscored by deep emotions (mostly Imogen's) and small cruelties. It says something to me about the strength of the writing that in a novel where so little happens, and 'nothing suggest[s] the imminence of a cataclysm,' that I found myself wanting to know how the race would end, even though the possibilities were so limited.

Of course, you can look back at this book with a clear eye and see that it's not Great Literature. What is was for me, though, was writing (and a carefully-detailed emotional world) that I wanted to spend more time with.

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