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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January 25, 2011

Virago Reading Week: One Fine Day

When I was wondering which Virago(s) to read for Rachel and Carolyn's Virago Reading Week, I asked for suggestions, and Rachel, Joan and Lyn all recommended Mollie Panter-Downes' 1946 novel One Fine Day. I'm very grateful to them for the suggestion, and for the hours of pleasure this book brought me. It's so lovely, so hopeful.

I made it a point not to read Nicola Beauman's introduction until I finished the book...she quoted many of the passages I had noted! ... but, as always, I enjoyed getting a little bit of biographical information on the writer. Mollie Panter-Downes' father was killed early in World War I, and she grew up with her mother in Brighton and then a small village in Sussex.  Although Nicola Beauman argues that her upbringing made her more suited to be a journalist than a novelist (...'for there is a diffidence, a liking of being the quiet observer in the background, that is essential to the good reporter, whereas the novelist has to have the self-interest to want to thrust her images, her insights onto other people.'), M.P-D. published her first novel, to great critical acclaim, when she was 17 and her second, a little less successfully, a year or so later.  (Nicola Beauman notes that Elizabeth Jenkins, a new favorite author of mine, 'devoured' the first novel as it was being published in serial form.) She was married in 1926, and turned to writing short stories and magazine articles, including a long-lived Letter from London for The New Yorker {there's a good description of it here.)  One Fine Day was M.P-D.'s third and last novel, written in 1946 and dedicated to William Shawn, the second editor of The New Yorker.

In case you haven't read it yet {I hope you will!}, One Fine Day is a portrait  (there's no plot, to speak of) of one long, hot summer day in the lives of Laura Marshall, her family, and some of her neighbors in the small English village of Wealding.  {I was just thinking the other day about how essential it was to read Louise Penny's latest novel, set in cold and wintry Quebec, in cold and wintry January, but somehow I didn't mind reading One Fine Day over two bitterly cold days, the coldest here in years. Since I already know I'll be re-reading this book, and often, I can always read it next in season. :) }

Laura is in her thirties, and has spent the war years raising her daughter while Stephen was away. I can see why other readers might have found her frustrating, wanting her to pull up her socks and move forward, but for me she was an enormously likable and sympathetic character:  flighty, vague, dreamy, disorganized, calm, resigned, full of hope. She is wonderfully self-aware (Stephan is, too - finally, a good husband!), whether she's thinking about her looks, or her house, or her family:

She balanced the tray on the sideboard for a moment, leaning towards the Regency mirror topped by its gilt eagle. The familiar face looked faithfully back at her, saying, Here I am, there You are, the Laura Marshall people see when they think of you. A bit thinner over the cheekbones, perhaps, the hair completely grey in front, though the back as still fair and crisply curling, like rear-line soldiers who do no know that defeat has bleakly overtaken their forward comrades. It was the first thing Stephen had noticed when he stepped back from their kiss after he got home. She had told him in the letters many times, joking about the grey hairs she was pulling out and then not bothering to pull any more...But nothing has really happened until it speeds to the individual eye and bears down with pain on the heart. She's quite grey, he had thought in visible shock, before taking her in his arms and kissing again as though she had become more than ever dear, as though he felt remorsefully that he ought to have been there to stop whatever it was that had played this bad joke on his Laura.

I think that this is the power of the writing here:  people, and their inner and outer worlds, are quietly and intensely observed, and images and insights aren't thrust on us, but come naturally.

Both Laura and Stephan realize that their way of life has changed, something borne out even more strongly in the Cranmers, the family at the manor who are leaving their house to the National Trust.  There are wonderful passages throughout the book about fields ringed with barbed wire and houses crumbling or becoming empty.  There are wry observations from Mrs. Prout, the woman whose day it has been 'to come and bang the carpet sweeper against the chair legs,' and a very funny sentence or two about sheep.

It's only Tuesday, and though I had planned on two Viragos this week, reading this short book has left me time (and an appetite!) for another one. And for later, my  library has Good Evening, Mrs. Craven:  the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, a Persephone that everyone has been reading, and the two volumes of New Yorker letters that were published in the 1940s.

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Carolyn said...

A wonderful review! I haven't been able to find a copy of this one yet, although I'd really like to read it, it sounds lovely. (I do have her wartime stories though)

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you loved this, Audrey! It's a truly beautiful book. And yes, very short, so while it packs a punch, it does mean it gives you plenty of time to read other Viragos!

I look forward to seeing what else you choose, and also, when you get around to it, reading your thoughts on the MPD Persephone stories.

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

I too don't read the introduction until I've finished the book. So glad you enjoyed it - I've a One Fine Day quote today on my blog.

Karen K. said...

Oh, I so want to read this now! I've read her short story collection, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, and I really enjoyed it. So many great Viragos!

Anonymous said...

You make this sound quite wonderful. I really must pull my copy from the shelf soon.

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