Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble

I have a weakness for quiet books set in England that shine a light--a piercing light for all the quietness of the text--on society. Luckily there are a number of authors through the years who have done this: Jane Austen, Angela Thirkell, and Barbara Pym, among others. This half a century old first novel of Margaret Drabble's fits in this same tradition of socially revealing character driven novels infused with moments of sly wit.

Sarah is recently graduated from Oxford and living in Paris as an English tutor when she is summoned home to act as a bridesmaid for her stunning older sister Louise's wedding. Sarah does not understand how her sister can be marrying Stephen, even if he is rich and a semi-famous author. He is snobbish and unappealing but Louise is determined to marry him, accepting the reality of a rather cold-blooded, loveless marriage. After the wedding, Sarah continues to drift along in her own life, taking an uninspired job, living with a friend who is getting divorced, and occasionally running into people who report back to her about her sister's apparent loneliness in her new marriage. And then she sees Louise again herself and witnesses what people have been whispering all along, that Louise married Stephen for money and keeps his best friend, a famous theater actor, on the side for fulfillment.  As she watches her sister, Sarah wonders what shape her own life will take.

Sarah is perceived by others as a bubbly bon vivant of sorts but that's a very superficial view of her character. She is casually and thoughtlessly intelligent, well-educated and a member of the socially advantageous middle class. She's acerbic and astute about the society around her, even if she is a card-carrying member of it as well. Neither she nor Louise seem particularly happy and the pervading feeling of the novel is of a mild dissatisfaction with life. The social dynamic is changing, allowing more opportunity for women but it hasn't quite gotten there entirely by the time the novel opens in early 1960s London and the questioning of the limited choices available to women was still not terribly common. Sarah tells the novel in the first person, giving the reader her perspective of not only the strained relationship between the sisters but also her mocking, yet envious, derision of Louise and Stephen's pretentious affluence as well as about her own weary and unfulfilled days. There is a thread of existential angst that runs through the narrative and a sharp social commentary as well. This is an astute character study, both literate and literary. There's not much of a plot running through it so those looking for action will be better served elsewhere. As I already knew from later works, Drabble writes beautifully and she has captured the idle beauty of a certain class of women trying to find her best path in life.


  1. I like settings like this as well. Making a note of this one.

  2. This one sounds super interesting. I've been on an action kick lately, though, so I'll tuck it in the back of my mind for a quieter moment.


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