by Elizabeth Jane Howard Macmillan, 320pp, £16.99
Review by LESLEY MCDOWELL
ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD HAS always written well about the fragility of love, and about the inescapability of relationships – even when women are widowed, or husbands abandoned, they don't stay alone for long. However fearful they may be about embarking on another love, something always compels them on. It's a natural human state, Howard says, and her naturalistic writing reflects that.
Sometimes, though, you can have just a little too much of a good thing. Howard's latest novel concerns a beautiful rural setting, Melton, in the West Country, and the various characters who live or work there. It is set in the 1960s, though with regrettably little indication we're in that decade at all. There's nothing worse than an author name-checking music, fashion, foodstuffs of a particular period to try and evoke a sense of the time, but Howard could easily be writing in the present day, and it's hard to see the point of setting the book when she does.
We begin with Persephone Plover (this name, I have to admit, did set my teeth on edge), who has been abandoned by her married lover, as he's going back to his wife. She's also resigned from her job in publishing, and so her maiden aunt (this is a novel peppered with maiden aunts – perhaps they were a feature of the Sixties), who works in landscape gardening, takes her along to her latest job in Melton, working for divorced millionaire Jack Curtis.
If you're wondering whether Persephone and Jack come to some kind of understanding then yes, you'd be on the right track. But things are complicated by the presence of widowed Thomas Musgrove, whose sister Mary lives with him and his motherless daughter (Mary is the second maiden aunt so far), as well as Francis, brother of Thomas's dead sister. Thomas soon falls for Persephone as well. Meanwhile, Jack's dowdy secretary consoles herself with alcohol in her spinsterish bedroom because her boss doesn't realise she loves him. Minor characters such as Reggie, Francis's newly widowed father, Mrs Quantock, and Sir Brian and Lady Hotchkiss appear and disappear from the narrative as and when their roles require it, giving the impression of a very populated village at least. Another important character, Hugo Carson, is a casualty of Howard's extensive cast, as he's not fleshed out or unusual enough to have any kind of presence.
All of them are involved in Jack Curtis's plans to hand his land over to a new annual literary arts festival, meant to rival Edinburgh's, and Howard is good at the petty politics of a small place that will stand in the way of a real business venture that should benefit the community.
Ultimately, however, there are simply too many people, too thinly sketched, for any of them in this novel to have much impact. Even Persephone, who must count as the most important character, is, like so many others, given a dramatic back story that occupies only a few pages before we're off to the next person. Howard is the kind of old-fashioned writer that the latest Booker judging panel seem to be championing – with a straight and predictable story; lots of fairly stereotypical characters; a nice, sensible authorial point of view that lets the reader see what every character is thinking even when we're actually viewing events from a particular character's point of view (Howard titles her chapters according to characters' names). But it's a highly unchallenging format in this day and age, and in this instance too, not particularly revealing about human nature, its losses and its demands, which has always been Howard's strength up till now. I'm loathe to suggest this novel is the literary equivalent of something as bland as Midsomer Murders, another conservative rural-set pack of conventional stories but, alas, that was what crept into my mind. Comfy, superficial and, finally, rather dull.