Widowed, in the house her husband had built with day and night nurseries and a music-room, as if the children would stay there for ever, instead of marrying and going off at the earliest possible moment, old Mrs. North yielded one day to a long-felt desire to provide herself with company. She answered an advertisement in the personal column of The Times.
Old Mrs. North’s husband had spoilt her, but now that he was dead and her three children married, no one spoilt her any more. She didn’t come first with anybody and she didn’t like that.
In her pursuit of company to spoil her in the way that she wishes, Mrs. North welcomes a young French woman, Louise Lanier, into her home. Her housekeeper, Miss Daley, takes a strong dislike to the interloper, who won’t lift a finger to help around the house. And Mrs. North’s son and daughter-in-law, Avery and Ellen, find Louise unfriendly and difficult to talk to, although they seem happy enough that Mrs. North has a companion she likes, easing their guilt at not visiting as often as they perhaps should.
Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 novel is a study of how, given just the right (or wrong) circumstances, individual personalities can interact in such a way that disaster seems almost inevitable. In Someone at a Distance, she brings together a selfish young woman, smarting from her own heartbreak; an equally selfish older women, reveling in her attention; a weak-willed and selfish man; an obliging wife; and two children with a strong sense of right and wrong. In the background are a French family who’ve tried their best, a slew of concerned English neighbors, and a young French couple who have no idea that their own happy connection is, in a small and coincidental way, the catalyst that leads to the dissolution of a family.
Whipple renders her characters with great attention to detail, often noting habits and actions that only seem significant in retrospect. Louise’s love of Madame Bovary seems natural at first glance, but appears sinister in light of later events, particularly when contrasted with Ellen’s affection for the likes of Evelyn Underhill. Even minor characters, such as Louise’s parents, are rendered carefully, right down to Mr. Lanier’s Zola-esque appearance. These are full-bodied people, with flaws and foibles that bump up against each other in satisfying ways for a reader.
Many people have showered this book with love, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed at the turn this book took about halfway through. The first part of the book is a quiet, sometimes funny take on clashes of culture and personality. Later, however, it turns into a domestic drama, and all of the characters suffer a bit in the transition. Their primary qualities become fixed in stone, and we see little of the complexity of the first half. Ellen comes out well from it, as the crisis forces her to draw upon her industriousness and resolve. However, she is perhaps too resolved, letting herself be guided solely by her children and not taking a moment to stop and think. There’s a hardness about her, and especially about her children, that I found distasteful. Avery is a total mess, and I had no sympathy for his self-pitying justifications that made him seem comically weak. Yet I couldn’t get past the way these characters refused to have a proper conversation and find a way forward until it is too late to do so. Part of my annoyance is, I’m sure, down to the fact that I’m living in 2013, when attitudes about marriage are so different, but the alacrity with which these characters make irrevocable choices felt false.
Louise’s characterization in the last half of the book troubled me the most; she goes from being a confused and selfish girl to being a gold-digging vixen. Looking back, I could see that the idea of the vixen had been planted early on (with Madame Bovary, among other things), but I preferred the more complex rendering of a girl making misguided and even mean-spirited choices out of pain and fear. Despite the hints Whipple drops, Louise doesn’t feel like a vixen in those first chapters, and there’s no sense of her gradually growing into the role.
I was so absorbed in this book that I ended up reading it in just a couple of sittings, but my praise is tempered a little by my wish for a little more subtlety of characterization. As good as it is, the last half doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first.