Do you ever rehearse conversations you plan to have—or wish you’d had—in your head as you’re driving down the road or walking down the street? Have you ever caught yourself speaking the words aloud, even right in public?
Oh, just me then. Or me and Rachel Waring (which doesn’t bode so well for me, I think).
Rachel Waring spends a lot of her time in a dream world, imagining how things ought to be or what she can do to increase her happiness. When this novel by Stephen Benatar begins, she’s just inherited a house in Bristol from her great-aunt and, at age 48, she takes advantage of the opportunity to quit her London job and move into this new home. Her lively imagination makes it easy for her to see the potential in the run-down house and in her new life.
Previously, of course, I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was a rightness to it—a certainty, a simplicity—which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered. Still sitting at my table in the empty cafe I knew that concerning the house I had made the right decision. Bristol, me with a new start. London in my imagination had now become grey; maybe always had been? Bristol was in flaming technicolor.
You don’t have to be an especially alert reader to realize that Rachel’s gaiety and vivacity make her appear a little odd. She’s prone to engaging strangers in intense conversation and making sudden bizarre comments that make sense only to her—and to the readers who have access to her thoughts. The book was published in 1982, but Rachel’s cultural references come from old movies and Disney films, making the book and Rachel herself seem out of time. There are just enough mentions of then-modern conveniences, such as a video recorder, to make it clear that Rachel is the one who exists in a different era.
Rachel’s positive thinking means ignoring the bank statements indicating her account is overdrawn and continuing to spend money as if there’ll be no limit to her funds. One marvelous scene has her in church imagining herself having all sorts of interactions with the vicar—or is she imagining them? As readers, we’re kept inside Rachel’s head, and there, reality and fantasy are one and the same. If she can’t tell the difference, neither can we.
It’s possible to sketch out a general outline of Rachel’s life, based on the information she shares. To get at the truth of what the various events mean (and which ones really happened), we must read between the lines. There’s reason to believe that she’s been badly treated, and she’s certainly easy to take advantage of. But positive thinking does not always mean positive actions, and Rachel’s delusions become increasingly sinister as the book goes on, leaving us to reconsider others’ treatment of her.
In the introduction to the NYRB edition, John Carey writes about how the first-person narration keeps us rooting for Rachel. Personally, I didn’t experience that. I was fascinated by her. I kept wondering what she’d do next. But I wasn’t sure I wanted her to get her way. (Maybe it’s because early in the novel she interrupts a woman reading quietly in a tea shop!) I did want her to be safe from herself and from others, but what does it mean to wish someone safe? Does it mean wishing her safe at home? For Rachel, perhaps not.