The Parasites

The Delaney children had an unconventional childhood, moving all around, spending time backstage as their famous parents performed, their only constant being each other. And as adults, the can’t seen to form strong relationships with other people.

In this 1950 novel, Daphne du Maurier uses a sort of combined first/third person perspective to tell the Delaneys’ story, as if all three are telling the story together. Their reflections are kicked off with an accusation from eldest sister Maria’s husband, Charles — that the three siblings are parasites, relying on their parents’ fame and the whims of the public, and feeding off each other. The trio start looking back:

“I wonder if we see them with the same eyes,” [Maria] said thoughtfully, “Pappy and Mama, I mean. And the days that were, and being children, and growing up, and everything we did.”

“No,” said Niall, “we all have a different angle.”

“If we pooled our thoughts there would be a picture,” said Celia. “but it would be distorted. Like this day, for instance. We shall each of us see it differently when it’s over.”

The book is itself the pooling of thoughts that Celia proposes. There’s no shift from narrator to narrator, and limited use of we. But the sense is that this picture is their combined perspective.

The eldest Delaney, Maria, is the daughter of Pappy and a Viennese actress. She herself goes onto the stage, although it’s never clear to her how much of her fame is due to her family name. Niall, the middle child, is the son of Mamma and a French pianist. He, too, inherits the family talent and becomes a pianist, although he’s somewhat jaded about his career and lacks discipline. Celia, daughter of Pappy and Mama, is more of a caregiver, although she has artistic talent and potential for success.

All three siblings exist as individuals, but their relationships with each other shape their fates. Maria and Niall have a strong bond, one that sometimes looks like sexual attraction, although it’s never clear to what degree the step-siblings have acted on it or are even fully, consciously aware of it. They certainly rely on one another for emotional support, often in ways that appear unhealthy. Celia is also relied on, but not so much for emotional support as actual physical help. She’s the one who takes care of Pappy as he ages, who capably babysits Maria’s children. No one ever seems to have much concern for her feelings and ambitions, and it’s not clear if Celia prefers it that way. She has opportunities that she wants to take, but she also wants to be there for her family.

As a group, the Delaneys are not especially likable, and I can understand Charles’s exasperation with them. But I mostly felt sorry for them. They’re locked in relationships and ways of living that are clearly not good for them, but they can see no way out. When they do strike out on their own, a plea for help pulls them back in. But is Charles right that they’re parasites? To me, the idea that they use their family name and the public fascination with them to gain success is not the problem. They can’t help that, and they do have genuine talent. They also, to varying degrees, want to be good at what they do. The problem is the way they feed on each other’s worst tendencies. It’s lovely that they have each other, but they don’t quite have themselves.

I read this as part of Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. Visit her blog for more reviews of du Maurier’s work.

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6 Responses to The Parasites

  1. heavenali says:

    I’ve recently bought an old copy of this one, so I’m definitely now looking forward to it. I’m often quite interested in unlikeable characters.

  2. The more reviews I read during DDM week, the more I think she could turn her hand to any genre!

  3. Deb says:

    I love this book—it’s my favorite du Maurier. I always point to it as an example of the sophisticated narrative strategies she was capable of. I’m sorry it’s never been adapted for film, it’s very cinematic.

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