THE SEVEN SISTERS
By Margaret Drabble
Harcourt. 307 pp. $25
Three years after leaving the respectable life of a headmaster's wife in rural Suffolk and setting up house in a seedy part of west London, 59-year-old Candida Wilton turns to her diary to make sense of the nothingness that lies ahead. So here she is, a post-menopausal Bridget Jones, documenting the peculiar agonies and insecurities of being old and alone in an era that belongs to the youthful and engaged. While Bridget focused on finding Mr. Right (or even Mr. Okay) before it was too late, Candida shares her thoughts about surviving the stage of life when it is too late. She has reached the age when knitting is more fulfilling (and less ignominious) than sex.
It takes a writer of Margaret Drabble's age and experience to make a late-life lament as thoroughly witty and entertaining as Candida's proves to be. The diarist's interior monologue, hammered out on a "modern laptop machine," warns of droops and sags, of creeping crow's feet and of never fully understanding the modern world, where vegetable samosas snuggle up beside ham sandwiches at the local grocery store. Drabble's triumph, as Candida writes on the opening page, is to persuade us that the encroaching "nothingness is significant."
Its significance lies not only in exploring the manners and mores of the educated English middle classes, as Drabble has done so many times before. Candida's writing also provides us with a modern, or even postmodern, story -- a commentary on the art of truth-telling and the narrative voice. "I am not sure that I will be able to tell the truth," she writes when describing the husband who cheated on her. "I am not sure if I know the truth." And despite the apparent candor of that statement, Candida turns out to be a deceitful chronicler.
The novel's very structure proves the point. It is divided into four sections, only the first and fourth of which are straightforward diaries; the second is a third-person narrative (though it later proves to have been written by the disingenuous Candida herself); and the third is a first-person account ascribed to Ellen, one of her three estranged daughters (though also actually written by Candida). And if this willingness to tell her own life story from three irreconcilable perspectives is sometimes unsettling, perhaps that is to be expected from a woman who has come to realize that "I have been lying to myself at quite a deep level for most of my life."
Still, Candida is a game old bird, far too English and far too well brought-up to condemn her readers to a journey around her own self-delusional psyche. Instead, when a windfall of nearly $200,000 lands in her lap, Candida takes her readers, along with a group of women (the eponymous seven sisters), on a tour of the places that have inspired her since childhood -- Virgil's stomping grounds. Off they go, these latter-day Didos, on their own heroic trip to North Africa and Italy, following in the footsteps of Chateaubriand and, more closely, those of Goethe on his Italian Journey to the land where "the palm and the cypress cut themselves out in antique shapes for your delight against the blue sky and the noonday sun," and where Candida-the-narrator takes over the storytelling from Candida-the-diarist and brings a classical, academic tone to the book.
The trip is more than a getaway from dreary London; it is a psychological escape and a writing experiment. "Candida . . . is also aware that she has turned into another person," she writes of herself, "a multiple, polyphonic person, who need not pretend to be stupid, who can use long words or make classical allusions if she wishes, without fear of being called a pedant or a swat or a semi-educated fool or somebody trying to be too-clever-by-half."
Wishful thinking, of course. Ultimately, Candida discovers that she can't change her fate by adopting another perspective on her life; she can't rewrite her own life story, or craft its dramatic ending. She is "locked in the same body, the same words, the same syntax, the same habits, the same mannerisms, the same old self." But it is only by engaging in her authorial trickery, by writing first as an omniscient narrator and then as her daughter, that Candida begins to understand some of the murkier aspects of her past -- and that of her apparently less-than-respectable headmaster husband.
And that's the joy of this book. As Candida discovers, there's no escaping the past, but it needn't cramp the future. Carpe diem! *
Frances Stead Sellers is an editor at The Post.