Pamela Hansford Johnson's new novel concerns, as usual, a circle of friends, with the plot kept relatively simple. Toby Roberts is again the pivotal character. First seen as a Cambridge undergraduate in "The Good Listener" (1975), when he formed friendships with Adrian Stedman and Bob Cuthbertson and romances with Maisie Ferrars and then Claire Llangain, Toby now falls in love again, marries, and learns how to behave as a good husband should. A successful merchant banker, Toby must find out how to grow up emotionally, and he does.
The novel begins on the eve of Toby's 30th birthday, as he goes off, musing about himself, to a dinner party. There he meets the beautiful, elegant, widowed Ann Thorold, 10 years older than himself. A less restrained, less self-conscious man would admit to himself immediately that he has been smitten. But it takes a phone call from Claire to Toby later to let us know that he has fallen deeply and quickly in love with Ann. Toby pursues her, though not too rapidly or too rapidly or too passionately and after some months, she decides that he will do as her husband.
Ann is typical of Johnson's strongly defined, admirable and delightful female characters. She has a private income, a good job high up at the BBC, and superbly furnished London flat, and two boys at school who are remarkably well-behaved and polite. She even has a Col. Blimpish fellow in attendance, Percy Clover, who dotes on her. Such a pleasant life is made nearly perfect by the addition of Toby, who marries in leisure and rejoices at length.
And where is the serpent in this gardern of earthly delights? In Toby's memory, of course. Toby, safely married to Ann, starts remembering his love of Maisie, a blossom of a girl. She is now Maisie Crane, wife of Edward, an elderly, noted London playwright, and they are part of the circle of friends revolving around Ann and Toby. Edward, however, dies decorously of a heart attack in the lobby of the Haymarket Theatre while Maisie looks on in horror. Toby drifts into mischief as he undertakes a lengthy flirtation with Maisie.
To Maisie's credit, she constantly rebuffs Toby, who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about her, about their past together, and who vainly tries to re-establish their old love. To Toby's credit, his philandering is confined to a passionate kiss, visited upon Maisie in a scene where Ann inevitably discovers them:
"When he had kissed her - and this time she did not respond - he did not at once let her go. Neither of them heard the key in the lock.
" 'Playing house?' said Ann."
The understated irony of this scene is characteristic of the confrontations throughout the novel. And indeed part of the underplayed irony is in Toby imagining himself as a modern-day MacHeath from "The Threepenny Opera," with Ann, Maisie and Claire swarming around him.
Johnson uses Toby's mother, Dora Roberts, a celebrated primitivist painter, to force him into greater introspection and self-evaluation. Touching scenes between mother and son culminate in the hospital where Toby persuades her to let Ann help make dinners for his father. Without giving up his allegiance to his mother, he also begins to realize the depth of his love for Ann. Johnson's skill as a novelist comes forth as she describes Dora's subsequent death and the profound impact it has on the survivors.
As a consequence of his mother's illness, Toby makes his last play for Maisie, but Ann's interruption and subsequent warning off Maisie force Toby to consider not only his actions but the effect they have on Maisie and Ann. He finally understands the responsibilty he has taken on in agreeing to be married to so splendid, so nearly perfect a woman. Because Ann's pride and jealously are drawn in a comic rather than a tragic fashion, the novel can end as it does - with a reconciliation of Ann and Toby. As they realize that his father is going to remarry, they step out "into the March twilight, back to a marriage of their own."
Johnson paints on a small canvas. Worldly politics are not within her range, but the examination she undertakes of civilized people and how they live their lives is a pleasant, delightful one. Her dialogue rings true and the calm pace of the novel reflects Toby's deepening understanding of himself, of Ann and of his own mortality.