Envy the reader of “Before the War” who has never read anything by Fay Weldon. That reader is about to be changed by Weldon’s trademark voice. But that voice, which many first heard in “The Life and Loves of a She-Devil” (yes, you saw the movie with Meryl Streep) or “The Hearts and Lives of Men” or even in her 2002 autobiography, “Auto da Fay,” has not changed. It’s still trenchant and barbed.
“Before the War” takes up, in a way, where “Long Live the King” left off. In that 2013 novel, second in an Edwardian trilogy called “Habits of the House,” a teenager named Adela is sent to a convent — and mysteriously disappears. Here she is again, in a novel more befitting her creator’s ability to take down everyone from royals to roustabouts. Adela is now the mother of Vivvie, “single, large, ungainly, five foot eleven inches tall and twenty years old.” But Vivvie has a secret: She is about to propose marriage to one of her father’s employees, Sherwyn Sexton, who is a decent publishing executive but a hack writer.
[Fay Weldon remembers life upstairs and downstairs]
The story is divided by day, time and place, with many sub-headings from the omniscient narrator (“Woman Proposes, Man Disposes,” “The Unwelcome Package,” “A Woman of Alpine Property”) to lead us from London across the Continent to the tiny hamlet of Barscherau, Germany, which Vivvie happens to own.
Once Vivvie and Sherwyn and then Adela and an odd English doctor converge on Barscherau, it’s clear that a game is afoot — several, in fact, and keeping up with the various characters and time periods is a game unto itself. One of Weldon’s great themes returns, too: The difference between plain women (such as Vivvie) and pretty ones (such as Adela), a subject that proceeds into a new generation with just as much vigor as it has through the author’s previous books.
The novel concludes, “At last the real war could begin,” which seems to signal not just a sequel, but a call to arms. Old and new readers of Fay Weldon should heed her call because this is a feminist continuing to engage with her culture’s shortcomings and having an awful lot of fun along the way.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Fay Weldon
St. Martin’s. 298 pp. $26.99