I went into this book without high expectations. Not only did I know little about Margaret Drabble or The Seven Sisters but I acquired this from the same person who gave me Love the One You’re With, so … yeah. Provenance aside, this book turned out to be immensely satisfying. Drabble creates a main character and narrator who is fallible and sympathetic, and the story she tells is firmly grounded in realism even as she carefully interrogates the recesses of the human heart.
The back of the book informs me that this is a story about Candida Wilton. Without this context, however, I would not discover Candida’s name until well after the midpoint—or at least, if she mentions it in her diary before then, I totally missed it. By the time I first detected it, I was actively waiting for an occurrence. Drabble’s character is “she”, largely nameless, but not wanting in personality for it. Candida is an excellent narrator, balancing the need to tell us what happened with her thoughts and feelings about why it happened. She confesses to us her feelings about her divorce, about her social life, about growing old. Drabble has the form down: as voyeurs to Candida’s diary we’re privy to the most personal details of her life, but there’s also clearly a larger plot at work.
I suppose if I must summarize The Seven Sisters in a sentence, I would call it a story about a woman regaining her independence in her middle age. (Drabble refers to this as her “Third Age,” when her children have matured and left home and one can once again pursue one’s own lifestyle and agenda with a sense of newfound freedom.) According to Candida’s version of events, when she was not-so-happily married, she was very much “Mrs. Wilton,” and in that sense she reminds me of the diary-keeping Mrs. Bentley from As for Me and My House. Although she does not go into too much detail, Candida talks about her role as wife to Andrew Wilton, headmaster of a private school. Her social life is the carefully scripted one of a hostess, a fundraiser, a school asset. So as we meet Candida, she has begun the process of constructing a new identity, a new sense of self and self-worth. In Suffolk she was Mrs. Wilton. Who is she in London?
Watching Candida grow into an independent person and regain some joie de vivre is a pleasure. She’s not whiny, which is often the downfall of characters in need of such improvement. Occasionally she discusses her loneliness and the distance she feels from her family, acquaintances, and “friends”, but it’s more with regret than self-pity. And as the story progresses, we see Candida begin to make an effort to improve her lot. She reaches out, forges new relationships, and even attempts to rescue old ones. In the end she even has a fairly normal interaction with two of three estranged daughters—so good for her! Furthermore, Drabble gives Candida a voice that is opinionated without sounding too shrill or too haughty. She reminds me a lot of the characters that Margaret Atwood writes, such as Elaine from Cat’s Eye. Fans of Atwood might appreciate Candida’s similar wry takes on the effects of aging, both on the body and on one’s social life.
Candida also embodies the unreliable narrator in a very dramatic way. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that Drabble drops two narrative reversals on us in quick succession as she changes the narrative perspective three times. The first such reversal made me go, “Whoa. Did not see that coming.” When the second followed hot on its heels, my exclamation was along the lines of, “You have to be kidding me!” It’s true that I’m probably more credulous than most readers—I tend not to predict the identity of the killer or see endings coming—so take it with a grain of salt when I say that Drabble blew me away with these games. What you can take to the bank, though, is my enjoyment over being surprised. Normally I tend to criticize unconventional narrative strategies; when it comes to literary style, I like established and familiar. But Drabble just shows that there are always exceptions to these preferences; it’s fine to shake things up if you can pull it off!
Drabble can. The back of my book also has blurbs, including one from the Montreal Gazette that calls Drabble “an uncanny literary intelligence.” Normally I make fun of these kinds of blurbs and explain why they are undeserved … but I can’t in this case, because I have to agree. Drabble takes a plot that could be, in the hands of a merely competent writer, run-of-the-mill and OK. And she transforms it, by adding layers of literary allusions and emotional resonance, into something remarkable. To say that Candida comes into some money and uses it to take some of her friends on a trip tracing part of The Aeneid—a story for which they share a common affection and admiration—does not do justice to the depth of this novel.
This isn’t about a bunch of middle-aged women bonding and finding themselves on a jaunt to the Mediterranean. There’s no fluffy romance here or quota of knowing glances as the characters trade stories among one another and laugh at all the right moments. Sure, sometimes it feels like the story is moving a little too smoothly, and despite a few instances of genuine suspense, nothing all that bad seems to happen. But as this unofficial Virgil tour group makes their way from Tunis to Naples, everyone comes of out of her shell, and we see her in a different light—Candida especially. Just as I was beginning to get comfortable with the somewhat meek but fascinating Candida of the diary, Drabble turns it all around and asks me to get to know her all over again. But it’s worth it.
Finally, I love the ending of this book because it’s so non-committal. It doesn’t contrive to make Candida live happily ever after—but it doesn’t doom her to a life of solitude either. She doesn’t miraculously make up with her daughters, but the lines of communication have opened, and she’s made a start. That’s what the end is: a new beginning, the true start of Candida’s new life after divorce. It’s hopeful without being trite, and it’s realistic without resorting to unnecessary grimness or grittiness that seems to be the hallmark of realism these days.
The Seven Sisters is very much a character-driven book. It’s light on dialogue and heavy on description and introspection. But it knocked me over, in more ways than one, with Drabble’s skilled characterization and nimble negotiations of narrative. Having finished this book, my only outstanding question is: which of her novels do I read next?