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Not My Cup of Tea at All
on January 22, 2009
I have to admit that I read this critically acclaimed novel under some duress -- it was picked for my book group on the basis that it is one of our member's writing professor's favorite book. (It's also on the Modern Library and Time Magazine lists of Top 100 Novels, for whatever that's worth.) Unfortunately, I tend to like books with plots, and this is certainly not that -- it's more of a psychological portrait of a teenage girl as she undergoes the process of having her "innocence" utterly revoked by the social milieu she is thrust into.
Portia is a 16-year-old orphan sent to live with her half-brother and his cold and catty wife in their lovely Regency Park-fronting home in 1930s London. Having been raised in a succession of continental hotels (an experience Bowen herself had for about a decade, starting at age 12), she is wholly unprepared for the invisible and unspoken rules of the game operating in the upper-class English home she's entered. With her distant half-brother and cold sister-in-law, she struggles to locate some kind of human connection, and only manages to find it in unsuitable people such as an older head servant, or a dissolute young male "friend" of her sister-in-law (he's apparently based on the Welsh writer Goronwy Rees).
It is this latter relationship that inevitably leads to tears at the end, as her naive dreams are dashed by the self-absorption of everyone around her. It's all pretty bleak stuff, as there is not a single character in the book who lives in anything approaching happiness. It does have some appeal as a fictional ethnographic case study of a strange bygone (and peculiarly English) ecosystem, but it's hard not to wish for World War II to arrive and force these characters into doing something useful and thinking about something other than themselves.
Although it's not a book I can imagine recommending to many people, it is worth checking out if you're the kind of reader who likes to linger over every sentence, picking it up, turning it around, and examining it from every angle. The language is rich enough to warrant this kind of close reading -- even if it didn't generally strike a chord with me. It's also worth reading by anyone with an interest in the interwar era or in the manifestation of class in Britain at the time. Note: The novel was adapted as a miniseries for BBC television in 1985, however this version remains unavailable on DVD.