It is the story of Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, now in their sixties and traveling--separately--to receive honorary degrees from a university in Ornemouth, a town on the North Sea. They met in Ornemouth when they were children, spent one summer together along with a local boy, Sandy Clegg, and Ailsa's brother, Tommy. It was that kind of summer which, however brief, has a bearing on the rest of one's life. Humphrey Clark's introduction to the sea sets him on his career path. Newly minted personalities were coming into being, the cruelty of children was all around, every moment was writ large in the minds of all of them, especially Humphrey.
Now, more than 50 years have passed and both Ailsa and Humphrey are reminiscing--Ailsa, typically, on an airplane, and Humphrey, just as typically, on a train. Their accounts of the last 50-plus years are unsparing, recounting their successes and failures, the places where their lives intersected and the results of those meetings, their professional and personal lives--all that has brought them to this day. Their memories are attenuated through the prism of their individual differences of temperament and interests. Humphrey is an innocent and a bit of a plodder, having made his name as a marine biologist, while Ailsa, the feminist, is a wild card: "Ailsa Kelman lacks method, but what she lacks in method she makes up for in energy and originality and output and panache." They could not be more different, but when did that ever stand in the way of connection? They have been brought to this ceremony by Sandy Clegg, now Alistair Macfarlane, whose own story is worth knowing.
The sea and its creatures are the metaphors that inform the story and at the end, we see that this meeting between Ailsa and Humphrey is "a journey of purification." This is Drabble at her very best. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
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