It's hard to get across just how flat-out thrilling, how readable, how absorbing is Margaret Drabble's novel The Seven Sisters
. It sounds positively dull when you describe it: Candida Wilton, a faculty wife of late middle age, has been dumped by her allegedly do-gooder husband. Her three daughters aren't too impressed with her, either. The mousy Candida decamps to an inglorious flat in London, where she measures out her time in visits to the health club, trips to the grocery store, and her weekly evening class on Virgil. She tentatively makes a few new friends and rediscovers some old ones. This opening section of the book, told in diary form, is a marvel of tone. With very little action, Drabble makes Candida's forays into the world quietly electrifying. One of her new pleasures is recording in her diary her mounting dislike of her ex-husband. You sense a giddy freedom: "Andrew had come to seem to me to be the vainest, the most self-satisfied, the most self-serving hypocrite in England. That kindly twinkle in his eyes had driven me to the shores of madness."
Ah, but there's more life for Candida yet. A small, unexpected inheritance is left to her, and so she organizes her friends--all female, mostly aged, mostly unmarried--into a tour of Naples as Virgil describes it in The Aeneid. Their holiday is a fictional tour-de-force: by turns a hilarious send-up of group dynamics, a metafictional lark, a feminist rant, and a dark acknowledgement of Candida's mortality. In the end, Drabble's novel is a very serious one, and a very good one. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
The narrator of Drabble's teasingly clever new novel, like several of her fictional predecessors (in The Witch of Endor and The Peppered Moth) is a lonely, middle-aged woman disillusioned with her life and wary about her future. Betrayed and divorced by her husband, the smug headmaster of a school in Suffolk, and estranged from her three grown daughters, Candida Wilton moves to a flat in a rundown, slightly dangerous London neighborhood. To fill her days, she takes a class in Virgil, until the adult-ed building is taken over by a health club, which she joins for lack of anything better to do. The first section of the narrative is Candida's computer diary, in which she tries to make sense of the circumstances that have led her to this narrow place in her life, and her tentative efforts to reach out and make new friends. Though she apologizes for "the bleating, whining, resentful, martyred tone I seem to have adopted," Candida's account has the fresh veracity of someone who's a newcomer to London and to the state of being single. While Drabble paints her as sexually cold and maternally reserved, given to French phrases and snobbish assessments, Candida is a character the reader grudgingly admires as she tries to maintain hope that she can turn her life around. Then a small miracle occurs. A financial windfall allows her to take some of her fellow Virgil aficionados and two old friends on a trip to Tunis and Sicily, following the footsteps of Aeneas. Candida learns more about her companions as the trip progresses and gains some insights into her own behavior. The narrative takes several surprising turns, throwing the reader as off-center as Candida has become and proving that Candida herself has not been candid. But Drabble has: Candida's evasive account accurately charts the psychological territory of one who is suddenly cast adrift.
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