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The Sea Lady Paperback – Bargain Price, May 12, 2008

3.3 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Margaret Drabble has brought all her many gifts to bear in this excellent novel, The Sea Lady. It is scientific, sociological, romantic, psychological, ironic, satiric, poignant, downright funny, and even rather mysterious in some parts.

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The bold latest from by the ever-inventive Drabble (The Red Queen, etc.) tells the tale of two aging academics—Ailsa Kelman, flamboyant feminist activist and TV talking head, and marine biologist Humphrey Clark—who are traveling separately to the North Sea coastal town of Ornemouth: she's presenting a book award that he, unknowingly, will receive. The two met at Ornemouth as children one summer toward the end of WWII; they lost track of one another and haven't seen each other since their brief, disastrous marriage in 1960s London. A cocky narrator reveals the charged memories, of childhood and beyond, that the trip triggers for both—and occasionally breaks free to fill in narrative gaps and pose destiny-altering scenarios. Neither is content: Humphrey is lonely and dissatisfied by his scholarship's mere competence; Ailsa, twice divorced, is uncertain if she's a success or a caricature of success (her cervix has been on TV). Secondaries include red-headed local boy Sandy Clegg, and Ailsa's rich, unscrupulous brother Tommy, in thick with the royals. Nothing as simple as a love story, this prismatic novel shines as a faceted portrait of England's changing mores, as an ode on childhood's joys and injustices, and a primer for marine biology, complete with hermaphrodite crayfish and fossils of sea lilies. Seductive as the tides, it pulls the reader in. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 12, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156034263
  • ASIN: B004J8HX0E
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,615,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Lauren Hahn on May 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
If you fell in love with Drabble's novels while reading her early material from the 1970's, then you might not be as enthusiastic about this work. It's an uneven novel, but contains some of the loveliest evocations of childhood I think I've ever read. The novel is also, in part, a love letter to English coastal regions. Also I found the main characters, Ailsa and Humphrey, delightful. If you like witty dialogue and surprising plot twists, you'll love this. And quite honestly, I have no idea what the other earlier reviewer is talking about with "anti-Americanism." Is he/she writing about a completely different book?
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Format: Hardcover
I wish I could find a more imaginative way to endorse this delightfully inventive novel.

Initially, I was impatient with the slow pace of the second chapter, and I also found the Public Orator to be intrusive and unnecessary. I wanted

Humphrey and Ailsa to get together more quickly than they did. However, once I trusted the author, and was

able to read the novel on its own terms, I began to like it better and better. I realized the value of the Public Orator only at the end of the novel when I knew more about him.

Although I am not especially interested in fish, the descriptions

of them also grew on me. I liked

the sea squirts who were born with

spines, and then lost them over time.

I liked the spiffy fish who apparently committed suicide,

rather than remaining confined in a tank.

I liked the depictions of childhood,

and of approaching old age, and the

theme of how to come to terms with

one's life after most of it is over.

I found The Sea Lady to be surprisingly reassuring.

(Sorry about the wretchedly irregular

lines. This is the best my computer

could do -- and I tried.)
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Format: Hardcover
For some reason I seem lately to have been reading several novels about aging, depressed, and lonely academics or members of the media or arts community--E.g. Shroud, by Banville; Amsterdam by McEwan, and A Foreign Affair by Lurie, among others. The Sea Lady is another and one of the best of this flourishing genre. As in The Sea Lady the protagonists seem always to be highly successful (unlike most of us real aging academics reading or writing amazon reviews), very depressed about their miserable lives (but it's not always clear why and sometimes seems self-indulgent), are divorced or in any case alone and lonely (but many of us real retired academics are still married, with squabbles of grand children), and are almost obsessively self-involved (aren't we all?--or perhaps I should only speak for myself here).

The Sea Lady is the compressed life story of several children who meet one or two summers shortly after World War II vacationing on the seashore of England near the border with Scotland on the North Sea. Two, Ailsa and Humphrey, meet again later in life, fall in love and marry, divorce, etc. Then meet yet again in their sixties, etc., etc. All the children turn out to be famous or wealthy as adults; all are successful, miserable, lonely, aging or aged now in 2006 (the story is told seamlessly with flashbacks).

Drabble is a fine writer with a sensitive simple style that is very similar to Ian McEwan's but without the twisted, dark tones of McEwan. Although nothing happens in the novel, there is no violence, little lurid sex, or anything else of moment, I found it gripping and enjoyable. This is life, a mirror for us aging academics.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Both the author and the heroine of this novel are too clever for their own good. The heroine has no choice since she is a figment of the author's imagination. Drabble, by contrast, should not try so obviously and so tediously to be both erudite and deep. She works too hard at displaying the results of her research, at leaving clues, at giving hints and at pontificating about the development of the plot (in the guise of the "Public Orator," whose identity isn't revealed until the reader has had a chance to become thoroughly irritated with him). As a result, the story seems contrived and the effort to follow it, to remember the clues, and to take the hints left me disgruntled that the novel's ending is more philosophical than rewarding.
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Format: Paperback
i've had my problems with margaret drabble over the years, probably because i loved her earliest books (which i discovered in my 20s) with such passionate intensity, the flame was bound to flicker (or should i say, the tide was bound to ebb...).
in fact, i wondered, on beginning TSL, if i'd even bother to see it thru to the end. if i were still in my 20s, i might not have persevered. but see it thru i did, and i'm delighted to have done so.
TSL is indeed a slowish sort of novel, not for the impatient or the very young, but a novel so full of glimmering insights--about relationships, about growing old, about love, sex, culture, and anything else one might care to seek insights about--and dazzling language that i felt renewed and positively weepy upon finishing it (5 minutes ago!).
so, perhaps not for everyone, but very much for me. thank you, margaret drabble.
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