Of Spies, Sisters and the Old Switcheroo

Ian McEwan, photographed during the 2011 Paris book festival. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of November’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the McEwan book and the Bean play and borrowed the rest from my local library. All are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


6 down, 1 to go!


Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
It is 1970s London, a time of austerity, attacks by the IRA, and three-day work weeks. Serena Frome is lucky to land a job with MI5, despite the fact that she “didn’t use, and hadn’t even heard, the word ‘totalitarianism.’ I probably would have thought it had something to do with refusing a drink.”

Serena’s is no Ian Fleming or John le Carré tale, however. After months toiling in obscurity, her first real assignment is to vet writer Tom Haley, his short fiction and journalism, and report back to MI5 whether she thinks he’s ideologically sound enough to receive funding (funneled through a literary foundation to make it look legit) – a gamble on his future output and whether it’ll hue to the party line.

At this point, the reader familiar with McEwan’s work will note that Haley’s short stories are McEwan’s (wink). Because Serena is “the basest of readers,” only interested in stories with protagonists like herself, she doesn’t have the kindest words for Haley’s sexually depraved characters and “tricksy” plots, and her observations seem derived from those (few) less-than-favorable reviews of McEwan’s first collections (wink, wink).

Serena earns points for signing up Tom for project Sweet Tooth, but commits the ultimate indiscretion by falling in love with him. Much of the middle section of the novel deals with Serena’s inner debate over telling Tom the truth and her doubts that they can have a genuine long-term relationship while she keeps such an insidious secret:

“I was tumbling through dimensionless space, even as I sat smiling demurely in a Brighton fish restaurant. But always, at the further edges of thought, was that tiny stain. I generally tried to ignore it, and I was so excited I often succeeded.”

Turns out Tom has surprises up his sleeve, too. The financial windfall allows him to finish a novel, much like The Road, which proceeds to win a major literary prize (just as The Road did), while McEwan dissects the bleakness of the novel (wink, wink, wink) in the guise of Serena’s MI5 handlers, complaining that their largesse has been used to fund a novel that criticizes, rather than celebrates, western society.

Meanwhile, Tom finds himself giving readings with McEwan’s friend Martin Amis (wink, wink, wink, wink), as the young Amis makes his dazzling literary debut with The Rachel Papers.

But Tom’s fame won’t be of the same order as Amis’. Still, he gets the last wink in Sweet Tooth, which veers a bit too close to Atonement, with its twisty, epistolary ending. Depending on whether you loved or hated Atonement (I’m the latter), the final chapter will send you back to the beginning of the book, desperate to re-read and reassess, or it’ll make you want to heave the bloody thing across the room.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré
It’s taken me a while to warm to le Carré. All that Cold War-mongering seemed of my parents’ generation.

But, when the remake of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” appeared last spring, I saw it twice and enjoyed the nuanced storytelling. Reviews tended to zero in on le Carré’s “peel-back-the-onion-layers” approach. That tactic – which keeps you on the edge of your seat – is in full form in le Carré’s third novel, published in 1963, which brings the reader up to date on British intelligence characters, introduced in his first novel, like Control, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, as well as their is-he-or-isn’t-he arch-enemy Hans-Dieter Mundt, an East German assassin.

Le Carré’s protagonist this time is Alec Leamas, back in England after a disastrous stint in Berlin, where the agents he was running were picked off, one by one, by someone on the eastern side of the Wall, most likely Mundt.

The first part of the novel involves Leamas establishing his cover, disgraced and fired from “the Circus,” le Carré’s nickname for British intelligence, and drifting until he winds up in jail.

The second half involves Leamas’ undercover assignment, pretending to go over to the Dark Side and reveal the Circus’ trade secrets. It’s an art, trying to convince the enemy that you’re one of them:

“They would expect him to be afraid; for his Service pursued traitors as the eye of God followed Cain across the desert. And finally, they would know it was a gamble. They would know that inconsistency in human decision can make nonsense of the best-planned espionage approach; that cheats, liars and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a departmental canteen.”

What sets le Carré apart, of course, is his time in the trenches, working for the MI’s 5 and 6 during the Cold War. But real-world experience doesn’t guarantee good writing, and that’s le Carré’s other secret weapon. It’s his ability to set the scene with perfect detail (“She reminded Leamas of an old aunt he’d once had who beat him for wasting string.”) – this is what makes the subterfuge so thrilling, when the reader realizes she or he has been set up to believe one thing when what’s really true is quite another.

Le Carré was one of the early writers to cast the Cold Warriors in ambiguous terms; the West wasn’t always moral and expediency shaded intelligence operations.

After all, Leamas notes, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too…people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing rights and wrongs?…This is a war. It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next.”

I’m looking forward to reading more about the Circus’ tiny wars – and, next time, I’m going to start at the beginning.

(A footnote: Wikipedia informs me that le Carré, whose given name is David John Moore Cornwell, has a son from his second marriage, Nicholas Cornwell, whose pen name is none other than Nick Harkaway…)

The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Kath is gone. Wife to Glyn, sister to Elaine – so beautiful that no one paid attention to anything beneath the surface. But when an old photograph reveals her involvement with another man, Glyn is forced to reevaluate: “suddenly everything has to be looked at in a different light.”

That’s inconvenient for Kath’s older sister because, in death, Kath had become “biddable…docile, as she never was. She comes and goes, and sometimes she comes when she is not wanted, but she is under control.”

For Glyn, a landscape archeologist, the past he thought he’d laid to rest must be sifted through again; old territory rediscovered and remapped. “Why? Why? Why?” Glyn wants to know. “Motive is all. Motive is clarification. Motive explains. Motive soothes, perhaps.”

Glyn’s need to unearth the truth disturbs the foundations of Elaine’s relationship with her husband Nick and with Kath’s beloved niece, Polly. Even people peripheral to Kath’s life are shaken up.

Without Kath to blame and interrogate, all they have left is their own behavior to examine and the memories aren’t always pretty:

“Elaine finds other Kaths crowding in. These Kaths are not clear and precise, they do not say anything that she can hear, they are not doing anything in particular; they are somewhere very deep and far, they swarm like souls in purgatory, disturbing in their silent reproach.”

It’s a premise along similar lines to Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, winner of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and a tale equally stunning, heartbreaking and well told. This is the second Lively novel I’ve read in the span of several weeks and just as delicious. With more than a dozen other novels to her credit, I’m looking forward to reading more from this great writer.

Sister by Rosamund Lupton
“Grief is the ultimate unrequited love,” shares the minister at Tess’s funeral. “However hard and however long we love someone who has died, they can never love us back.”

Cold comfort to Tess’s older sister, Beatrice, who’d always felt that looking after Tess “is an essential part of my job description.”

Bee’s sense of failure is overwhelming, and it turns Lupton’s Sister into a memento mori:

“I threw everything we had together – the strong roots and stems and leaves and beautiful soft blossoms of sisterhood – into the earth with you. And I was left standing on the edge, so diminished by the loss that I thought I could no longer be there. All I was allowed to keep for myself was missing you.”

Despite the sadness, there’s an urgency about Sister that kept me reading this debut novel late into the night. The suspense, when Tess goes missing and Bee jets back to London to find her, drives the reader on – long past the point when the plot becomes ridiculous.

I’d been warned by a review that this was the case. It’s no spoiler to let you know that Tess is found dead in an abandoned park lavatory because the main thrust of the novel is Bee’s single-minded pursuit of justice for Tess, who she believes was murdered. The police and everyone around Bee are convinced it was a suicide and that Bee just can’t bring herself to admit this fact.

Standing up for her belief brings Bee a sense of self-confidence she never knew she had:

“That’s how I’d been living my life, in tiny measured doses. But your death was a vast sea, and I was sinking. Did you know that an ocean can be seven miles deep? No sun can penetrate that far down. In the total darkness, only misshapen, unrecognizable creatures survive, mutant emotions that I never knew existed until you died.”

But, it also puts her at risk of meeting the same fate, since whatever evil force overtook Tess is still out there. This is where Sister breaks apart entirely. Like a TV procedural, there are many false leads, people with suspicious motives to be questioned and set aside. Unfortunately, the author’s decision to bring a big pharmaceutical company and its clinical trial into the mix ultimately does the plot in. Just like Ann Patchett’s laughable State of Wonder, where Big Pharma Is The Bad Guy, Lupton hasn’t a clue how clinical trials are managed and regulated. For lack of research, a well-paced, well-written plot unwinds into sheer silliness.

Next time, let’s hope Lupton sticks with what she knows, which includes a stunning poetic ability to define a character’s heart and soul.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
This guy Portnoy sure does complain a lot. He complains about his mother. He complains about his girlfriend (“Who sets off inside me daily explosions of disapproval, hourly thunderclaps of admonition!”). He complains that the world doesn’t cater to his every need. He complains enough to fill an entire book.

As Rabbit Run was in 1960, Portnoy’s Complaint was considered groundbreaking in 1967. I’m old enough to (barely) remember ’67 and the times as they were a’changing, but reading this in the 21st century is a bit disconnective, which is unfortunate. It’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t remember the ‘60s understanding exactly what’s going on. And it would be a shame to bypass such great writing, such a great character, because it feels like we’ve met him before. If that’s the case, it’s because Roth made him up first.

Roth tackles Portnoy in first person, and he’s perfectly realized in voice and action. Since it’s the ‘60s, Alex is still in thrall to Freudian theory, and here he is, complaining to his shrink about his mother:

“The great dark operatic themes of human suffering and passion come rolling out of those mouths like the prices of Oxydol and Del Monte canned corn! My own mother, let me remind you, when I returned this past summer from my adventure in Europe, greets me over the phone with the following salutation: ‘Well, how’s my lover?’ Her lover she calls me, while her husband is listening on the other extension! And it never occurs to her, if I’m her lover, who is he…? No, you don’t have to go digging where these people are concerned – they wear the old unconscious on their sleeves!”

It comes as no surprise to learn that Portnoy’s favorite word in the English language is “indignation.”

Portnoy reminds me of that line in a Barenaked Ladies song: “If you think growing up is tough/then you’re just not grown-up enough.” In the end, he feels so real, you want to lecture Alex, just as Naomie did:

“‘Do you know,’ she said, and without a trace of charity, ‘there is something very wrong with you.’”

If only he knew, Portnoy would complain about that too!

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean
I had the pleasure of catching this British import when I was in New York City in August. The play is uproarious. Reading the book brought it back to life and demonstrated how a beautifully crafted structure can support the anarchic talents of an actor like James Corden, who plays Francis Henshall, the One Man of the title.

Playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bean’s farce allows the improvisational brilliance of Corden, till now content to play sidekick in U.K. television’s “Gavin & Stacey,” to come to the fore. Here, he takes on the role of the Harlequin, a man driven by base urges, causing chaos, but no less than the characters around him.

“Yes, the fourth wall is violated in improvisation with theatergoers,” notes The New York Times review, “the most delicious I’ve ever seen on Broadway.”

I agree. Outside of “Arcadia,” this is hands down the best evening I’ve had on Broadway in decades (and that includes plays by Wendy Wasserstein, whom I love, and seeing Whoopi Goldberg in the revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum…” in which nothing funny happened).

Bean updates a commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters” by 18th century Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni, setting “Two Guvnors” in early ‘60s Brighton.

Rachel Crabbe’s boyfriend, Stanley, has just murdered her twin brother, Roscoe, in a knife fight. They flee to Brighton, under separate cover, with Rachel dressed up as Roscoe in order to take the heat off her beloved. (But the newspapers have already published an artist’s impression of what she’d look like as a man and a friend warns her: “You ended up looking a bit like Ringo Starr, who’s already been arrested twice.”)

Rachel is determined to collect a large debt, owed to Roscoe, which will allow the runaway lovers to hide out in Australia.

“Australia!” wonders her friend Lloyd. “Oh my God, no, that’s really terrible. Why Australia? Do you like opera?”

Meanwhile, Francis has lost his gig with a skiffle band (a lively skiffle band plays onstage as the audience finds its seats before the play begins, at intermission, and at scene changes). Broke and hungry, he accepts Rachel/Roscoe’s offer of a week’s work in Brighton, but all he can think about is fish and chips, and he doesn’t get paid until the end of the week.

Enter Stanley, who also needs an assistant while on the lam, and who’s willing to pay Francis by the day.

Now all Francis has to do is keep both guvnors in the dark about his double dipping, keep his duties straight, and remember that he’s engaged in yet another deception, playing his doppelganger Paddy, in order to impress a dame, called Dolly.

“So, do you see how commedia dell’arte works?” Francis addresses the audience as the Second Act gets under way. “In the first half I’m driven by my animal urges, hunger, but in this second half, because I’ve eaten, I am humanized, civilized, and I can embrace the potentiality of love. Which, in this version, is expressed as a leg-over in Majorca.”

Corden puts his portly frame to perfect use throughout, but perhaps best during the first bit of improv, when Francis tries to lug Stanley’s steamer trunk into the hotel. He can’t budge the obstinate trunk for trying and resorts to calling two beefy members of the audience up on stage to help him. There’s a brief mention of audience improv in the book. What ensued on the night I attended was 20 glorious minutes of comedic riffing – the word “side-splitting” comes to mind – and this was his second show of the day!

See this wonderful version of a comedy classic if you have a chance and, if not, the book sure looks good from here.

Back on Track with the Brits

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan, NW, Zadie SmithI thought August and September’s reading challenges were going to undo me – though I love reading too much for anything to change my relationship with books for very long, even books themselves.

Reconnecting with my long-time appreciation of British writers (and one San Franciscan who obviously adores books) got me back on track. Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of October’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first three books and borrowed the last from my local library. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


4 down, 7 to go!


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Strange things are afoot at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and Clay Jannon, the clerk on the shop’s graveyard shift is ready to ignore his boss’s warnings, embark on a hero’s journey, win the girl, and solve a centuries-old mystery.

Robin Sloan’s first novel is that rare thing: a celebration of both the book and the new technology that sometimes threatens to obliterate physical books. And it’s all wrapped up in the kind of adventure pre-teens dream about while reading sci-fi/fantasy serials.

Whether you love The Old Curiosity Shop, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or newer-fangled fare like Nick Harkaway’s, you’ll appreciate this tale, which is perfectly set in a post-bubble San Francisco.

There’s a girl – Kat – a lover of all things data. “I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype,” Clay moons after their first meeting.

Kat works at Google, of course, and is ready to throw considerable computing resources at the baffling code Clay discovers in the books on the shadowy back shelves of Mr. Penumbra’s store.

“A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning,” Clay observes. But the project unexpectedly pushes Kat and Clay apart and threatens the future of the bookstore, its owner and his loyal patrons.

I can’t say much more without revealing the intricacies of a fun caper.

As with many first novels, there were a few moments the reader may take issue with, such as:

  • the over-reliance on an already ubiquitous, real-world brand (Google) to drive a fictional plot (it makes the novel feel like one of those stories paid to be written around a brand; imagine a less-cool brand, like Preparation-H, mentioned so prominently and frequently, and you’ll understand why it’s so distracting);
  • [SPOILER ALERT: Jump to Bullet 3, if you don’t like learning even small plot points] there’s a whopper of a mistake regarding the code in Mr. Penumbra’s books, which is supposed to be virtually indecipherable. This is where the real-world brand truly draws the reader out of the story. The code is so simple that the drama of dragging Google into the plot (yeah, right, Google, which lives and dies on speed-of-service, would allow its search engines to grind to a halt for 3 seconds while it tries – and fails! – to decode the books) makes the story unrealistic – and even fictional universes need to feel realistic;
  • the writing gets the job done, but is so plain, the plot occasionally loses its sense of awe right when it needs to be suspenseful or astonishing (you may want to weigh this comment against my review of Harkaway, which follows).

Sloan saves the good stuff – the eloquence – for the very end (literally the last few paragraphs). It’s lovely (especially a turn of phrase like “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time”), but I wish he’d trusted himself more as a writer to, as Annie Dillard advised in The Writing Life: “give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

The last page augurs good things and perhaps great books from Sloan in the future. Anyone who loves and respects books this much while reveling in all the advances that new technology provides is worth watching.

For you fans of fantasy/sci-fi fiction: The jacket of the hardcover glows in the dark! Wicked cool (and a bit eerie the first time you realize your nightstand lights up like the tiny core of a nuclear reactor).

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
After the tommy-gun prose of Nick Harkaway, Sloan’s just-the-facts approach was actually appealing. Interesting that Harkaway writes a blurb on Sloan’s dustjacket. Ideally, they’d be merged, and Sloan’s DNA would bring brevity and calm to Harkaway, while Nick’s traits help Robin develop a sense of daring and wonder.

At 478 pages, Angelmaker is actually 20 pages shorter than Harkaway’s previous work. But it feels eons longer.

The protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (remember that name…), scion of a British gangster, who rejected dad’s criminal legacy and inherits instead his grandfather’s clock-repair business.

Joe is “the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. Foolishness.”

That moment of quiet reflection will be Joe’s last. The past quickly endangers the present as Joe inadvertently sets off an old clockwork-like device, built by his grandparents, that unleashes hives of mechanical bees (yes, you read that right) into Europe’s airspace. The Apprehension Engine was supposed to bring truth and peace to the world – as if that’s what premiers and tyrants want:

“To the leaders of the world, though, they are bad bees. They are bees of aggression, not bees of honey and peace. They are evil bees, and cannot be tolerated.”

Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World also featured a massively destructive weapon, and its purpose was clear. The origins, construction and uses of the Apprehension Engine are anything but, and the novel takes several long diversions to offer up the WWII-era exploits of a friend of Joe’s grandmother, a spy, who barely survives an attempt to rid the world of evil dictator Shem Shem Tsien (remember that name…).

“Before [Joe] can even reach for that future, or one like it, he has to climb on top of the rubble of the past and see what the world actually looks like.”

This is true, as far as this tale goes, but unfortunately the stakes in Angelmaker aren’t as directly related to our central character as they were in The Gone-Away World. There are a lot of peripheral characters and their random business – all insisting they owe allegiance to Joe, who we’ve never seen earn it, simply because he’s his father’s son. That would be a father who never comes into play in the plot.

This novel should be 40 pages shorter, at least, and would be if Joe’s name wasn’t constantly bandied about. Sadly, Harkaway is not a writer to say something once when it can be fussed and fidgeted over 10 times: “The Spork boy? Joe Spork? Why didn’t you say so sooner, you bloody fool! Joe? Joe! Joseph! Get in here and give me a kiss!”

Most writers are taught to dispense with the Hello-how-are-yous and get to the point; for Harkaway, they’re golden opportunities to run his protagonist’s name into the ground:

– “Don? It’s Joe Spork.”
– “Joe? Joe Spork? Oh, for God’s sake, little Josh?”

This has progressed to other characters, too. Shem Shem Tsien, whose name is already redundant, is AKA the Opium Khan AKA the Khaygul-Khan and AKA a bunch of other names by the time the book’s done. Joe’s grandmother has several monikers. There are three Bethanys at Nobelwhite Cradle, the fixer’s office Joe turns to for help – each, of course, has another name.

And Polly Cradle, Joe’s love interest, is AKA The Bold Receptionist. But it’s never that simple in Angelmaker: “Not Pollyanna. Polly, like Molly. Molly like Mary. Mary like Mary Angelica…,” muses Joe, realizing he knew her as a child.

As with The Gone-Away World, there’s a major twist late in the game. The problem, I think, for this novel is that the twist happens to a character we don’t care about. In his first book, a shocking revelation changes the game and ups the stakes for the protagonist. With Joshua Joseph Spork and his bees, the sting doesn’t leave the reader itching to know more.

NW by Zadie Smith
NW stands for northwest London; in NW, Zadie Smith is focused on the community living in council estates (government-subsidized housing) further north and west of now-trendy Notting Hill and Islington.

While many residents are immigrants from Jamaica and Africa, a certain mindset feels long-entrenched here. Two bright young women, Leah and Natalie, use education to find their way out of the estates. But they never quite escape the idea of – to use that lovely British expression – who they are when they’re at home. Family and community have claims on their identities.

Leah, in particular, is struggling with expectations that her relationship with Michel move to the next stage despite her desire to keep things just as they are, without a baby. Here is Leah at work, surrounded by a pregnant co-worker and colleagues who’re already moms:

“A room full of women laughing. Some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party. She puts her hands either side of the bump, and smiles, hoping that this is the sort of thing that normal women do, women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place.”

It’s thrilling when a writer is this good at placing you in the mind of her protagonist, and I wish I could tell you there was more of this in NW.

Meanwhile, Natalie, a lawyer, is “living the dream” with a banker husband and two children, yet keeps finding ways to destroy everything she has built.

If that synopsis sounds coherent, the book is not. It’s suffering from three major flaws:

  1. There is far too much dialogue to really get to know and understand the characters deeply.
  2. The entire second section of the book is a series of short blurbs about Leah and Natalie (185 in total), bits and bobs of background detail.
  3. We are too often in the heads of characters we don’t care about, who have little relationship to Leah, Natalie or the plot.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, about a family living in the rarified academic community around Harvard, was a tour de force of writing, characterization, ideas.

NW is a collection of notes on character, scraps of dialogue. Sadly, they are too jumbled to suss.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Now here is an author, masterfully moving characters through a story, connected by a simple, but poignant idea: that one seemingly insignificant event can turn the trajectory of many lives.

It begins with a purse-snatching that leaves widowed Charlotte injured on the pavement, £60 poorer and forced to recuperate at the home of her daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband. Inadvertently, the thief has set the dominoes in motion and – though they fall – the outcome brings pleasant surprises as often as hard tumbles.

Rose manages cheerfully with the inconvenience of Charlotte, even though it means the occasional missed day of work as an assistant to “his lordship,” Henry, an aging academic. Henry’s career-woman niece, Marion, substitutes just fine for Rose at one of Henry’s luncheon lectures and, in turn, her life becomes a series of turbulent episodes thanks to a chance encounter at the event.

Like many of these characters, we meet Marion at the point when she must figure out whether change is for the better or worse.

“What has happened?” wonders Marion. “My life is in upheaval, and all because of a man I met at a lunch, and something called the financial downturn…Am I making a ghastly mistake? Am I going to regret this? But you have to be flexible, swerve off course if it looks right – I’ve not done it enough, I’ve just plowed ahead. And anyway I was swerved. Things happened.”

Having been quite literally swerved, Charlotte copes with her new circumstance by turning to books.

“She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”

Someone else in Charlotte’s life is near starvation: Anton, one of her English-as-a-second-language students. Every moment he struggles to learn English keeps him from pursuing his profession in his new country and, with Charlotte no longer teaching, he falls further behind. Charlotte agrees to tutor him at Rose’s house, and this small change in routine brings Anton to the brink of a new life while Rose must consider the cost of breaking up her old one.

“All meetings are accidents really,” Rose supposes. “They might never have happened.” From Charlotte’s “transitory, intimate” encounter with a mugger, Penelope Lively weaves a beautiful tapestry of lives transformed by joy, fear, love and loss.