Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Consequences by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is interested in the consequences of our behavior and of our choices. In fact, she has examined this theme at least three times in three different books; in Making it Up, in The Photograph, and now in Consequences.

In The Photograph, a woman dies and her husband finds among her papers an incriminating photograph that proves she had an affair. What are the consequences of his finding the photograph, and the consequences of the affair itself? Making it Up, which I wrote about back in 2006, examines Lively’s own paths not taken: In a series of connected short stories she considers what her life might have been like if she (or someone in her family) had made a different choice instead of the one they made.

The themes in Consequences are both more and less obvious than in these two earlier books. On the one hand, it’s called Consequences. Could she make the sign any larger, do you think? On the other hand, it’s a straightforward novel that you can read without thinking too hard about the device Lively is using. Two people meet when they end up on the same park bench because of choices they have each made earlier in the day. They marry and have a baby. The man dies in World War II – that is certainly a consequence of someone’s actions, though not directly of his own. The man’s death has lasting reverberations for his daughter’s life, and for her daughter’s. It’s a good read, though not a great one.

But I have to ask, what novel isn’t about consequences? You could discuss every book I’ve read recently from this same perspective. In fact, couldn’t you discuss most of literature with consequences in mind? Not to get too obvious, but the deaths of Romeo and Juliet were the consequences of the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Should Shakespeare have called the play Consequences? I’m kind of disappointed in Penelope Lively for her lack of imagination here. This is the same woman who gave us a book called Oleander, Jacaranda; now that is a book title!

(Book 44, 2009)


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I really liked this book. Questions about the title aside, I think it this is my favorite Lively book.

Frank Wilson said...

I think The Photograph is a kind of ghost story, the ghost being Kath, who is not only a ghost in the sense that she is no longer alive, but also in the sense that when she was alive no one quite saw her for who she was: "You could not but be absorbed by Kath, even if you did not fall in love with her. There was what she looked like, and there was what she was. She was . . . What was she? thinks Oliver. She was an entirely nice person. Nice? What does that mean? A non-word. You couldn't imagine Kath doing anything mean, or malevolent, or despicable. She was nice to people - hang on, that word again - she was friendly, and interested, and kind."
And yet . . . "Be nice to me," she would plead with Elaine.
Kath is as kind as she is beautiful and everyone takes her for granted, doesn't even really see her. Hers is a very sad story.

Becky Holmes said...

Frank, I loved The Photograph.

Yolanda said...

Would you recommend her as a writer. I have never read any of her books.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

Yolanda: I hope Becky's answer is yes. I loved Consequences and I am just now reading her Moon Tiger which I am also liking a lot. I think Lively is a very talented writer.

Becky Holmes said...

Yolanda, your comment made me realize what a lousy job I did writing about this book. See my post from today where I write a little more coherently about It. And yes, I do recommend this book, and other Penelope Lively books as well!

prashant said...
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