Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble is a “writer of a certain age” (according to Fay Weldon, more of which later). She’s also a leading lady of British letters, author of 17 novels (most of which I’ve read), and she’s got some of those letters after her name (DBE) which mean that the Queen likes her. Her latest novel is The Pure Gold Baby, about an anthropologist called Jess who raises her mentally handicapped daughter Anna as a single mother in North London in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

The story of Jess and Anna is related by Jess’s longtime neighbor Eleanor, a dispassionate observer of human nature and changing neighborhoods. Eleanor looks back on Jess and Anna’s life from such a distance that at times it isn’t clear whether she’s talking about Jess’s life or her own. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are Eleanor/Jess’s observations about the state of the British National Health Service, as it relates to the changing attitudes towards care for the mentally challenged. These parts were a snoozer, though the rest of the story is classic Drabble, about how a woman can live a life of the mind amid the myriad restrictions placed on her by society; especially how a woman like Jess can do this alone, with a needy child. I didn’t love this book. Drabble has gone over this territory before and done it better. Yet even mediocre Drabble can still be lovely--her observations are acute and she has a gift for the wry understatement.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say in this post, I happened upon an article by Fay Weldon, in the January 24, 2014 New York Times Sunday Book Review (Note: Fay Weldon also has letters after her name: CBE). In this article, Weldon (herself a writer of a certain age) talks about the reading public’s (and the publishing industry’s) lack of interest in the voices of women over age 50. Weldon doesn’t waste time bemoaning this but instead treats it as a given, and in the article she relates her conversation with a student in her writing class. 
…older women make up the bulk of the fiction market,” my student will protest. “How odd that they don’t want to read about themselves!” “They do,” I will answer. “But they like to identify with themselves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun — not as they are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks.
Weldon says that literary agents will advise a writer to age an older (female) character down by 20 or 30 years. And indeed Drabble does this, by setting a lot of the action in The Pure Gold Baby when Jess was a young mother. And just as Weldon observes, I liked those parts better, and I was bored by the parts where Eleanor and Jess were older. Does that mean I am now a statistic? A reader who can be quantified by literary agents and publishers? That gives me pause but I also think it might be true.

Though I am also considering whether my boredom with this book is a symptom of my increasing impatience with literary fiction in general. I am having difficulty summoning up interest in any of the new works by authors who have been my long-time favorites (Alice McDermott, Ann Patchett). I’ve been belligerently refusing to start The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (the latest must-read, according to everyone) and instead I’ve been flirting with nonfiction and obsessing over Battlestar Galactica (2003). We’ll see what develops.

(Book 2, 2014)


Lindsey said...

I don't know that your reaction makes you part of the statistic. I had a hard time getting through this one because of the distance to the characters. I didn't particularly feel that Eleanor cared too much about Jess or Anna and I couldn't figure out why I should, either.

Anonymous said...

I really empathise with much of what you say in your last paragraph - I too have been stubbornly resisting 'The Goldfinch' - but I must admit that Battlestar Galactica is not my cup of tea! As ever, your review is very thought provoking, I always enjoy reading your blog.

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