I was intrigued by this book. The summer before last, when I heard Nicola Beauman speak at my library, she mentioned that she was delighted she had found a comedy that would bring something new, something that she felt was missing from the Persephone list. It was too early for her to share any of the details, but I’m quite sure that this is it.
It’s the story of 28 year-old Patience Gathorne-Galley. She’s a good Catholic girl, independently wealthy with a husband, Edward, and three little girls, Star, Sue and Sal.
But Patience is an innocent, hopelessly naive.
She relies on her siblings for advice. Lionel is a good devout Catholic, whose wife’s desertion hasn’t shaken his faith one iota. Helen, on the other hand, is a lapsed Catholic, living in sin with an Anglican solicitor.
Ah yes, SIN. That word is writ large in all their lives. Lionel takes the avoidance of sin terribly seriously. Helen is rather more sanguine, but she hasn’t completely lost the values she was raised with. And Patience knew that sin was a very bad thing that she really should avoid.
She really was that naive, a young woman passed directly from her parents to her husband with no chance at all to look at the world around her.
She was surprised when Lionel told her that Edward had a mistress. He was a good, reliable husband, and why ever would a woman want to go to bed with a man when it wasn’t her marital duty?
Yes, there was a story waiting to happen here. And happen it did.
Patience met a man. Phillip. She fell in love. And in lust.
“She understood in a sort of flash of revelation almost everything Lionel had ever told her. It really was different getting into bed with someone who wasn’t your husband. And no wonder Lionel was so anxious no one should begin, because once having begun, and knowing how lovely it was, one would find it very difficult to stop.”
When she confided in Helen her sister assured her that it wasn’t just the fact that Phillip wasn’t her husband that made the difference. And then Patience knew that her future had to be spent with Phillip and her babies. But however could she disentangle herself from Edward and not fall into sin?
Patience’s attempts to do that, to reach her happy ending, make this a charming comedy of manners It sails along beautifully, with lovely dialogue batted back and forth by beautifully drawn characters.
I could see them and I could hear their voices. I could imagine actors on a stage having wonderful fun with this material too.
John Coates captures the feminine psyche extraordinarily well. I am inclined to believe that he was brought up with sisters, and that maybe he had a colourful aunt or two. But that’s just speculation, so let’s just say he understands women.
He writes beautifully too, with a light touch, with a lovely turn of phrase, and with just the right amount of wit.
I found that I could even forgive Patience’s habit of addressing everyone as ‘dear!’
Patience’s faith, and the problems created by the differences between church and secular law, provided a serious thread that counterbalanced the comedy and the romance quite beautifully.
There were some very nice twists and turns along the way. Moments of comedy and moments of joy deftly handled. I turned the pages quickly and stayed up rather later than I had planned because I so wanted to know what was going to happen.
And yet my feelings were mixed. There were times when I found Patience irksome. It is one thing to be a simple soul, but even the simplest souls have some awareness, some concern for the feelings of others. But Patience didn’t. she was utterly oblivious, thinking only of what she wanted.
It was wonderful that her discovery of love and passion swept away everything, save her maternal love, but I found it hard to believe that any grown woman could be quite so insensitive to other people’s feelings.
Maybe that says more about me than the book. I’ve often been told that I’m too serious, and that I over-think things.
But I’m afraid that near the end, when Patience said that she had grown up and all that it meant that she was more forceful in getting her own way I was bitterly disappointed.
I just needed some little acknowledgement that she might have been thoughtless, or some little sign that she had sympathy or understanding for others. But it never came. And an afterword revealed that Patience never really grew up at all.
Seeing love conquer all was delightful, and the way that the story played out was a joy.
But, to me, this looks like a flawed gem. I saw the beauty and the flaws, but I suspect some will see only the beauty and others will see only the flaws.
I’d like to read it again soon, because I don’t rule out feeling differently on a different day, and I’m going to be very, very curious to find out how other readers react when they meet Patience.