This may be the loveliest opening to a novel that I have ever read.
“Mary sometimes heard people say: ‘I can’t bear to be alone.” She could never understand this. All her life she had needed the benison of occasional solitude, and she needed it now more than ever. If she could not be with the man she loved, then she would rather be by herself.”
It captured my own feelings perfectly, and expressed them more beautifully than I ever could.
It was lovely watching Mary and Bingo settle in, lovely to be reminded of the depth of Monica Dickens’ understanding of character and of her talent for catching exactly the right details to paint a perfect picture.
I was particularly taken with her understanding that a terrier can be sound asleep and alert at the same time …
The peaceful scene was disturbed when Mary switched on the wireless, when she heard that her husband’s ship had been hit. There were survivors, there was hope, but Mary had a night to get through before she found out the next morning if her husband was alive or dead.
It was a sleepless night, and as she lay awake Mary turned over memories in her mind.
She remembered her childhood, with a mother who had been widowed in the last war and who worked as a dressmaker to support them. Her husband’s family would have helped but she didn’t want to be beholden to them. It was enough that they gave Mary lovely, idyllic summer holidays in the country. And a place in a bigger family.
She remembered going to drama school with grand plans, and coming to realise that she was on the wrong path. Fashion college in Paris was a much better idea. She could have a lovely time and she could play a part in the family business. Mary had a wonderful time in Paris, and she made a marvellous catch. But even the most marvellous catch is not necessarily the right catch.
Mary found her happy ending back in England, at the most unexpected moment.
Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.
And Mary was real, alive, and her emotional journey was so utterly real. There were highs and lows, tears and laughter. Every emotion a young woman might go through. And so many incidents, so many moments to recollect.
All of this was observed so beautifully, with understanding, intelligence, and just the right amount of empathy.
But if Mary’s life was the foreground, the background was just as perfectly realised. Her world was as alive as she was, and every character who was part of that word, even if only for a short while, was caught perfectly.
I loved watching over Mary’s life. It was an ordinary life, but every ordinary life is unique and Monica Dickens highlighted that quite beautifully.
And I could have stayed in her world quite happily, but morning eventually came, and Mary had to face whatever news of her husband might come. And when it came I had to leave.
I’d love to know what happened in the next chapters of Mary’s life, but failing that I’ll go back and read about the years I know all over again one day. Because this is a lovely book, and a lovely way to get lost in another life and another world.