Laura Cooper dazzled as a professor at Washington and Lee University of Law – also shining at Vanderbilt, Michigan, and Duke – before bringing the Socratic method home to three young men. She takes a wry look at family life, Nashville, swimsuits, cops and the world beyond at norealplot.com. She also contributes to the blog Homer on the Homefront, for Learn with Homer, an early reading app. You can find that blog at learnwithhomer.tumblr.com. Today she reviews Someone At A Distance, by Dorothy Whipple – an unexpected and brilliant find from an unreliable (but brilliant) source.
From Laura: I met my husband on a blind date in New York City.
I was practicing law there in a tiny litigation firm. He was an investment banker. We had no mutual acquaintances. But I was the token Southerner friend to one New Yorker, and he was the token Southerner friend to another, and they decided to introduce us. Because, anyway, a Virginian (me) and a Tennessean (my now-husband) probably knew each other already, the South being, you know, that way.
The first date went fine, a weeknight dinner in a snazzy restaurant where his introducing friend came along too. We all talked too much and too nervously about books. The next day, he asked me to lunch at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. We launched right back into book talk, and he strongly insisted that I absolutely must read a certain novel he considered the best American fiction of the 20th century. He couldn’t believe it wasn’t already a favorite. He knew I would love it.
Really? I pressed. He thought so? Even having just heard me rave – truly rave, and not that adorably, either – that my favorite writers were Henry James and Edith Wharton? Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch? Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes? Virginia Woolf? Anthony Trollope? Had he been listening at all?
Yes, absolutely, he assured me. I would love it.
I bought the book on my way back to work. When I arrived, into my office raced the partner I worked for most, a buddy who knew me very well and who always had an eye out for my romantic life, such that it was. “So?” he prodded.
I told him, the guy seemed nice, but he really wanted me to read this novel, this best American novel of the 20th century.
I held up the book, and the partner exploded with laughter. He hooted, “You’ll never see him again.”
The partner was right. I hated the book with all my heart. How could the blind date think it would suit me? What kind of girl did he think I was?
Fast forward fourteen years of marriage and three sons later. One summer day, my husband waltzed out of a Sag Harbor bookshop with a package in his hand and a giant smile on his face. “I found you a book you’ll love,” he said triumphantly.
The book was Someone At A Distance, by Dorothy Whipple. First published in 1953, it tells the story of a woman with an amiable husband and two nearly-grown children living not far from London. She’s introduced as almost ridiculously conventional: she’s devoted her whole life to her family, her house, her garden. She chafes at the fiats of her overbearing, widowed mother-in-law, who lives nearby. She frets that her housekeepers will only work mornings. She seems destined to grow old and die in the same gentle, domestic peace she’s spent her adult life cultivating, however bland.
But her mother-in-law answers an ad in The Times and hires a young French woman as a companion. Snake, welcome to Eden.
It’s no surprise what happens next. The gamine seduces first the mother-in-law and then the amiable husband. The next thing you know, our heroine is forced to build a very different kind of life for herself and her children out of the rubble left behind.
That’s not a spoiler because the novel isn’t really about the events that overtake this woman, this wife. Instead, it is about how her own fundamental view of what counts in a good life survives the wreck of her marriage and her home. The novel slowly, devastatingly, reveals that what first looked like a ridiculously conventional habit of being kind, unselfish, and loving is in fact a commitment to the most radical, most heroic, and least peace-giving forms of virtue. It’s hard to watch her being stripped down to this essence, but you also can’t turn away.
Dorothy Whipple’s writing is both understated and relentless, both composed and deeply passionate. She’s a subtle master from a time before fashion required fiction to be more violent and more outlandish than most readers (honestly) want their lives to be.
I won’t tell you the ending, and I bet you won’t guess it, either, before it careens around a corner to surprise you at the last.
And as for my husband? Well, of course he was absolutely right: I did love this book. There’s nothing like a winning do-over.