Can a long marriage and a long love affair go hand in hand? This is the central question of this quite astute and insightful story by the reliable Mary Wesley. Told in a no-nonsense, typically English way, it follows the memories of one Rose Peel i.e. Mrs. Ned Peel, just after being widowed. We first meet Rose just after Ned has died. Nicholas and Emily Thornby, her childhood friends, also show up in the first chapter (and fittingly, in the last).
And then Rose starts to reminisce, starting in childhood and her somewhat thorny, disquieting relationship with the twin siblings Thornby, and moving on to her youth and the two main men in her life: Ned Peel, hasty husband, and Mylo Cooper, lifelong passionate love. She meets both at the same time. So why does she opt to marry Ned if she really loves Mylo? Here begins the examination of Rose's character. Through the author's careful pulling back of the layers, you begin to see all the in-between shades of a person's choices, circumstances, motivations, and desires. Not only Rose but all the cast of characters blooms slowly under this insightful pen.
So we go along for the ride through the years before and after WWII. Rose matures quickly from a shy teenager into the confident mistress of an ancestral estate and its farms, mothers a child, and all the while continues to nurture her love for the elusive Mylo. Elusive because he works for the secret service and travels between England and France at highly erratic intervals. Thus Rose is stranded so to speak, once he leaves her after a rendevouz. Ned the husband is either away in the war or lives in London working during the week and this facilitates the lovers' meetings. Rose's housekeepers, the Farthings, play a surprising but important role in this relationship also.
What of her relationship with Ned? The writing style here is so convincing that one can have no doubts imagining such an arrangement, a marriage arranged if you will, between two young people in that era. Also a revelation is the suddenly evolved character of Rose's mother after Rose's father passes away; the chapter where she and her mother meet for lunch is the funniest one in the book albeit in an almost mordant way.
Told without judgement, this is a story about love and life. To distill further, it examines the consequences of craving security while simultaneously being in love with someone who represents the opposite. I'm sure there will be readers who cast a harsh eye on the doings of Rose and Mylo, but I was so struck by the authenticity of the writing that I could not do so. Yes, it was infidelity. And yet (such is the power a writer holds) you understand. That is the great triumph of this author Mary Wesley. I first read her in the droll and engagingly polished The Vacillations of Poppy Carew, and I'll be reading more for sure. She published her first novel at age 71, maybe that explains the altogether sophisticated and effortless style.