The long holiday weekend gave me a clean apartment, enough left-overs not to cook for a week, and a chance to catch up on old New York Times Book Reviews and finish Margaret Drabble's The Needle's Eye. What luxury - to sit in a chair uninterrupted for 3 hours and read. The problem with reading book reviews is that I now have a list of new titles it would be nice to have!
As for The Needle's Eye, my early impressions 1, 2, were driven by my reaction to the narrative voice, which I found fussy and prim, but my feelings towards the novel were warmed by Drabble's observant and deep rendering of character and the progress of the two central characters, Simon and Rose, which I had written of earlier. This is a novel about the tension that exists, as one develops insight, between being true to oneself and understanding and forgiving of others. The latter third of the book reminded me in many ways of a good Iris Murdoch plot, in which the foibles of multiple characters one has gotten to know so well become entangled and, if the pain isn't too much (usually their are some tragedies or at least near misses in Murdoch), deeper knowledge of self and sometimes love of others finally emerges. Rose, who has grown up in a largely loveless and monied household, falls in love with Christopher - a passionate, unsuitable, aspiring businessman. After the obligatory 6 months abroad, they marry and have 3 children together. She writes a check for the full amount of the money due her on her 21st birthday to build a school for an African village. Christopher and Rose then live in comparative poverty and later, due to fairly typical issues, their marriage ends in divorce. Rose is driven to live a more purposeful and more loving life than that she was given as a child, and pursues this notion of authenticity with some degree of hysteria. Her actions are tinged with the religious fanatic's lust for purity. She is not living life unless she is really working at it.
Into this mess drops loveless Simon who, having achieved his professional ambitions, is bored silly by his marriage to a socially ambitious wife and paralyzed by his lack of passion. His friendship with Rose begins as she needs advice on an impending court appearance during which Christopher will try to gain custody of their children. Rose and Simon's friendship becomes not precisely a love affair, but definitely an affair of the heart, and as intimate as a relationship can be. Simon observes in Rose someone determined to do what it takes to live out her values. This is a story of what we choose to spend our passion on. Ultimately our values are not abstract concepts held in our hearts, they are enactments realized through our actions in the context of our messy lives. Rose can give away her money, but finds that these values cannot be lived in isolation from her children or her marriage any more than they can from her past as the daughter of a wealthy family. One might label the book a coming of age novel, and in some ways it is, but for some, self-knowledge never begins and for all regardless, time marches forward. In this story Drabble shows us how development is shaped by purpose and by love. We may come of age at 21, and supposedly our frontal lobes are fully developed by then. But reaching voting and drinking age, coming into our legacy, or achieving synaptic maturity doesn't mean everything stops. We come of age again and again throughout our lives. Certainly we can see change in people and things around us even if we would rather not see it in ourselves. Drabble ends the novel with a marvelous picture of Rose's slum neighborhood becoming gentrified and her house tripling in value and finally being renovated. No matter that Rose wishes a meager existence, that must be lived in the context of the people and the forces around her. We are left with a picture of Rose, her husband, her father, Simon, his wife, and their children living in the context of the forward flow of time - as physics and biology dictate we must experience it - and those people reaching out for the those things around them that give them company when they feel alone, purpose when they feel meaningless, solidity when they become unmoored.
Drabble has concocted a rich and thoughtful novel. I think that some of my frustration with the narrative voice was a function of having to read it in too many short sessions. The sweep of time it encompasses is well matched to the swathes of its narrative that are embroidered rather than simply wrought. They were more pleasurably experienced having a longer time in which to read them. The bounty of this story and Drabble's rich development of character is a suitable reward and reason enough to read The Needle's Eye.