A teenage near-romance has the chance of being rekindled twenty years later. Twenty years too late? (This review gives away no more than is in the books's blurb, though the quotes section at the end is a little less subtle.)
It is poignant and painful, occasionally funny, but never sentimental or saccharine. Beautifully written, and it doesn't take the easy options. However, Taylor often introduces new characters or situations as if the reader knows all about them, only filling in the gaps later. Also, there are a few sections that are rather different in tone from the rest of the book, making it feel a little unfinished.
Harriet and Vesey have known each other since childhood, but the book starts between the wars, when they are around 18 and spend much of the summer at the house of his aunt, where Harriet is helping with the children. There is plenty of frisson, but Harriet in particular is naive, and the reader is somewhat in the dark as well. As she remembers a tryst, she reinvents it, whereas Vesey dismisses it because "'we are children.' He did not know that at his age most youths believe that they are men."
This summer makes up the first third of the novel, and teenage awkwardness and doubt is painfully authentic, though it's harder to see why Harriet is so attracted to Vesey when he's oafish, self-centred and lacking in empathy. There is also some pop-psychology about them both being only children, Vesey's mother being a poor parent, and Harriet's suffragette mother being disappointed in her daughter's lack of academic success and ambition. It feels a little out of place, though it does deliver some wonderful insights: Vesey's mother "drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her" so he had "no close friends, for he had too much to hide."
They drift apart. Harriet finally shows a smidgen of initiative and gets a job in a shop (a very comical section, but more caricatured than the rest of the book). She then marries a pleasant enough man and has a daughter, Betsy. When Betsy is in her teens, Vesey comes back into Harriet's life. Their feelings are clearer, but their course of action less so. This takes its toll on her marriage, and this is the finest section of the book (see some of the quotes). Time drags on, with increasing tension, longing, and doubt all round.
The tragic passages are balanced by comedy: in the shop, and then with Harriet's incompetent au pair, "the Dutch girl". In the latter case, the humour is based on misunderstanding, exacerbated by the housekeeper using twee British idioms that she doesn't understand. When wondering why she came, Charles suggests "it's a cheap way of learning how to speak American".
Overall, despite its inconsistent style, this is a beautiful book.
* Suffragettes wondering, years later, if it was all worth it or whether "time would not despite them have floated down to them casually what they had almost drowned in struggling to reach." Nearly a wonderful sentence, but actually horribly mangled.
* An adult's irritation at young Vesey "was in in reality impatience with another person's youth heightened by nostalgia for his own."
* A bucolic bus journey: "In those days, trees laced together above many a road; buses took perilous journeys, with twigs scratching at either side; cars, meeting them, backed up into gateways. The bus conductor was like the conductor of an orchestra. He guided the conversation, drew out the shy or bored or tired, linked the passengers together... and made a whole thing out of an assortment."
* When lovers walk, "Time's winged chariot was not a thing that they could hear."
* "Departure in the afternoon is depressing to those who are left. The day is so dominated by the one who has gone and, although only half-done, must be got through with that particular shadow lying over it."
* "The days shortened, but only technically. The time it took to live them seemed endless."
* Virginity a mixed blessing: "She was left with only her self-respect, which did not seem to mean as much to her as she had been led to believe."
* "What she had dreaded in suspense and embarrassment, she now fastened to. She embraced him with an erratic but extortionate passion. He was profoundly moved, though shocked, by her desperation... But to her, life seemed all at once simplified."
* "The lady of the Manor who looked as if she had been bred in her own stables."
* "Far from fearing middle age, one took refuge in it." I'm not sure about that!
* Being tormented by a cue for jealousy: "It was as if an unkind hand raked up dead leaves in his heart."
* When tension is highest between Harriet and her husband: " Marriage doesn't solve mysteries... It creates and deepens then. The two of them being shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another, was oppressive."
* "Looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers."
* "Beyond their familiarity and nakedness they could now sense their true isolation and were more perfectly strange to one another than people passing in the street."
* "Betsy had not so much grown up as unrolled - as if she were all there at the beginning, but that each birthday unrolled more of her, made more visible, though suggesting more."
* A lady's companion "had nothing to sell but her own company, which most people would have paid to avoid"!
* More teen angst: "Nothing was explicable, even to herself. When she wept, it was from confusion. Her ravelled emotions fatigued her. She was overwrought from uncertainty, more than from any specific cause."
* "Dusk, like a sediment, sifted down through bluish sky."