I’ve long been a fan of Penelope Lively, and this weekend I galloped though two of her 1980s novels, According to Mark and Judgment Day. Lively won the Booker Prize for Moon Tiger in 1987, but I first heard of her at a rather tedious literary society meeting, where a smart, effervescent woman said that she had ordered all of Lively’s books, even the children’s books, from Blackwell’s in England. (Blackwell’s? England? What? This was before the internet.)
Lively’s According to Mark, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984, is a charming, witty novel about a biographer, Mark Lamming, who is having midlife crisis. Mark is writing a biography of an obscure literary figure, Gilbert Strong, whose appeal is partly that he “hasn’t been done” yet. When Mark arrives at Strong’s house in Dorset, now a National Trust museum, to go through Strong’s letters and diaries, he is attracted to Strong’s granddaughter, Carrie, who runs a garden center on the premises. And his infatuation seems more like a crush than love, because Carrie, though a sympathetic character, is not particularly pretty and is only semi-literate. She has no interest in books or her grandfather. Mark’s wife, Diana, who works in an art gallery, has an inkling something is up, but she can’t monitor him all the time. Mark thinks he loves Carrie, but Carrie knows it’s about his research on her grandfather.
Anyway, it’s a comedy of errors, with a road trip through France, Carrie’s discovery of the joys of reading Austen’s Emma (she loses two copies on the trip and has a hell of a time finding replacements in France), Mark’s attempted interview with Carrie’s horrible mother (an eternally bored English expatriate who wanders around Europe with various men ), and Diana’s arriving to sort everything out in the nick of time.
According to Mark is one of Lively’s best.
All the villagers have different relationships to the church: there’s George the irritating vicar, who accidentally got into this line of work; Sydney Porter, a keen gardener with a tragic past who loves church because the words are always the same; and the horrible Bryans, who have such poor values that they desert their sad-sack son Martin so the mother can gallivant in London and the father can run off with a floozy. Fortunately, both Sydney and Clare try to normalize the child’s life. And Clare’s attitude shifts to the church, if not religion.
Alas, there is danger and violence even in an English village. This did not end as I’d expected…. I guess I’d expected coziness!