Oh Vita, bravo! This is a book I shall recommend to anyone who is experiencing the loss of a loved one, tackling death and absence in such a tremendous way, with a light touch and humor.
We first meet Lady Slane at age 88, her husband of 70 years having just died. Her brood of children includes the usual bores—the over-ambitious first son, the hyper-efficient first daughter, the complaining second son, the parsimonious third son, and the dreamers who were the youngest daughter and son, most beloved by their parents. In the wake of their father’s death, they all gather to discuss what is to be done with Mother, hatching their tedious plan of pawning her off between each of their houses for a few months of the year. Mother (Lady Slane) has other plans. After dumping her only real wealth, the jewels left to her by her husband, into the lap of her oldest son, she declares that she’s taking a house in Hampstead that she noticed 30 years ago and no she does not want anyone going out with her to arrange matters.
Alone, she meets the landlord Mr Bucktrout, and immediately finds a kindred weirdo spirit who tells her “I have few friends, and I find that as one grows older one relies more and more on the society of one’s contemporaries and shrinks from the society of the young. They are so tiring. So unsettling. I can scarcely, nowadays, endure the company of anybody under seventy.” Lady Slane agrees and tells her children that she does not want her grandchildren or great-grandchildren visiting her. “They were forbidden. The grandchildren did not count; they were insignificant as the middle distance.” So refreshing to hear this opinion, especially in this age when grandparents gush unremittingly about their offspring’s offspring.
A friend of her youngest son appears who has known Lady Slane many decades ago in India and they resume acquaintance, whereupon he rewrites his will and leaves millions to her, dying soon after. Lady Slane then donates all the money and art to hospitals and museums, infuriating her oldest children, but her great-granddaughter comes to thank her, saying that this made her less attractive as a marriage option and able to break an engagement she didn’t want. We end with Lady Slane expiring after that conversation.