The only great thing about this book was seeing how much she pillaged from her own life in order to write the Cazalet Chronicles. I didn’t realize that she spent 18 years with Kingsley Amis, ending in a rather nasty divorce. But just like the Chronicles, she ditches her young baby and first husband, leaving a non-existent bond with her daughter Nicola. When Nicola gets married later, she relies more on her stepmother, and Howard attends the ceremony alone. “I remember little about it, as it was one of those occasions occluded by sadness for me.” She struggled to make ends meet and found time to write when possible. “I was lazy, and where writing was concerned this was inexcusable. “
The glorious romp must come to an end at last. The Cazalets fall into disrepair, the firm goes bankrupt, they must sell Home Place in the country because it’s owned by the firm so Aunt Rachel is out on her ear. Sid’s dead, and she left her flat in London to Rachel. Louise is having an affair with a married man who has no intention of leaving his wife. Edward trudges on in his terrible remarriage to Diana, she’s taken all his money and can’t cope with the fact that he’s now unemployed. Simon, living with Polly in the huge house, has fallen in love with a man. Clary writes a play about Archie’s infidelity. Villy’s governess finally dies, put into a nursing home for her dementia, which Nan also seems to have. The specter of aging looms large in this one, as much as loss. In the end, Hugh has a heart attack and thus Rachel heads off to his home, feeling herself needed yet again.
Dreamy, dramatic life continues, the story picking back up in July 1945. Rupert and Zoe continue to hide their respective wartime loves from each other, until they don’t. Louise goes to NYC with her husband, eats a ton of food, shops for clothing, then decides to leave him and strike out on her own, leaving her son with him as well. Polly, working as an interior decorator, meets someone she falls in love with, a somewhat poor Lord who has a ramshackle estate that she’s going to fix up. Christopher attempts to become a monk. Clary falls in love with her tedious boss, becomes pregnant, has an abortion, goes off the rails and is saved by Archie who banishes her to a cottage to write her novel. Taking 6 weeks leave, Archie spends the time painting at the country house keeping Duchy company (Brig has died, as well as her sister Dolly). At Polly’s wedding, Clary begs Archie for 2 more weeks to finish her book, then confesses that she loves him.
The war continues as the book opens in 1942. Louise marries a famous older man she doesn’t love (Michael), has a baby she doesn’t care for, and falls in love with Michael’s cousin Hugo. When she and Hugo confront Michael with their love, he laughs at them and banishes Hugo to a regiment of the Army that’s headed for Germany where he dies. Polly and Clare are both living in London, learning how to type and have jobs as secretaries. Polly expresses her love for Archie who doesn’t reciprocate (he’s unspokenly in love with Clare I suspect). Sybil is dead from cancer. Rachel marches on taking care of everyone but her girlfriend Sid has taken up an admirer of her own. VE Day finds Louise in the hospital getting her tonsils out. And the last paragraph gives us what we’ve known is true—Rupert managed to stay alive during the war and he’s headed home.
Such a dreamy whirlwind of a tale, picking up where the first book left off, in 1939, with the Cazalet family. Dipping into this book was like being submerged in the most pleasant of daydreams. The family progresses, Louise becomes an actor and has to fend off her handsy father Edward again (for the last time perhaps). Edward fathers yet another child with his mistress. Rupert goes missing in the war, but Clare (his daughter) doesn’t give up hope; at the end a Frenchman arrives with news that he was still alive as of 8 months prior. Archie, an old friend of Rupert’s, comes to stay and recuperate from his war wounded leg, becoming one of the family. Christopher seems to lose his mind, wandering around his war work not knowing who he was, also sent to the house to recuperate (and given a dog). Sybil battles cancer, Hugh worries endlessly about her. Villy takes up a mental affair with a musician who’s having an actual physical affair with her sister Jessica. Drama! Tears! So good!
Oh glorious mid-century British prose that lures you in with lush reports detailing everything about a particular family in 1937, capturing the thoughts and fears and mistakes and calamities of the family and their various servants. It’s a book that you get lost in, the clock becomes meaningless, and the entire day is given over to raptures of reading. Why on earth is this not more well known or considered a classic?
When I first opened it, I was slightly annoyed by the family tree and list of characters, but as I plowed ahead, completely smitten, I found myself paging back to figure out who each was, how they were related, which cousins were children of which of the Cazalet brothers (Hugh, Edward, Rupert), which elegant women were those brothers wives (Sybil, Villy, Zoe). The Cazalet sister, Rachel, is a spinster and early on we figure out that she’s carrying on a clandestine relationship with Sid, a woman musician/teacher whom no one suspects of anything untoward. Delightfully full of small and large drama, all set on the background of the coming war.
I have the remaining 4 books ready to catapult into my brain, and then I’ll treat myself to this Hilary Mantel recollection of Howard.