On a cold November in London in 1922, Vivvie Ripple awaits the train. She is a very wealthy and well-bred young woman, but lamentably inept at social interactions, clumsy, plain and much too tall. Doomed to spinsterhood, she has decided to take matters into her own hands. She will bribe a man – a handsome, if vain, writer named Sherwyn Sexton. What neither of them know is that Vivien is pregnant, and will die in childbirth in eight months, having given birth to twins – one plain, one beautiful.
Taking place between the two World Wars, Fay Weldon’s latest novel shows a family as battleground. Vivvie’s mother Adela (previously a character from Weldon’s Love and Inheritance trilogy) resents her daughter for being plain and difficult, for depriving her of the joy of a beautiful daughter, for a difficult birth. Adela, herself an orphan, who suffered terrible abuses at the hands of her parents (and after their deaths), wreaks havoc on her family – manipulating the lives of those around her, using sex as a weapon on the men in her orbit – all the while seeing herself as the victim, her actions as justified. A victim who learned how to be a survivor, spends her life clawing for “survival”, even at the expense of those she loves.
Vivvie, tall and ungainly, has a hope of happiness with Sheldon, vain and mostly-useless as he is. In Vivvie, he meets his platonic match – but her sudden death unmoors him. The story flits back and forth through time, visiting Sheldon in his later life as he reflects on the events leading up to Vivvie’s proposal, with a remarkable lack of self-reflection. For the most part, characters in Before the War are entertaining rather than likeable, compelling but not relatable. Vivvie’s self-esteem is so very low, Sheldon so very narcissistic, Sir Jeremy Ripple so very self-important and dense, Adela so very calculating, and the various servants and villagers and townspeople so very earthy that it all left me rather indifferent to their endless power struggles.
Interestingly, Weldon writes herself (as author) into the story, constant reminders that she has written this, made the decisions, chosen their fates. She is, of a sort, god of this domain. We are constantly reminded that this is fiction, that these people are not real – purposefully or not, this keeps the reader at a remove, preventing us from ever engaging too closely with the characters.
I also found that there was a rather heavy focus on food. There was more than one reference to unsatisfactory scrambled eggs; bright-green oysters Rockefeller play an important role; descriptions of breakfasts and lunches and dinners are detailed and expansive and go on for paragraphs. It felt like a full quarter of the book was devoted to descriptions of food, characters’ reactions to food, or characters talking about food to other people¹.
The story flicks back and forth through time, changing slightly according to who’s doing the telling, and how they remember it all. And then, it all ends, so abruptly that I kept tapping the side of my Kindle thinking the next page wasn’t loading. I flicked backward, reread the last few pages again, and yup, there it was: that abrupt ending. I imagine, then, that this will be part of a new trilogy, or that the story will continue somehow (I think there’s a lot of adventures waiting ahead for the twins).
If you enjoy historical family drama of the Downton Abbey-esque sort, this will be right up your alley.
¹That’s one way to get a movie to pass the Bechdel test. Have the characters talk about breakfast for twenty minutes.
Provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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