Consequences, by Penelope Lively

September 5, 2008 at 12:30 am (Book clubs, Book review, books)

To comply with our book group’s assignment to read something by Penelope Lively, I just finished her most recent work, Consequences. This novel explores the lives of three generations of an English family. We begin in the 1930’s with Matt Faraday and Lorna Bradley. He’s an artist; she doesn’t know what she is, only that she most emphatically does not want to live the life that her parents, members of the petty haute bourgeoisie, have decreed for her. Matt and Lorna meet quite by accident, fall in love, and marry, over the strenuous objections of Lorna’s parents.

Lorna and Matt are, to put it mildly, stretched for funds. They find a cottage in Somerset that they can just about afford to rent, and proceed to set up housekeeping there. The place is downright primitive: no electricity and outdoor plumbing featuring a privy and a standpipe in the yard. Matt manages to eke out a living as a book illustrator, while Lorna discovers a new vocation as a country housewife, mastering arduous tasks like doing laundry by hand, and being pleasantly surprised by the joys of raising poultry and growing her own vegetables. All of which is a far cry from Brunswick Gardens in London and her family’s genteel life there.

Matt and Lorna are not just happy – they are in glory, in bliss. Their love is so fierce, it transforms their world. But the wold beyond them is experiencing quite a different transformation: It is turning into a place of nightmare – a nightmare in which thousands of people are caught up, against their will. Lorna and Matt are no exception. Matt must go off to war, and Lorna, now the mother of little Molly, must wait for him.

To tell what happens next would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that, through the succeeding generations, the past exerts a powerful pull on the present. This is a persistent theme in the fiction of Penelope Lively, a writer whom I very much admire.

That said, I did have a problem with this novel. The story of Matt and Lorna is so compelling, so emotionally charged, that I had trouble mustering the same level of interest in their descendants. In particular, I found the pacing in the book’s midsection to be positively sluggish. Molly has grown up and is running around the countryside organizing poetry readings. While engaged in this lofty pursuit, she has a tendency to think supposedly deep thoughts, which, to this reader anyway, often verged on the banal. An example: “If it is not necessary to belong anywhere in particular, thinks Molly, then the trick is to float free, but keep a weather eye out for what’s available, if only out of expediency.” In fairness to Molly, other characters have this same irritating tendency, especially , alas, the women among them.

As the story’s denouement approaches, the pace once again picks up. Ruth, Molly’s daughter, travels to the island of Crete in search of a link to the family’s past. This trip, richly described, was, for me, one of the novel’s most satisfying episodes.


And now a brief word about book covers. I found three of them for Consequences:

cover of the American hardback

cover of the American hardback

cover of the British hardback

cover of the British hardback

cover of the British paperback

cover of the British paperback

If we’re supposed to be looking at Matt and Lorna, I personally favor the British paperback.


  1. Ann Darnton (Table Talk) said,

    I loved this book, more, I think, than you did. For me the real interest lay in the parallels between the three lives and also the links between the women and the locations in which they found themselves. We do agree, however, about the excellence of Lively as a writer. Have you read any of her books for children? This is how I first came to her work and if you have or know young children they are very good to recommend.

  2. BooksPlease said,

    I loved the book too and like you I thought the story of Matt and Lorna was so compelling and those of their descendants less so, but still it conveys a message of hope that despite the tragedies and difficulties that happen life continues. For me the beauty of Penelope Lively’s writing, richly emotional but yet taut and concise is the main reason for reading her books.

  3. A lively discussion of Lively! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of us had read Consequences. We pretty much agreed that after an extremely vivid and intense opening section, the novel’s […]

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