A lively discussion of Lively!

September 10, 2008 at 4:37 pm (Book clubs, books)

For a person who has repeatedly sworn off book club membership, participating in not one but two of these organizations might seem a perverse act.  By way of explanation – justification? – one of the groups, Literary Ladies, is a library staff spin-off: all members are either past or current employees. We have numerous common associations of long standing, and the in-crowd chatter and exchange of news tidbits is invariably fascinating.

Does this mean that our get-togethers are purely social, with only a soupcon of book-related intellectual endeavor? Au contraire, say I, nothing could be further from the truth! Take this past Friday night. After we finished both dining and gossiping, we got down to the business at hand. That “business” consisted of a discussion of the works of Penelope Lively.

Several of us had read Consequences. We pretty much agreed that after an extremely vivid and intense opening section, the novel’s pace became sluggish, the characters’ lives less interesting. The tragedy of Matt and Lorna made subsequent events seem anti-climactic. It was not until the end, we felt, when things were more or less coming full circle, that readers felt once again fully involved in the story.

Several of us had already read The Photograph and felt that it was a better novel than Consequences. In The Photograph, the saddest mysteries of the human heart are poignantly probed and exposed. Only one group member had read Lively’s 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger. She averred that as good as The Photograph was, Moon Tiger was even better!

The idea for examining one author’s works in this manner grew out the experience of Emma, our discussion leader. At the library branch where she works, Emma had followed this model with the book group she leads there. Each month the group met and discussed a different Lively novel. What we did Friday night was a sort of condensed version of that same model.

I’m never sure whether this approach is workable. Can there be enough of an exchange of views if everyone has read something different? The short answer is yes. We had a great discussion of Lively’s body of work as a whole and her approach to novel writing. Emma provided lots of fascinating background on the author’s life, which had a very exotic beginning: she was born in Cairo in 1933. Emma related how, after the Second World War ended and her parents divorced, Lively was sent “home” to Britain to attend boarding school. She found Britain to be drab and dreary – which, from all accounts, it definitely was, postwar – and an aliening, unwelcoming place – not like home at all for a girl whose early childhood had been set against the sun drenched splendors of an ancient land.


Lively has written two memoirs: A House Unlocked and Oleander, Jacaranda. Emma had read  the first and greatly enjoyed it. The second, alas, is not owned by the local library and is out of print in this country. (It is available in Britain in a Penguin Modern Classics edition.) Emma said that A House Unlocked was a wonderful read. She also recommended Passing On, and I recommended Making It Up.

In addition to the above mentioned novels and memoirs, Lively has authored numerous books for children. Hers has been, and continues to be, a brilliant career.

1 Comment

  1. The annual parley of the Literary Ladies produces an enticing array of titles « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] One of our best discussions in recent years occurred when each of us read a different title by Penelope Lively and then met to discuss her work as a whole. This year we’re going to examine the oeuvre of […]

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