- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 5, 2007

THE SEA LADY

By Margaret Drabble

Harcourt, $24, 352 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

Margaret Drabble came to fame in the 1960s, when, fresh out of Cambridge, she published novels about bright, talented, clever young women trying to resolve the dilemmas of combining marriage and motherhood with a professional life.

Later, as Ms. Drabble moved from her 20s into her 30s and 40s, her heroines aged with her, becoming doctors, writers and academics: successful, confident women concerned with the moral issues accruing from their work and family lives. Recently, Ms. Drabble, now in her 60s, has focused on older women with lives to reflect on and choices to regret. Melancholy sometimes wisps around them, yet they are brave women, even optimistic. Their lives are not over.

Thus in “The Sea Lady,” Drabble’s 17th novel, the central characters Ailsa Kelman and Humphrey Clark look back on successes and mistakes. They met as children, married after a passionate affair, quickly divorced, then went on to pursue high-profile careers. Rather improbably, few people ever knew that they were married. Ailsa and Humphrey never refer to it, and they never meet or communicate afterward.

It seems no more than tricksy chance that they have both been invited to receive honorary degrees from a newly established university in Ornemouth, the town on the edge of the North Sea where they first entered each other’s lives.

They are an unlikely pair. Humphrey was a serious little boy who loved staying with his grandmother in Ornemouth. Hewa spent his days idyllically investigating tidal pools and collecting shells with a local lad called Sandy. When he arrived the following year he found the newcomers Ailsa and her brother Tommy already in residence and already absorbing Sandy’s attention.

They continue to draw attention for the rest of the lives: Tommy as an unscrupulous financial operator, Ailsa as a serious academic who nonetheless never hesitates to outrageously dramatize gender inequalities.

She dances in a cabaret wearing little more than silver points to cover her nipples, and she writes ground-breaking analyses of little-known female painters. She investigates the sadism staring from Delacroix’s historical art, explores domesticity, produces a history of vacuum cleaners, writes good rabble-rousing articles for numerous newspapers, composes academic essays on art and literature and becomes a star of serious TV shows about cultural issues.

Like Germaine Greer, she is a clever, serious, attractive, witty and an in-your-face crusader for feminist ideas. She is also a tireless self-promoter. And she is a lot of fun to read about — one of Ms. Drabble’s best creations.

We meet Ailsa when she announces the winner of a prize for the best nonfiction book of the year. It’s about the sexual arrangements of fish, most particularly the ability of some species to change gender. Humphrey Clark is not at the presentation, even though those visits to Ornemouth had shaped his life: He became a marine biologist, and a famed one at that. He is an archetypically decent chap, serious about his work and, more than Ailsa, sensibly concerned about other people. He wants to do the right thing.

Through Humphrey’s professional interests, Ms. Drabble raises questions about the range of evolutionary options — an especially intriguing one being about the development of sexual differentiation. This interest in natural science is typical of her work. Equally, she is an exceptionally alert recorder of historical change.

She brings this skill to bear in her portrayal of Ailsa, who has exerted all her efforts to undermine and change gender categorizations. The dual focus on Ailsa (and culture) and Humphrey (and science) creates lots of opportunities for Ms. Drabble to meditate on the past and on our present celebrity-driven world. Since she has a well-stocked mind, reading her commentary is never less than interesting.

More charmingly and evocatively, she also recalls England in the late 1940s and early 1950s — an era when the country was emerging from a long and draining war. Luxuries were few, TV virtually non-existent. Children lived in a mental world shaped by books and unsupervised wanderings and larks out of doors.

She draws Humphrey’s Ornemouth vacations with loving care, lavishing details about the sea shore and its myriad marine marvels as generously as she recalls the games and songs, the rules and freedoms that evoke the emotional world of childhood. Humphrey and Ailsa and Sandy are real children of their time, and the descriptions of Ornemouth and neighboring Finsterness beautifully convey the loveliness of England’s northeastern coast, the wind and chill and glitter of the North Sea.

But while “The Sea Lady” is never less than alluring, and is often thought provoking as a reverie about the recent past and about ideas that have changed or may change our way of looking at the world, it is not always convincing as a novel.

The problem is not characterization. Ailsa bounces off the page with the energy and pizzazz of a born mover and shaker. Humphrey, in his quieter way, is just as credible as the serious and retiring professor. That these two should have gotten together in an affair and then marriage is not surprising, and given their differences, it may not be surprising that they divorced. But who knows?

Ms. Drabble claims the marriage was self-evidently doomed, but she does not show why. She makes clear why Humphrey proposed, but not why Ailsa accepted, and though she makes some late references to dramatic quarrels that preceded the break up, we never see these or learn of the issues under dispute.

Nor is it clear why Ailsa and Humphrey tacitly agreed to keep quiet about their marriage. Why should they have? Deception was not the motive; rather, it was a kind of embarrassment about their mistake. Yet why should Ailsa have been embarrassed? She has made a career out of embarrassing behavior. And Humphrey seems to have had little to lose by acknowledging that he married her.

This is no minor detail, because as readers we are to believe that neither knows that the other will be receiving an honorary degree at the same graduation ceremony. Indeed, we are to believe that it is pure happenstance that both are being honored at the same time. The unlikeliness of this piece of plotting jars.

As a story, then, “The Sea Lady” does not quite hold together. Yet Ms. Drabble deftly handles Ailsa’s and Humphrey’s journeys to the north, alternating from Ailsa speeding along in her red sports car with Humphrey travelling more sedately in the first-class carriage of a train. And she is at her most brilliant in conveying their memories of their lives as children and as twenty-somethings in the 1960s.

This makes “The Sea Lady” a book to read in pieces, savoring its meditations and evocations and enjoying its characters without any expectation of being gripped by a vestigial plot. Indeed, commentary supersedes plot, and that is not necessarily a bad thing when the commentary is as intelligent as Margaret Drabble’s.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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