- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

By Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, $25, 306 pages

A specter is haunting Candida Wilton, the heroine of Margaret Drabble's latest novel, "The Seven Sisters."
In the desolation and strangeness of her new life in London, cast out of the home in Suffolk she had shared with her husband for so many years, her thoughts keep turning to Virgil's "Aeneid."
She had discovered to her astonishment that in the seedy section of London to which she had moved, there was actually an adult education class studying the great Latin epic and when she joined it, she found an odd but interesting assortment of characters, some of whom at least she got to know. But soon, as is the way in contemporary London, the adult education college was abruptly converted into a modern health club, complete with swimming pool. Somehow, Candida's unfinished course on Virgil devolved upon her membership in this institution and it is here that the reader first gets to know her.
Candida is a compelling character and the first and longest section of the book is devoted to a first-person narrative in her voice. Dumped by her headmaster husband for the wealthy mother of a pupil who had tragically drowned herself, Candida is unwilling to stay on among people who pity her. She suspects, too, that they blame her for the breakdown of her marriage and her estrangement from her three daughters.
She readily admits her faults lack of initiative and spontaneity, unfriendliness, and coldness, including sexual frigidity. Her situation, even away from prying Suffolk neighbors and perched in a small apartment high above London's teeming streets, is pitiable, but her admirable and stalwart lack of self-pity makes her one of the most likeable of Miss Drabble's fictional creations.
Indeed, the tone of "The Seven Sisters" is very different from what we have come to expect from a Drabble novel in recent years. Gone is the jaunty tone that so infuriated some readers of her last fiction, "The Peppered Moth," although I found it gave her writing an energy and verve. Absent, too, are the venomous portraits of characters whom it is only too plainly apparent this author loathes.
This novel has a more modulated tone, but it is also a sadder book, sober in spirit and in style. The references to the "Aeneid" function as a kind of leitmotif and this adds an elegiac quality to an already somber atmosphere. Reinforcing all this, but also serving to add a leavening note of slightly self-conscious wry humor, are headnotes similar to those found in 18th-century novels or in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," e.g.: "She chances her luck a second time and scales down her desires." Or, "They fly onwards through the thunderbolts of Jove."
The closer Miss Drabble sticks to Candida's history and her present activities, the more she succeeds. Her attempts to cope with loneliness, her struggles with her laptop, her initiation into the mean streets of her section of London all these are rendered with delicacy, skill and a laudable avoidance of cliche. Despite the blows she has taken to her self-esteem, Candida has more than her share of asperity and her reactions are often delightfully acute. Consider, for example, this updated take on a scene in a novel whose subject matter alone had, in its day, been enough to make it shocking:
"Come to think of it, maybe that scene is still risque, though in a different way. Lesbianism and triolism are just fine, but students and lecturers aren't supposed to have any kind of physical contact these days, are they? Autres temps, autres moeurs."
Candida's resilience carries her through various urban unpleasantnesses, such as having her bag snatched, but soon her luck turns and she is the beneficiary of an unexpected windfall. In the wake of this pleasant surprise, she puts together a motley crew of travelers (six of them, plus their guide to form the eponymous sororal seven) and sets forth in their company to retrace part of Aeneas' voyage, specifically from Carthage in today's Tunisia to the Bay of Naples where the Virgilian hero landed on Italian soil.
At this point, the narrative shifts to the third person, but the novel continues to thrive, perhaps because the Candida we have come to know and like is still at its heart.
The shift in narrative technique, however, turns out to be but the first step into what the author doubtless feels are "fresh fields and pastures new" but which for this reader at least seem more like a slippery slope toward a precipice. For soon we are being toyed with in the best (or worst) postmodern manner, with shifting voices which are not what they seem, sleights of hand, acts of authorial legerdemain which effectively pull out the rug from under Candida.
By the time we reach the novel's weak and dreadfully unsatisfying conclusion which comes close to canceling out the hard-won satisfactions of its strong beginning, the hapless reader can only wonder what on earth led Miss Drabble to make such an unholy hash of such promising material?
Certainly, endings have never been Miss Drabble's strong suit as a novelist. Her trilogy, "The Radiant Way," ended up mired in her inability to handle the moral complexities of Cambodia's killing fields. Her more recent novel, "The Peppered Moth," came to an embarrassing conclusion in an effusion of ill-favored maternal/filial piety. But I cannot think of another of her novels which suffers the kind of total meltdown afflicting "The Seven Sisters." It is disheartening to see a novelist who also is a practiced literary critic be so totally unable to judge her own work.
Searching for some reason behind Miss Drabble's wrong turn, I can only think that she has taken too literally Angus Wilson's severe judgment upon the customary English novel, with its emphasis on character, which he found insular compared to the continental European tradition so rife with innovations of form. Miss Drabble, after all, was Wilson's friend and biographer and so might well be influenced by his prescription.
But she must also be aware that Wilson's turning on his own achievements in the sphere of the traditional English novel rendered him all but incapable of writing fiction in his later years. To say nothing of the flawed novel, "Setting the World on Fire," which was his last contribution to the genre.
In the end, no matter how much you admire innovation, you have to have the knack of doing it well if you are to translate that admiration into accomplishment. Like Mary Shelley in her husband's estimation, Miss Drabble appears to be "critic bitten," but with the difference this time that the bite has been self-inflicted and for this novel, at least, fatal.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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