- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

By Margaret Drabble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 368 pages

If you are a jigsaw aficionado, then obviously this is the book for you. There is about as much about jigsaws as anyone, even the most dedicated fan, could wish for. But even if you do not have the slightest interest in them, don’t let that put you off, for there is a great deal more going on here. First of all, Margaret Drabble is a sufficiently good writer to breathe life into any subject that interests her and then she has a wide enough view of culture to bring in a whole range of associations.

So by the time you have gone through the countless works of literature from Jane Austen to Sybille Bedford where jigsaws crop up and gone from Philippe Aries to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s obsession with them, chances are there will be something or someone in Ms. Drabble’s spirited, intelligent discussion of the topic to pique your interest.

But if jigsaws loom large in these pages, both Ms. Drabble herself and her unmarried maternal aunt Phyllis Bloor, to whom she dedicates the book, stand out still more. Readers who remember her acid novel about her mother, “The Peppered Moth,” will recognize that Phyllis is the original of Aunt Dora there. And very different she is here, as Ms. Drabble explains:

“I tried to write about her and my mother in my novel “The Peppered Moth,” where she became dressmaker Auntie Dora. … I caught some of her eccentricities and mannerisms, but in fictionalizing her I moved her into a dark territory that was not her natural habitat. It was my mother’s, but it was not my aunt’s. By writing this book, I’d like to rescue her (and thereby a part of myself) from that contamination. …”

In “The Peppered Moth,” it seemed to me that Ms. Drabble was so busy showing the devastating effect of her mother’s overbearing, insufferable personality on her hapless younger sister and so establishing her as a victim that what she produced was a caricature.

In “The Pattern in the Carpet,” though, we have a much more rounded portrait of someone who was not just a pathetic counterpart to an overachieving older sibling. She may not have won a scholarship to Cambridge like her older sister, but she was a well-trained progressive-minded schoolteacher much beloved as “Miss Bloor” to generations of children and indeed throughout her native Yorkshire heath. To Ms. Drabble and her sisters growing up, she was a beloved aunt, a refuge from maternal storm at home and the source of many treats. The account here of Aunt Phyllis taking them on their first visit to London in 1950 is particularly delightful.

Phyllis remained close to Drabble until her death in her early 90s and it is good to learn that, unlike pathetic Dora who subsisted on bread and cheese, Phyllis made a good omelette or welsh rarebit and enjoyed her fish and chips, rising occasionally even to the heights of scampi and chips. And unlike the novel’s homebound character, she traveled widely through Europe on her vacations, once driving as far as Istanbul.

Ms. Drabble herself comes across in these pages as much less strident and more attractive than she did in “The Peppered Moth.” She can even be amusing about the effects of wartime and austerity rationing on the taste buds of one like herself born in 1939:

“When, a few years after the war, I first knowingly sampled fresh double cream, I did not like it at all. I think many war babies had the same initial recoil from its mild and tasteless fatty blandness. We favored harsher, more metallic, more synthetic, more warlike flavors.”

Although always measured in what she reveals about her private life (in particular her two marriages), she gives all sorts of revealing glimpses into her inner self, from her lifelong struggle with depression to the effect on her of marrying into a Jewish family (her first husband, actor Clive Swift is Jewish): “My father once said to me, teasingly, ‘Are you such a dutiful niece and daughter because you married into a Jewish family?’”

Despite her divorce, Ms. Drabble remains extremely fond of the Swift family and writes warmly about them here. But although she writes that, unlike Doris Lessing, she did not hate her mother, she is “still angry with my mother, of course, that’s obvious, but that doesn’t count any more. It’s past cure, past hope, and almost past regret.” Strong sentiments certainly, but compared to “The Peppered Moth,” this is indeed mellow stuff.

It is just as well that Ms. Drabble abandoned her original plan merely to write a short book on jigsaws in favor of a memoir of her childhood, with glimpses of her adult life. This dovetails nicely with her moving testament that “Doing jigsaws and writing about them has been one of my strategies to defeat melancholy and avoid laments. … Jigsaws have offered me and many others an innocent soothing relief, and this is where this book began and where it ends.”

This process clearly helped her through a difficult passage during her husband biographer Michael Holroyd’s bout with an advanced form of cancer. Its therapeutic aspects were on Drabble the writer as well as the person and so her readers have, despite all that discretion, been treated to a surprisingly intimate look into her heart and mind.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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