According to Mark

Penelope Lively

I’ve read three Penelope Lively books in the last five months and this is my favorite. That’s despite the fact that at page 140 or so I thought it had turned into a yawner, and I was having trouble buying the main character’s attraction to a woman with whom he had nothing in common.

The plot centers on Mark Lamming, a biographer researching a book on the author Gilbert Strong. He’s a contentedly married, childless man in his early forties. His ebullient, efficient wife Diana works in an art gallery. As to Strong, Mark finds his essays and criticism best, though Strong also wrote a couple novels and a play he would have preferred to forget. Mark believes he’s got Strong pinned down when he goes off to do further research at Dean Close, Strong’s former home, now maintained by a foundation and Strong’s granddaughter Carrie, who runs a plant and nursery business on the premises with her gay partner Bill. Carrie is a kind of lost soul, diffident, detached, but attractive to Mark despite her having read only 4-5 books in her whole life.

There are three things Penelope Lively likes to explore: mother-daughter relationships, men as “other,” and tourism. The last one seems odd, I know, but in "Heat Wave," which I read first, the odious son-in-law figure is writing about tourist traps. In "Moon Tiger," there is also an important scene in a recreated historical village. In According to Mark, writers’ home are tourist spots - Thomas Hardy’s and Gilbert Strong’s - and there’s likewise a trip to a historical fortress, and then on to France and the Louvre.

Every reader knows the enjoyment of book has to do with the state of mind s/he’s in when s/he reads it. My satisfaction with According to Mark could have to do with having seen a movie a few days before with a sad ending that I had trouble accepting. Thus emotionally ripened, I said a glad grateful thank-you when Carrie finally threw off her passivity and found her way. And Mark’s discovery of a fresh, worthwhile source of information on Strong was also satisfying, and helped him discover and understand more about his subject and himself. The book wasn’t perfect - the character Diana especially didn’t quite convince - but it was an intelligent story in a literary setting that unfolded nicely.

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