Skip to main content

Review: Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple

Pages: 413
Original publication date: 1953
My edition: 1999 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: Intriguing plot; and I’ve read and enjoyed another one of Dorothy Whipple’s books
How I acquired my copy: Persephone bookshop, September 2009

Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance is a very complicated novel to write about. It’s the story of the Norths, a suburban couple with two teenage children. Avery North’s aging mother engages a young Frenchwoman as her companion, and he develops an attachment to her that develops into an affair and later leads to divorce from his wife Ellen. This novel is a stunning book about the wide-ranging effects an affair can have on several families.

Dorothy Whipple’s language is very simple. Her prose is uncomplicated, yet there’s a lot of meaning behind it. Her upper-middle-class English characters are all absorbed in their own mundane lives, until the arrival of Louise literally shakes them all up. Louise is obviously not meant to be a sympathetic character (unlike Ruth in Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity); and at times she devolves into the stereotypical “other woman.” Much more preferable is Ellen, the sensible English housewife who finds her life shattered during the after the divorce.

It’s a sad subject, yet there are some truly funny moments; the surly Miss Daley going postal on Louise is an example that comes to mind. So in the end, each of the characters get what they deserve—even Avery, towards whom I feel a bit ambivalent. I feel as though he simply sat back and let things happen to him, rather than be an active member of the cast of characters.

It’s interesting that I’ve chosen to read this book now, so shortly after reading another Persephone title, Fidelity—it’s the story of an extramarital affair as told from the conventional point of view. Despite my feelings towards Avery and Louise, I though many of the other characters were well-drawn. Whipple’s description of the angst teenage Anne goes through is very real, as are the difficulties that Ellen must feel as she prepares for a life alone. After all, she’s been married for twenty years, and she’s never had a job or had to pay her own bills; how will she cope? It's funny, then, how Ellen ultimately finds solace in a group of elderly ladies. Like the other Whipple novel I've read, The Priory, this is not a novel in which much “happens,” but it’s a powerfully emotional novel. Whipple’s prose is simple, as I've said, but her way with words is absolutely stellar. She really knew how to play on her readers’ emotions, so that you feel invested in the lives of her characters.

This is Persephone no. 3. Endpaper below:


Hannah Stoneham said…
I really enjoyed reading your review, and although I have already read this, you have inspired me to have a re read one of these chilly afternoons... I also think that the Persephone edition is so attractive. Thanks for sharing, Hannah

Popular posts from this blog

Review: Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor

Pages: 972 Originally published: 1944 My edition: 2000 (Chicago Review Press) How I acquired my copy:, 2004

Forever Amber takes place in the 1660s, immediately follwing Charles II's ("the Merry Monarch") return of the Stuarts to the English throne. The book features Amber St. Claire, a young woman who starts out as a sixteen-year-old country girl, naieve to the workings of the world. She immediately meets Bruce Carlton, a dashing young Cavalier, with whom she has a passionate love affair in choppy intervals throughout the book. They have two children together, but Bruce won't marry her for the reason he tells his friend Lord Almsbury: that Amber just isn't the kind of woman one marries.

Upon following Bruce to London, he goes to Virginia, leaving her to fend for herself. What follows is a series of affairs and four marriages, with Bruce coming back from America now and then. Amber's marriages are imprudent: her first husband is a gambler, her second is…

Review: Jane Austen's Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye

Pages: 667 Original date of publication: 2011 My copy: 2011 (Oxford University Press) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy:, April 2013
This is a compilation of many of Jane Austen’s letters, most of them sent to her sister Cassandra between 1796 and 1817, the year of her death. Although many of Austen’s letters were destroyed by her sister in order to preserve the family reputation, the collection contains over 160 letters in which Austen gives her sister details about her life in Chawton—as well as giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what was going through her mind as she was writing her novels (especially the novel that was to become Pride and Prejudice, First Impressions). There are other letters here, too, giving advice to her niece and professional correspondence to publishers—as well as a couple of letters that were written by Cassandra Austen after Jane’s death.
To the sisters, the letters acted in the way that phone calls do today; Austen’s news is all about pe…

Review: Midnight in Peking, by Paul French

Pages: 259 Original date of publication: 2013 My copy: 2013 (Penguin) Why I decided to read: How I acquired my copy: Phoenix bookstore, May 2013
In January 1937, the body of a young British girl, Pamela Werner, was found near Peking’s Fox Tower. Although two detectives, one British and the other Chinese, spent months on the case, the case was never solved completely, and the case was forgotten in the wake of the invasion of the Japanese. Frustrated, Pamela’s father, a former diplomat, tried to solve the crime. His investigation took him into the underbelly of Peking society and uncovered a secret that was worse than anything he could have imagined.
At first, I thought that this would be a pretty straightforward retelling of a true crime, but what Paul French (who spent seven years researching the story) reveals in this book is much more than that. Foreign society in Peking in the 1930s was stratified, with the British colonials at the top and the White Russian refugees at the bottom, but…