I wrote earlier about not exactly loving Rosamond Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove; I was interested in the book in a sort of detached, intellectual kind of way, but it never grabbed my attention and made me love it. I did love her book A Note in Music, and I was hoping for more of the same but didn’t quite find it. This has something to do with my mood; I’m not in a mood to think very hard about my fun reading (I picked up a Georgette Heyer novel, Venetia, after finishing Lehmann), and The Echoing Grove was more challenging than A Note in Music. But I’m not sure it’s just a matter of mood. I suspect that even if I’d wanted a challenge this book wouldn’t have satisfied me, and I would have still preferred the other.
In both cases, Lehmann works with a small group of characters, describing in great detail their mental and emotional states and their relationships with one another. She writes about friendships and love affairs, about desire and longing, and about shifting moods and emotions. So what makes The Echoing Grove more challenging than the other? She does interesting things with point of view, which can sometimes make the book a bit hard to follow; while the novel is written in third person, she will suddenly slip into first person and give us a character’s thoughts directly. There are passages that slip into stream of consciousness narration, with shifts in time and topic that are disorienting. There’s a particularly long example of this early in the novel, and I began to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into, but the novel returned to more straightforward narration eventually, and I decided to keep plugging along. There are also long sections of intense, emotionally-draining dialogue, of the sort that made me wonder whether people really talk that way (I felt similarly when reading Elizabeth Bowen). There is also a complicated time structure in the novel – the narration jumps around in time so much that I had a hard time figuring out what took place when.
So what is the story about? Simply put, Madeleine and Dinah are sisters; Madeleine is married to Rickie and Dinah has an affair with him. You can imagine, I’m sure, the family tension this creates. Madeleine is a fairly conventional woman, raising a family and participating in an acceptable social circle, while Dinah is more adventuresome and bohemian, getting caught up in love affairs with questionable men and disappearing for long stretches of time, doing nobody knows what. The novel begins with a meeting between the two long-estranged women, an awkward meeting where they seem to want to discuss their past but are hesitant. It then moves back in time to tell their history with occasional returns to the present moment to chart the sisters’ attempts to make amends. Although other characters make appearances, the interest of the novel is in the nature of these three main characters – Rickie’s haplessness when it comes to women, Dinah’s free-spiritedness countered by her suffering, and Madeleine’s calm patience and longsuffering.
My struggle with the novel was simply that I never came to care a whole lot about these people, and the formal elements, while interesting, weren’t enough to make up for my lack of emotional connection. I certainly don’t need to be emotionally connected to every book I read, but something has to catch my attention and either make me feel or make me think or, ideally, both. Now, if my description of the book intrigues you, don’t be scared away by my doubts – you may find a way into this book that I couldn’t. And I certainly am not turned off of Lehmann forever; I plan on reading more of her work, and I fully expect to like it.