So this is how it happens? The slippery slope down which leads to adultery? A look. A little harmless flirtation. A shared confidence. An act that on the surface seems innocuous enough until it becomes shaded in secrecy unnecessarily. Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance is the story of the destruction of what appears to be a happy and successful marriage. It's a common enough theme in literature, but in the hands of a gifted storyteller, and that's what Dorothy Whipple is, it becomes an engrossing character study and morality tale yet Whipple never preaches at her reader.
Avery and Ellen North are an average middle-aged couple living happily in the countryside with a son doing his military service and a daughter away at school. Every morning Avery commutes to the City where he works for a distinguished publishing house confident that his son will follow in his footsteps. Ellen contentedly cares for the house and garden, pleased with how her life has turned out. They are a perfect picture of 1950s domesticity with their busy and fulfilled lives each in their proper roles.
Perhaps they would have continued in their marital bliss had not elderly Mrs. North, Avery's mother, not been so unhappy in her own situation. A daughter-in-law with little time or regard for her, and grandchildren always rushing about, as well a son too busy at the office leaves Mrs. North feeling neglected and unappreciated. She decides to take out an ad for someone to practice French with and undertake a little light housework hoping to keep loneliness at bay.
Enter Louise Lanier, a Frenchwoman from the small town of Amigny on the rebound from a particularly painful break up. Louise is an easy character to dislike, but you still have to give Whipple credit for creating a character so surprisingly three-dimensional when she could easily have been simply a cliché. Louise is a shallow and self-absorbed woman who feels entitled to all the good things in life--the things she wants and feels she deserves, though she does little to earn them save know who and how to manipulate to get them. Her parents are her greatest admirers but are naive to her shortcomings, which is a pity as they seem to be sweet and sincere people.
To Mrs. North Louise is a godsend. Louise gives her the attention she yearns for, flatters her, makes her feel younger and more attractive again. And Mrs. North soaks it all up, even though no one else seems to care for Louise. Ellen is complacent in her dealings with her. She might not like Louise but she doesn't see her as a threat until its too late. Louise scoffs at Ellen's desire to do things for her family or dig around in her garden rather than passing the jobs along to servants. And Louise looks down her nose at Ellen's frumpy dress style, when she herself will spend hours at her toilette applying creams and makeup to become a shining example of feminine beauty and grace.
How can a story be so utterly heart wrenching and yet so compelling at the same time? There were moments when it was almost painful to keep reading knowing Louise had little regard for Avery and treated his family with complete contempt and all for her own selfish desires to appear she was someone and even something she wasn't. It seemed an empty victory. Perhaps what made it all so cringeworthy was that it was all presented in such a realistic light. I could imagine a couple like the Norths leading their average lives without a care in the world not even realizing that someone like Louise Lanier could come along and wreak such havoc. And once the damage had been done, I could see Avery and Ellen thinking that nothing could fix it, because that seemed to me very much in keeping with human nature. It's easy to find a solution to a problem until you happen to be living it.
When all is said and done, however, the ending is optimistic (and I don't think I'm giving anything away here), you might even consider it a happy ending, though Whipple leaves things slightly open ended. I'm actually a little ambivalent about it, as strange as that sounds. This is such an emotional roller coaster of a story, I wasn't expecting it. This is not to say I found it in any way unrealistic. My own ideas and perceptions of how things are likely going to play out are coloring my feelings I expect. Without giving details away, I know this sort of thing happens in real life all the time. So this is a minor quibble in an otherwise beautifully executed story. The novel is written in simple and unadorned prose, but it works because of the emotional intensity.
I've heard that Someone at a Distance is Dorothy Whipple's masterpiece, so where do I go from here? If, however, her other books are written with an equal amount of elegance and sympathy I think I shall be in for a treat regardless.