This review is for an omnibus, including three complete novels.
The Empty House (1973)
The Empty House is a short and lovely novel. The protagonist Virginia is a 27-year-old woman, a recent widow with two young children. Timid and docile, she had always followed the currents and been under the thumbs of others—her mother, her late husband, and even her Nanny. Ten years ago, Virginia was in love with a young Cornish farmer, Eustace, but her snobby mother disapproved, and nothing came out of that short summer fling.
Now, free of her loveless marriage after her husband's death, Virginia returns to Cornwall, the place of happy memories. Under the bright summer sun, she seems to awaken at last from her prolonged submissive stupor. Like a sleeping beauty revived by her prince's kiss, she unfolds her wings and flies to claim her beloved, her children, and her long-overdue independence.
The pace of this novel is not as frenetic as we're used to today. Written in 1973, the story reflects a slower tempo of life: no cell phones or Internet. Instead, people have time to enjoy the sunset, contemplate their relationships, and delve into their own psyches.
The descriptions in The Empty House are amazing, among the loveliest I've read in fiction. Vivid and lyrical and transparent to all senses, the scenery is enchanting, but muted. Nothing screams, but every page whispers with joy. I could almost see the "summer sea the color of hyacinths," smell the salty breeze, and taste the ice cream that Virginia coveted.
I was entranced by the story of Virginia's inner metamorphosis, with all the unavoidable regrets, tinctured with bitterness, and hopes infused with pink daydreams. I was captured from the beginning and glued to the pages until the triumphant end. Marvelous!
The Day of the Storm (1975)
The Day of the Storm is also a short novel. Rebecca, the protagonist, is twenty-one. Practical and self-reliant, she has no relatives except a flighty mother who lives abroad with a never-ending succession of men. When Rebecca learns that her mother is dying, she rushes to the airport to spend the last days with her.
Their single day together is heartbreaking in its intensity. For the first time in her life, her mother tells Rebecca of her estranged family and of the things she left behind many years ago: a mirror, some jade ornaments, and a desk. Suddenly Rebecca craves these things. They're far easier to yearn for instead of love, and her mother perceives the truth: Rebecca is longing for her roots.
Thus begins Rebecca's odyssey: discovering a place to belong. Following her dying mother's confession, Rebecca travels to Cornwall to meet her kin: a grandfather, an aunt, a cousin, and many others. Thrust into the middle of the complicated family dynamics, Rebecca navigates her way between kindness and greed, slyness and honesty.
The Day of the Storm is populated with three-dimensional characters, each with his or her distinct personality. Rebecca, however, outshines them all. She is on an emotional roller-coaster as she learns to understand and accept her family, swinging from hour to hour between doubts and certainty, striving to find her own thread in the family tapestry.
The weather fits Rebecca's fluid state of mind—on the cusp between winter and spring. The cold hasn't gone, the warmth hasn't exactly arrived, but the storm is definitely brewing, and it will bring clarity.
The Day of the Storm is gripping and timeless. The pace is fast, the tension is palpable, and Rebecca would be a good friend to you and me.
Under Gemini (1976)
Since Shakespeare, many writers have touched on the theme of twins and switcheroo, but Under Gemini stands out despite its non-original plot. With its luminous prose and faulty sympathetic heroine, this novel is uniquely Pilcher—contemplative and deeply spiritual, about a young woman searching for her identity under the rather dubious conditions.
At twenty-two, Flora is rootless and restless. No job. No apartment. By accident, she discovers that she has a twin sister, Rose, but after the initial shock of their encounter, Rose skips town, leaving Flora floundering with doubts and uncertainties.
When Rose's former fiancÚ Antony appears on Flora's doorstep and asks her to impersonate Rose for one weekend (Antony's grandmother Tuppy is purportedly dying and wants to see them together one last time) she allows herself to be persuaded. After all, it's a good reason, and no one will suffer from their small deception.
They travel to Scotland, and Flora meets Antony's relatives and neighbors, a wonderfully diverse set of secondary characters. As it happens, Tuppy is recovering. Flora comes to adore the old woman, her entire clan, the town, and its people. Unfortunately, the young protagonist is trapped by her own well-intentioned lie. Unable to be herself, ensnared by Rose's name and personality, Flora experiences an identity crisis. The situation is complicated by the trail of pain and betrayal Rose left behind when she visited five years ago. Flora fights to assert her integrity as she is plunged into this bizarre good-twin vs. bad-twin scenario. She struggles to rescue her future and convince the man she is falling in love with.
By turns compassionate and funny, light-hearted and soulful, Under Gemini is set in a place that seems caught between times. Apart from the brief, flitting mentions of television and phone, the events of the tale could've happened a hundred years ago or now, and the heroine is just as timeless, immersed in her inner struggle, with almost no outer trappings. Only the ever-present sea reflects the turmoil and joy in her heart. Under Gemini could read equally well by a seventy-year-old granny and a twenty-year-old student.
Rosamunde Pilcher is the author of such internationally acclaimed bestsellers as The Shell Seekers and September.
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