Ripple effect

In a well-crafted tale about three generations of women, Penelope Lively reflects on how choices turn into 'Consequences'

Special to the Journal Sentinel
First Published, June 16, 2007

Penelope Lively is one of a critically acclaimed group of 20th-century British writers, among them Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, Fay Weldon and even the late Muriel Sparks, who have found rich territory in the gaps between the public and private lives of women who came of age during the third wave of Western feminism.

In Lively's last novel, "The Photograph," she explored the life of a marriage from the details of a small canvas, a hidden photograph discovered by a husband after the death of his wife. The narrative then zooms out until readers can see that the marriage was not at all how the husband and the world perceived it to be.

In "Consequences," Lively's newest book, she begins with a broad canvas, Britain in the 20th century, and dips in and out of the private lives of three generations of women. Lorna, her daughter Molly and granddaughter Ruth are products of their time and class and of the particular choices the women before them made.

Lorna's choices are pragmatic and rooted in the passionate love she has for Matt, a gifted artist. She turns away from a privileged urban life and forges one in rural England during World War II. Molly's choices are just as personal, but more philosophical and rooted in her restlessness. She chooses a career instead of marriage and meanders around the '60s and '70s. Ruth, however, is a product of the consequences of both Lorna and Molly's choices about love, marriage and work, consequences Ruth and the reader do not fully comprehend until the novel's conclusion. At the end of the book, the lives of all three women converge in a strikingly elegant way.

Lively's narrator keeps a controlled distance that at first seems impersonal and a bit aloof, but eventually a pattern emerges. During key moments in the characters' lives, the narrator swoops in and the perspective shifts to a more focused point of view. Lively's narrator is like an artist creating a frame around a big picture so readers can deepen their understanding of the character and the moment. This narration, coupled with Lively's precision of language, makes the novel's pace brisk and graceful.

"I am an agnostic," Lively has written at, "and while I would not suggest the construction of fiction as an alternative to religious belief, it does seem to me that many writers - and I am certainly one - look at it as an opportunity to perceive and explain pattern and meaning in human existence."

Lively's pattern in this novel may be an existential one - her characters keep bumping up against fragments of the past and using them to create meaning on their own terms - but she also seems to be suggesting that if we're really lucky we realize life is unpredictable; we embrace it fully, nonetheless, and live with the consequences.

Carole E Barrowman is a professor of English at Alverno College.