Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius being the hit and The Long View the miss. (Getting It Right, which I read earlier this year and never got around to writing up at the time, fell somewhere between the two.) Odd Girl Out (1972) broadly fits into the ‘hit’ category for me, albeit with a few caveats here and there. It’s a novel about sexual attraction and secret relationships, largely played out against the comfortable background of the privileged middle classes in 1970s Berkshire.

Odd 1

Edmund and Anne Cornhill, both in their late thirties/early forties, have been happily married for ten years, content with themselves and one another in their own secluded world. Edmund travels to London each day where he works as an estate agent, a role that often involves the assessment of grand country houses. Meanwhile, Anne amuses herself by pottering in the garden, shopping for treats, and cooking delicious meals for Edmund to enjoy on his return.

As with any longstanding relationship, there are occasional niggles to be smoothed out. Anne wishes Edmund wouldn’t insist in bringing her breakfast in bed every morning (in truth she considers it a waste of valuable time), while Edmund promptly ignores Anne’s suggestions on which shirt-and-tie combination he should wear that day, preferring to select his own clothes instead. Nevertheless, the marriage is a comfortable one, both parties feeling fulfilled and contented.

All this begins to change when Arabella comes to stay, destabilising the Cornhills’ idyllic lifestyle in her own rather naïve and charming way. Arabella is young, beautiful and vulnerable, recovering as she is from the after-effects of a very recent abortion. (No spoilers here as this is made abundantly clear from the start.) The link between Arabella and the Cornhills is a somewhat tenuous one. In essence, she is the daughter of Edmund’s former stepmother, Clara, a frightful, self-centred woman who treats the girl like an unwanted appendage or nuisance to be dealt with, preferably by way of a convenient marriage.

Armed with her youth and progressive outlook, Arabella is more sexually liberated than either Edmund or Anne, a point that leads to the virtually inevitable affair. Edmund is utterly beguiled by Arabella, to the point that he starts behaving like a lovesick teenager in her presence, desperately trying to extend the time they can spend alone together. What is somewhat more surprising is Arabella’s impact on Anne, who also finds herself affected by the young girl’s presence in the house, albeit in a rather different, more unpredictable way.

It was extraordinary how she [Arabella] could stream with tears and go on looking beautiful and not have to blow her nose, Anne thought. She wanted to feel ‘poor little thing’, but there was something about Arabella’s appearance and state that went well beyond that. She put out her hand to stroke Arabella’s hair, and touching it, felt vaguely frightened. (p. 107)

Alongside the main narrative thread, there are some interesting secondary stories, too – perhaps most notably that of Janet, the downtrodden wife of Arabella’s former lover, Henry, an unsuccessful actor and prize brute. While Janet does her best to feed her children on little more than thin air, Henry proceeds to abuse her, making her life a misery at every possible opportunity. If anything, I would have liked a lot more of Janet, but sadly it wasn’t to be – a relatively minor quibble in the scheme of things, but a missed opportunity nonetheless. Anne’s backstory reveals another abusive relationship: a hasty previous marriage with a most unsuitable partner, Waldo, now fortunately out of the picture in Canada.

Overall, this is a very well-written novel about the fickle, complicated nature of love. As far as Arabella sees things, pretty much everything in life is simple – not necessarily easy, but simple. In reality, however, love, desire and sexual relationships are much more complicated than this – a point that Arabella eventually discovers to her peril. (I can’t help but wonder if this is another story that draws on some of EJH’s own rather bruising relationships with abusive, self-absorbed men – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.)

The period detail is rather wonderful, too. There are some glorious touches from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s here, including martinis, Sancerre, salmon trout, chilled soup, kaftans, pant suits and holidays in Greece – like an upmarket version of Abigail’s Party in certain respects. As ever with EJH, the descriptions of settings, rooms, furnishings and other minutiae are perfectly observed.

In summary, this is an elegant novel with touches of real sadness and poignancy. Recommended to readers of relationship-driven fiction with a domestic setting.

This is the first of two pieces about EJH I’m planning to post over the next few weeks – more about my responses to another of her novels to follow.

Odd Girl Out is published by Picador; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I think it’s another name for rainbow trout, presumably due to the salmon pink hue on the side of the skin – a regular at dinner parties in the 1970s. :)

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Do you have the Cazelets or some of the standalones? My set was a gift while I was laid up at home earlier this year, hence the little flurry of EJH posts over the past few months.

          Reply
  1. madamebibilophile

    I would like to give EJH a try. This sounds a good read – is it reminiscent of Someone at a Distance? The subject is similar but I wonder if EJH’s tone might be a bit more biting than Dorothy Whipple’s? Great review as always Jacqui :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There are some similarities with Someone at a Distance. In fact, that’s very much how I thought the narrative would play out, but it doesn’t quite go down the same route. Without wishing to give too much away, there’s another development which complicates things!

      In terms of style, I’d say some of EJH’s characters (the women in particular) are more nuanced than those in ‘Distance’. (I probably haven’t read enough of Whipple to give a broader view of the degree of subtlety in her work.) That said, I do find EJH very uneven. There are times when she appears to show such insight into the complexities and failings of male-female relationships (bordering on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor), and yet there are others where it all begins to feel a bit Mills-and-Boony. I find it very difficult to predict which version of EJH I’m going to get!

      She’s definitely worth trying, though – maybe with this or After Julius?

      Reply
  2. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

    I might give this a try! I grew up in the 1970s and am tempted by the period detail. I’ve read one other Elizabeth Jane Howard – The Long View, which you said you weren’t so keen on. I enjoyed the final part of that, but felt a bit lost in the others. However, what you’ve said about her observation of relationships has tempted me. It makes me think of Andrea Newman, who’s also very good at finely balanced and difficult dynamics between couples. Anyway, thanks for a provoking review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I suspect Andrea Newman is a very good touchstone for this. While I haven’t read any of her books, I do recall the TV adaptation of A Bouquet of Barbed Wire in the mid ’70s, and this novel has a similar kind of vibe. Like you, I got a bit bogged down in the middle sections of The Long View – they just seemed rather baggy and unfocused compared to the final part. A pity really as the reverse-timeline structure was so interesting. In some respects, I felt there was a really excellent novel just fighting to get out if only the overall narrative had been tighter!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think this is a tighter novel than The Long View, less bloated so to speak. It’s also more compassionate or generous in tone – for the most part at least. I found TLV quite bitter in places, a little too caustic in its perspective for my tastes, particularly in the first segment on the ‘present-day’ state of Antonia and Conrad’s toxic marriage.

      Do let me know how you get on with EJH second time around – I’d be very interested to know!

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like a very worthwhile character study. Arabella sounds like an interesting and well crafted character.

    I guess that Howard’s unevenness is not that unusual. Many writers have a small number of successes amongst a larger number of mediocre efforts.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I liked Arabella a lot. She isn’t quite the spoilt ingenue you think she’s going to be.

      As for the other issue, I think it’s the degree of variation within EJH’s individual books that I find particularly troublesome. Of those I’ve read, After Julius is probably the most consistent in terms of quality and insight into character, but even that takes a disturbing turn at the very end…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I had to laugh at what you said about an upmarket Abigail’s Party – I’m old enough to remember the 70s and my parents’ world sounds a lot like this (if of a lower social milieu!) I would probably find the period details very familiar, and although I have a certain nostagia for some of it, there are plenty of elements I’d rather forget! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I couldn’t help but think of Alison Steadman’s ‘Beverly’ dancing to Demis Roussos at the party, especially with all the references to pant suits and holidays in Greece. (No mentions of cheesy pineapples on sticks in the EJH, though – I kept waiting for those to come up but sadly not!) It’s definitely a nostalgia thing for me too. I have a copy of Abigail’s Party on DVD, and it still stands up as a classic of the era today. (Also, Mike Leigh’s ‘Nuts in May’, which might still be available to view on the iPlayer – I’m pretty sure I saw it there the other day. )

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t. That wasn’t in the set of standalone novels I received as a gift. I saw something to suggest that it’s being turned into a film with Kristen Scott Thomas, so if that comes off I may well pick it up. Glad to hear you liked it – definitely an encouraging sign!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I do recall you saying that. Far be it for me to be adding unnecessarily to your TBR, but I would be fascinated to see what you make of her. There are moments of real perceptiveness and insight in her novels, to the point where you think she could be edging towards Elizabeth Taylor’s league. But then, just when things start to get interesting, she slips back into more mundane, overly romanticised territory. It’s not so much of an issue here as this seems to be one of her more even novels, but it’s definitely the case with some of her others.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    The seventies details sound like fun, the characters less so. I appreciate your honesty in describing the variable quality of her work – some writers are certainly like that!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. It’s always a tricky balance to strike, but the last thing I want to do is to create too high an expectation on the part of new readers. There’s definitely a lot to appreciate in EJH’s work, but the variability (even within individual books) is somewhat problematic. As a reader, you’re never quite sure which EJH is going to show up next!

      Reply
  6. Sue Gedge

    I’ve just finished reading ‘Odd Girl Out’, (in a lovely battered edition I borrowed from the London Library, and must say I enjoyed it enormously. It occurs to me that no-one writes novels like this any more, rather to the detriment of modern fiction–like you, I loved the 1970s period feel, (being old enough to have lived through that decade as an adult). The opening, where Arabella accidentally arrives at London Zoo and sees Guy the Gorilla is masterful. Beautiful writing and so morally ambivalent. What to make of Arabella? Mixed feelings here!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree with you about the moral ambivalence! It’s very indicative of the late ’60s/early ’70s, a time of sexual liberation and changing attitudes. I really felt for Arabella as a character, particularly given her upbringing with the self-centred Clara – what an awful mother she must have been been…

      Anyway, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one – it really is beautifully written!

      Reply
  7. Davida Chazan

    My goodness, its been ages since I read Elizabeth Jane Howard. I remember liking the first book of hers I read, and then she got all… mushy. But this sounds better. I’ll make a note. Thanks!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Yes, I know what you mean about the mushiness, but it seems to be less of an issue here. Worth considering if you’re ever thinking of giving her another try. :)

      Reply
  8. Caroline

    I’ve only read After Julius which I liked a lot as well. I got the first in her Cazalet series, so this one will have to wait but I would like to return to her. At the moment I’m binge reading Barbara Pym. I’ll have to revisit your reviews once I am finished.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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