Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of this novel last year, attracted by the striking artwork on the front cover and the promise of a perceptive portrayal of ‘a fragile family, damaged and defined by adultery’. Fortunately, the book itself very much lives up to this impression, unfolding over a dry, claustrophobic summer underscored with a developing sense of tension.

Fifty-five-year-old Pauline – a freelance editor – is spending the summer at World’s End, her cottage in the English countryside. Residing in the adjacent cottage are Pauline’s daughter, Teresa, Teresa’s husband, Maurice, and their baby, Luke. Ostensibly, the family is there to enable Maurice – a writer of some promise – to complete his book on the history of tourism, a topic on which he holds fervent views.

At twenty-nine, Teresa is some fifteen years younger than Maurice, whom she loves very much. As Pauline looks on, she is reminded of the time when she was newly married to Teresa’s father, Harry, a rising star in academia back then, in demand both at home and abroad. While Pauline stayed at home to care for Teresa, Harry was free to play the field with various students, chalking up a string of affairs over the early years of their marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harry denied any suggestion of infidelity when first confronted, casting Pauline as the overly suspicious accuser while reminding her of his need to circulate for work.

Confrontation is self-defeating, she has come to realize. Harry is not so much defensive or evasive as perplexed. An invisible observer of such an exchange between them would see Pauline as the flailing accuser, resting her case on inference and conjecture, while Harry is the voice of sweet reason, explaining that he is a busy man, that he knows and sees many people, some of whom are indeed women, that these accusations are not reasonable, not sensible.

And all the time she knows, she knows. (p. 107)

In time, however, Pauline came to realise that her devotion to Harry was misplaced, prompting a split and ultimately a divorce.

From an early stage in the novel, there is a sense of the past being reflected in the present, of history threatening to repeating itself from one generation to the next. Like Harry before him, Maurice can cast a spell over those who surround him, coming across as genial, curious and magnetic. As Pauline observes Maurice, she wonders how faithful he will be, especially when Maurice’s editor, James, appears on the scene, accompanied by his attractive partner, Carol, who is also connected to the publishing industry.

She [Pauline] recognizes Carol. Not Carol personally but Carol as a species. She is a literary groupie – one of those who leech on to writers, who are passed from hand to hand among poets, and for whom publication and a degree of fame spell sexual magnetism. Pauline has worked with several Carols. They do not last long because they lack efficiency and ambition – they are only there for the pickings. They do not want to go to bed with a book, but with anyone who wrote one. (p. 61)

You can probably guess how some aspects of this story will play out – the relationship between Maurice and Carol is more than just a friendship or professional connection. Naturally, it is Pauline who sees and understands precisely what is going on between the two of them long before Teresa does. Having been a cuckolded wife herself, Pauline is well able to read the looks that pass between Maurice and Carol, signals that trigger painful feelings from her own troubled past.   

Maurice stands nearby – just waiting, it would seem. Pauline glances away from James and sees that Maurice’s look is upon Carol, who is absorbed still in this problem with the sandal. There is a concentration about this look – an intensity – that she has seen before. In Maurice’s eyes above a glass of red wine. In someone else’s eyes, at another time. She both sees the look and feels it like some chill shadow. (p. 60)

As the weeks go by, Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to control her anger at Maurice, fuelled by the frustration she once experienced with Harry (now living in California with his thirty-nine-year-old second wife). Drawing on the characters from the novel she is editing, Pauline hints at the options available to a woman in Teresa’s position, albeit somewhat pointedly. Nevertheless, there is a sense that what is left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly conveyed, the exchange of looks and gestures being highly relevant here.

Lively’s descriptions of the natural world are so evocative, clearly reflecting the novel’s simmering tension through images of the scorched landscape withering in the blistering heat. What was once lush and furtive is now barren and arid, mirroring the process of decay in Maurice and Teresa’s relationship.

This is very much an interior, character-driven novel, giving a rich insight into Pauline as an individual, covering both her present life and earlier experiences. (There are several flashbacks to Pauline’s married life with Harry along the way, with Lively moving seamlessly between the two timelines.) The other characters are nicely fleshed-out too, from the vulnerable, trusting Teresa, to subtly manipulative Maurice, to the genial editor James – they all seem to ring true.

Alongside the main narrative, we also gain an insight into the nature of other marital relationships, each with their own specific challenges. Perhaps most notably there is Pauline’s client, Chris, an author whose wife ups and leaves him while he is trying to complete his book. We also see the quiet tragedy of another life, that of Pauline’s close friend and former lover, Hugh, who has stood by his housebound wife for several years despite her crippling mental health issues.

In some respects, Heat Wave reminded me of some of Anita Brookner’s novels, particularly Providence and Hotel du Lac. There is a similar tone or ‘feel’ to it, giving a window into emotions of jealousy, betrayal and frustration. Definitely recommended for fans of perceptive character-driven fiction that taps into these themes.     

Heat Wave is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I haven’t! I’ll definitely take a look at that, especially if there’s a connection in terms of themes. She’s not a writer I’ve explored very much, so it’s good to have some personal recommendations. I’m glad you enjoyed this too. Wonderful, isn’t it? All that brooding tension just waiting to erupt…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think the backstory is nicely done, woven into the text in a way that feels natural and reflective. And yes, the cover is gorgeous – definitely one of the things that attracted me to the book.

      Reply
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, as always. I’ve always been a huge fan of Lively’s children’s books, and also loved some of her memoirs. However, I’ve somehow never got round to reading her adult works, which is my failing because they sound wonderful. This sounds particularly involving and well-observed – I shall keep it on my radar!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I feel like a right idiot saying this, but I wasn’t even aware that Lively had written books for children until someone mentioned it on Twitter this morning in response to this post. I’d only ever thought of her as a writer of books for adults, mostly literary fiction and the occasional memoir. (Her ‘Life in the Garden’ sounds very appealing.) You might well like this, especially as you’ve enjoyed her children’s books and memoirs. It’s very evocative. Ideal reading for a balmy summer’s day.

      Reply
  2. madamebibilophile

    I think it’s only Moon Tiger that I’ve read of Penelope Lively’s adult books and I do keep meaning to read more. This sounds right up my street – I really enjoy character-driven plots.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Like you, I’d only ever read Moon Tiger; but then something about the cover and premise of this novel really drew me in. Lively’s very adept at conveying her central character’s inner life. I think that comes across both here and in Moon Tiger, a sense of reflection on past mistakes and misdemeanours.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    This sounds wonderful, it’s a long time since I read anything by Penelope Lively, but I remember how much I enjoyed The Photograph which I think had similar themes. I know I shouldn’t be swayed by a cover, but that clinches it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m pretty sure you would enjoy this, Ali. It’s perceptive, well-written and very evocative in its portrayal of the countryside. Plus, as you say, the cover makes it a must. As for The Photograph, that’s definitely one for my list – you’re the second trusted person to recommend it, so that’s clearly a good sign!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      My favourite Brookner! (Mind you, I’ve only read four so far, including Hotel du Lac.) There’s an extended night-time scene towards the end of Look at Me with the potential to shake you to your core. I’d love to her what you think of it – and the book in general, of course. :)

      Reply
  4. Lisa Hill

    I like Penelope Lively, but I haven’t read this one… onto the wishlist it goes!
    (No point in trying to get a copy now, deliveries of books to Australia are delayed because nearly all the flights in and out of the country have been cancelled. And no, we’re not bailing out Virgin. Mr Moneybags Branson and his fellow shareholders with very deep pockets can do that, not the Aussie taxpayer!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I hope you enjoy it. What else have you read by her? Any others you would particularly recommend. (Apart from Moon Tiger, which I’ve read.)

      Reply
  5. Jane

    I read this last year but didn’t find the characters particularly interesting (which I felt you needed to with such an intimate look into their lives) but your review has made me think I should go back and have another look – I did love the flashbacks from the past though, university life in the ’60’s!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There has to be some kind of connection between the reader and the characters for a book to fly, that’s for sure. I suppose I found Pauline the most interesting character of the three, but they all rang true in their own individual ways. And yes, I loved the flashbacks to campus life in the 1960s. They reminded me of the recent film, The Wife, and the relationship between the Glenn Close character and her critically feted husband played by Jonathan Price. It had a similar vibe, I think.

      Reply
      1. Jane

        I hadn’t thought of The Wife, but that is an interesting way of looking at it. I was reminded of The History Man, I think it’s Malcolm Bradbury

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

  7. Caroline

    I think I would like this. I was a bit unfortunate earlier this year when I read one of her books that was on my piles – Family Album. The writing was so good but it lacked cohesion. It was very much like a family album, a succession of portraits.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s a shame. I’m still fairly new to Lively, and that title’s not on my radar, but I’ll make a note to steer clear. She’s good on character, I think. You get a deep insight into Pauline’s inner world here, and the flashbacks are nicely done. I’d recommend it if you’re ever thinking of try another.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I got Moon Tiger, one of her most famous ones and will certainly read that. Family Album isn’t bad but not cohesive and I’m not entirely sure that’s what she wanted.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I liked Moon Tiger but not quite as much as everyone else seemed to at the time. Probably a novel I should revisit at some point as it ought to be a banker for me.

          Reply
  8. buriedinprint

    Lively is another of my MRE (MustReadEverything) authors, but I’ve done a better job with her books than the last author we discussed on that footing (Fitzgerald, maybe?). Mainly because I did discover her as a children’s author and then reread her children’s books (and filled in some of the gaps) about a decade ago, while dabbling in the rest of her backlist. I’d like to make more of a project of it, though, more deliberate I mean, because after I’ve read them, I tend to get their titles and narratives confused (likely because so many of the themes repeat, which sounds like a criticism but I don’t see it that way). Coincidentally, Brookner is also on my MRE list. It seems like we have more authors in common than I’d realized! (I’ve not read this one, so I just scanned some of the details above, but it does seem all-of-a- piece with her other novels.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get what you mean about the blurring between different books by the same writer, that sense of certain scenarios and characters merging together over time. It’s something I’ve experienced to some extent with Barbara Pym — not helped by the fact that some of her protagonists pop up in more than one novel, making cameo appearances when you least expect them to! As you say, that’s not a criticism in any way. I actually LIKE the idea that several of Pym’s novels are very similar, almost as if you’re returning to a familiar village populated by old friends. There’s a certain degree of comfort in that, particularly right now when everything else in the word seems so precarious and unstable. And yes, we do seem to have quite a few authors in common – Brookner and Taylor, for sure. It’s still early days for me with Penelope Lively, but hopefully I’ll get a chance to read more.

      Reply
      1. buriedinprint

        I suffered quite a Pym-blur when I first discovered her work (via Quartet in Autumn), compounded by the fact that, in those years, there was no way to place a hold on a book at the library, so you simply had to revisit the stacks until you found the books you wanted, so I plucked the Pyms that were there and then rushed back to return and (with luck) bring home another and I’m still sorting out the mess of Pym-ness in my mind (a happy mess).

        Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    Like many I’ve only read Moon Tiger (which I absolutely loved, so took to more than you Jacqui). This sounds great and I should read more Lively. I’ll look out for it.

    I find the idea that Pym’s books overlap rather comforting. The Pymverse. Such a good writer. I suspect she bears rereading too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Maybe I picked the wrong moment to read Moon Tiger. That happens sometimes, doesn’t it? Right book, wrong time. I ought to revisit it, give it another chance.

      You’d like this, I think. Definitely a touch of Anita Brookner here, especially with all the pent-up frustration and rage.

      The Pymverse! I quite fancy being transported to that world myself right now, a place where the most pressing decision one has to make is what to give the vicar when he comes over for tea.

      Reply

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