The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Cost of Living – a luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention – is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy, which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. I’m not quite sure why I started with this middle volume, first published in 2018 – maybe its focus on a significant turning point in the author’s life particularly appealed. Whatever the reason, now that I’ve read Cost, my investment in the trilogy as a whole is well and truly sealed.

In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years. Levy is fifty at this point, and the book starts with her realisation that she no longer wishes to live with her husband, to be part of the traditional societal view of the woman as wife and mother – roles designated to women by a longstanding patriarchal society. But, to paraphrase Levy herself, why mortgage one’s life to someone else’s fear? It takes immense amounts of time, care and generosity to build a family home, to be the ‘architect of everyone else’s well-being’. However, when we no longer feel a sense of belonging in our family home, it is time to move on – to step out of the old story and invent a new one. 

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it, had come to an end. Femininity, as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story? (p. 85)

It was time to find new main characters with other talents. (p. 87)

Consequently, Levy and her two daughters move from their dark, well-furnished Victorian house to a small but airy flat in a dilapidated North London building with poor heating and darkly ominous communal corridors, which Levy ironically calls ‘The Corridors of Love’. Here, Levy begins a new phase of her life, sometimes writing at night on the tiny balcony amidst the silvery sky and stars.

We were living with the sky from dawn to dusk, its silver mists and moving clouds and shape-shifting moons. (p. 24)

Many of the author’s reflections are intensely personal, offering the reader an insight into the emotions they inevitably trigger. Levy writes movingly her mother’s death from cancer, a tragedy that occurs within a year of the breakdown of the author’s marriage. We hear something of the mother’s backstory, too – a bright, glamorous, resourceful individual who worked hard to keep the family together when Levy’s father, an anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned in the 1960s for his political beliefs.

In many cases, it is the details that make Levy’s vignettes feel so vivid, often imparting a note of ironic humour amidst the undeniable poignancy. For instance, when her bag breaks, the chicken Levy has bought for dinner is run over by a car, leaving an indelible impression, both on the bird and on the reader’s mind. Each day, as her mother’s life is coming to an end, Levy diligently buys a particular brand of ice lolly (the only food her mother can consume) from a newsagent’s shop run by three Turkish brothers. During each visit to the shop, Levy clears the top of the brothers’ freezer of various assorted goods – mushrooms, shoe polish batteries etc. – to reach the treasured ice lollies, preferably the lime ones which her mother prefers. One day, however, the usual flavours have gone with only the bubblegum lollies remaining – a variety her mother subsequently rejects. The frustration Levy displays towards the Turkish brothers is both heartbreaking and wryly amusing – an entirely understandable outlet for the depth of her pain.

There are several brighter, more playful moments, too – like shards of light amidst the darkness of winter. For example, we learn how Adrian Mitchell’s eighty-year-old widow, Celia, offers Levy the use of her husband’s old shed as a writing retreat – a rather spartan habitat that Levy shares with her friend’s spare freezer. In relaying this and other stories, Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

Of course I wanted to instal a wood-burning stove in the shed (what was I to do with the freezer?) and live a romantic writer’s life – preferably Lord Byron’s life, writing poetry in a velvet smoking jacket, waiting for inspiration to ravish me as the fragrant wood crackled and popped, etc. (pp. 49–50)

Nevertheless, in spite of a few challenges, Celia’s shed proves to be a welcome refuge for Levy, enabling her to write with a new sense of liberty.

Reflections on various literary figures are threaded through the memoir, often entwined with Levy’s own thoughts on writing, womanhood and ways of living. Her artistic touchstones range far and wide from Emily Dickinson to Simone de Beauvoir to Margarite Duras. Duras feels particularly crucial in this context, offering inspiration on motherhood, our perceptions of ourselves and the general creative process.

Levy’s ideas on various social constructs form key elements of the text, particularly those on the perception (and suppression) of women in 21st-century society. She highlights how men often fail to mention a woman by name when referring to her in conversation, defining the woman by their relationship (e.g. my wife) or simply leaving her nameless, like spectral figure in the shadows. A chance encounter with a man at a party is particularly telling, signalling a lack of interest in women’s voices on the part of this writer whose specialism is military biographies. On introducing himself to Levy (who has only just arrived), this tall, silvered-haired author asks her to pass him a canapé – a request she shrewdly ignores while proceeding to change her shoes.    

He was tall and thin, possibly in his late sixties, and seemed to desire my company. He talked about his books for a while and how his wife (no name) was unwell at home. He did not ask me one single question, not even my name. It seemed that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side to acquire his canapés for him and who understood that he was entirely the subject. (pp. 66–67)

Above all though, The Cost of Living is about discovering a new way to live – to move away from the life that someone else has imagined for us and embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. It is heartening to read of Levy whizzing around London on her e-bike – a sort of metaphor for liberation itself – navigating the challenges this break from marital security presents. Especially so when we see how wise and perceptive Levy is in her reflections on life – her honesty and unassuming nature really do come through.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

The Cost of Living is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

27 thoughts on “The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

  1. MarinaSofia

    This book was very special and very important to me when I went through a similar period in my life, as you can imagine. She is so good at capturing the nuances I can barely articulate for myself! A book to treasure (and I bought the third one but have not read it yet).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can well imagine… It must have been difficult for you to read in some respects, but also very inspiring as the feelings Levy articulates seem so relatable. I also have the third book and will probably read that next before going back to the earlier one, Things I Don’t Want to Know.

      Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I’ve been toying with reading this trilogy for a while after admiring Levy’s novels. We’re of a similar age which will make her observations on the culturally acceptable roles for women all the more interesting. Great review, as ever, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The writing is superb, and the insights Levy articulates seem so perceptive. There’s a lightness of touch to it despite the introspective focus.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear, Gert. Have you read the other two in the series? I think I’m going to read Real Estate next to continue Levy’s ‘journey’ – not a word I particularly like, but I’m sure you know what I mean!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review Jacqui! I have the first two volumes in the TBR but I tend to get to NF/biographies last – I shall dig these out, they sound so well-observed and humorous despite dealing with painful topics.

    Reply
    1. madamebibilophile

      I’ve realised my comment reads like I thought you’d written on them both – I did realise it was Cost of Living only Jacqui! Apologies – I’ve had the plasterers in and a boiler breakdown, it’s been a long week :-D

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        No need to apologise, Madame Bibi! It didn’t read like that at all, and I’m sure the other volumes are just as well observed as this one. She writes in a way that feels so natural and effortless on the page, although it’s clear that the book is impeccably structured and very well thought out. I’d love to hear what you think. :)

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s very kind of you to say, Jane – thank you. The third one (Real Estate) was published a couple of months ago to very positive reviews, and it reminded me that I hadn’t read any of them despite my interest in Levy as a writer. I’m so glad that I finally got around to trying this one – the writing is superb.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    This sounds wonderful, so intimate and honest. That ice lolly incident, I’m sure resonates with everyone, we would all want to get the only food item a loved one could eat in those circumstances. I think this trilogy should definitely be on my wishlist.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the ice lolly vignette feels so personal yet also very relatable. Plus, there’s a really lovely coda to the story when Levy goes back to the shop at a later date to explain the reasons for her outburst to the Turkish brothers. I won’t say anything else about it at this point, just in case you decide to read the book!

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    I love the way this begins, with the man talking to the young woman, confused that “she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.” I also like the way she uses place to describe the changes in her life, as she continues to do in Real Estate.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, the Big Silver! I too love the way Levy uses that story as a springboard for one of the recurring themes in the book, returning to it periodically (e.g. with the party incident, for example).

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    It’s heartening to see someone as perceptive and eloquent as Levy write about not only the large topic of reinventing a life that isn’t one constructed by others’ expectations, but the little easily overlooked things like a name not being used or the constant interruptions when a woman is speaking. The older I get the less patience I have for this kind of silliness.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a great point. She’s very perceptive on significance of these little details, how they signal certain attitudes or beliefs that are often deeply entrenched. It’s also interesting (and somewhat disheartening) to see how prevalent the ‘no name’ issue seems to be in general conversation, particularly once you become attuned to it…

      Reply
  7. Cathy746books

    I had no interest in reading this trilogy, but had to read this one for a review and I wound up LOVING it. I’m planning on reading the first two as well now, I found it so incredibly insightful and illuminating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s brilliant – as you say, so perceptive and insightful. I think I’m going to read Real Estate next to carry on the sequence; then the first one, Things I Don’t Want to Know. I get the feeling that TIDWTK might be a little different to the other two, but we shall see.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fab review, and this does sound appealing Jacqui! Somehow Levy has passed me by, probably because I don’t read much in the way of contemporary fiction, but it seems as if her non-fiction is certainly excellent. I’m particularly interested in her discussions of the roles women are expected to fall into, and knowing how difficult it is to avoid them I think I would find her discussions of societal restrictions very on point. But I suspect the pedant in me would want to start at the beginning!! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Funnily enough, you might enjoy the first part of this ‘living autobiography’, Things I Don’t Want to Know, because Levy uses Orwell’s essay Why I Write as a springboard for her thoughts! (So I believe.)

      Reply
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