Book Review: Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance, written and also set in the post-World War II years, is the story of a seemingly happy family –  Ellen, her husband, Avery, and their 2 kids. Their happiness is the envy of everyone. They seem to be in a world of their own, so happy they hardly need anyone else. But, the flaws in this overt happiness become visible as Louise, a French girl, enters their lives as Avery’s mother’s companion, with an objective to disrupt their relationships. As Avery is drawn to Louise and makes mistake after mistake, his true selfishness in regards to his family is revealed along with Louise’s callousness.

Truthfully, at first I found Someone at a Distance very difficult to get into – the ‘domestic’ details seemed tiresome to me. However, as the ‘big event’ happened – the turning point in the book where Ellen and Avery’s marriage breaks down – that is when I truly started to get into it because this is such a deeply insightful albeit a painful exploration of a family breaking down and a realistic character portrait of those involved.

Bell, Vanessa, 1879-1961; Window, Still Life
Bell, Vanessa; Window, Still Life; Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/window-still-life-61657

I loved the powerful exploration of gender roles in a marriage. I was very pleasantly surprised, given that this was written more than fifty years ago – while there are no clear indications of the author’s feminist stand point, the reader is very clear of where the author’s sympathies lie simply through her portrayals of Ellen and Louise.

I found Ellen pitiable and frustrating at the same time – her disregard of herself, her utter devotion to her family, her blindness to her husband’s laziness in regards to domestic duties and to his immaturity. Unfortunately, this still happens to be a current reality in many cases. At the same time, I found her strength and perseverance very empowering. So, when the marriage of twenty years which had defined her absolutely, collapses, the effect on her is devastating and author’s depiction of it is often too real to read at a go. She questions everything about her identity – Who am I without my family? What am I to do? It’s like she is left without a foundation, her identity torn from her. As she slowly starts to rebuild her life along with that of her children, it’s a sense of hope that permeates into the reader as you champion her on.

the-gower-family-the-children-of-granville-2nd-earl-gower

(The Gower Family –  The Children of Granville, 2nd Earl Gower. Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Kendal, England)

I have confused feelings about Louise. At some points, the author depicts her with so much sympathy – making her seem more gray than purely evil by showing the context to her sense of vengefulness against everyone; at other points, she is too one dimensionally (in this otherwise complex novel) portrayed as the ‘home wrecker’ without any sympathies. However, I did end up somewhat understanding her. Louise, in an era where nothing lay for women other than the promise of ‘blissful domesticity’, is an ambitious young woman who wants more and demands more from her life – yet, the only way she finds to do that is by wrecking people’s lives and breaking her parents’ hearts. You sometimes understand her anger and her feeling of suffocation. She has delusions of grandeur in regards to herself and her future – in the end, her illusions are the only things that she has to hold to on as she faces the reality.

In some ways, both Ellen and Louise are in prisons. Ellen is blissfully unaware of the prison that surrounds her, while Louise is aware and actively fights against it through often unacceptable ways. Both women are essentially prisoners of misogynistic norms and expectations.

The book also makes you question – in a marriage or a family in general, whose role is to maintain the relationships? Just the women’s? Why? You see Avery’s sense of freedom as he takes his family and Ellen for granted, you see him carelessly play the victim after his infidelity is discovered, and you feel outraged at him.

The depiction of a once happy and bustling home silenced is so beautiful, as evident in this paragraph:

“All incoming and outgoing tide of movement had ceased. The tradesmen’s vans stood no longer at the gate. No cheerful cry of ‘fish’ or ‘baker’ sounded at the back door. One bottle of milk stood solitary at the step where there had been whole companies. The telephone never rang. Nobody came to the door; even charity-collectors passed her by; perhaps because they were too embarrassed to face her…” 

In the end, the central plot is very simple, but that is what makes the novel so easy to empathize with , as you keep thinking about your own seemingly strong familial relationships. You ask – Are relationships really this fragile? Can something that seems so strong and sacred break up in a span of a few minutes?

A complex novel written by an unfairly forgotten author, Someone at a Distance is something I would definitely recommend. On to the next Persephone book then!

Rating: 3.5/5

(By Misha)

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