The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble
I read all of Drabble's books during the 70ies when she was one of the new female authors writing books about independent women. They were not blatantly feminist like Fear of Flying and The Woman’s Room, but had characters my graduate student friends and I identified with. Then she didn’t write novels for a long time and this is the first one of hers I’ve picked up in 30 years.
The structure of the novel is interesting. There are no chapters but diary entries with a characterizing sentence or phrase introducing each, almost like the comments to the reader in an 18th century novel. The character is Candida Wilton. She’s newly divorced from a handsome and charming headmaster who left her for another woman, and she decides to move to London rather than continue as the wronged wife in Suffolk. She chooses a small place in Central London, in the Ladbrooke Grove area—nearer to the motorway, the canal and the gas works than to fashionable Notting Hill, very different from the upper middle class, all-white area where she’s lived most of her married life. She’s more alone than many divorcees; she’s estranged from her 3 daughter, at least two of whom have taken their father’s side quite militantly and her only other relative is a senile mother in a nursing home in the Midlands.
The novel begins slowly with Candida's decision to begin writing on the laptop computer with which she is not entirely familiar. She starts by telling about the Virgil class she attended until the education center was demolished and replaced with a health club—and about her experiences at the health club. The Virgil class participants are her friends: Mrs. Jerrold, the instructor, is the widow of a BBC personality who supplements a pension by teaching the Classics—not too popular these days, Anaïs is outgoing, colorful, exotic, a bit mysterious, and Mrs. Barclay has a posh house in the better end of the neighborhood and a strange marriage—evidently to a gay art dealer. Candida introduces her old school friend, Julia, a writer of sexy novels who visits from Paris. There’s also Sally, from Suffolk, a gossip and complainer whom Candida calls her friend but doesn’t really like. One at a time Candida talks with them about a trip to the sites of Carthage and the Cumian Sibyl, about how nice it would be to see where Aeneas’s story played out. And then an unexpected legacy allows Candida to travel and she, along with the other 5, plan a trip.
The second part of the novel is written in the third person and is about the trip of the seven sisters—Valeria their driver turns out to be the seventh sister. The third part is totally unexpected and the conclusion, part first and part third person narration, focuses on the life Candida gradually re-builds for herself.
It all sounds banal, doesn't it? But Drabble's prose is worth the journey as are her insights into marriage and parenting and life and death and friends and literature. The first part is by far the best, though, as she doles out information about past and future with just enough suspense to keep a reader interested.