Category Archives: Moore Brian

An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

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The Feast of Lupercal: Brian Moore

“He’s just like a lot of Irishmen I know. He pretends to be a wild Celt  but he’s frightened to do anything his neighbours wouldn’t approve of.”

Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal, is arguably, a companion novel to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Both novels concern middle aged lonely protagonists who live in Belfast. In the latter novel, spinster Judith Hearne, a piano teacher in her 40s moves into a boarding house. Judith’s life is on the descent. She nursed a horrible aunt until she died, but now that crutch/burden is removed, Judith, who likes booze a bit too much, is on the slippery slope. The Feast of Lupercal, concerns Diarmuid Devine, a lonely, repressed English teacher who works at a Catholic school. He’s a fading nondescript 37 and has a tiny basement flat furnished with items from his now deceased parents’ home. Even his bed “was one he had slept on since he was a boy.” Whereas Judith is clinging, desperately to the shreds of respectability, Diarmuid is entrenched in respectability and conformity, seeing his last chance at love and intimacy slipping away.

The feast of lupercal

It’s usually a blow to our self-image when we learn people’s true opinions about us. At school one day, Diarmuid overhears a bathroom conversation in which he hears himself called an “old woman.” It’s as though that conversation turns on a switch, and for the rest of the day Diarmuid begins picking up hints that’s he’s aging. He’s not viewed as much of a young eligible bachelor anymore (if he ever was); somehow he’s passed that line and is seen part of the aged/neutered crowd. He attends a party to celebrate the engagement of a young couple, and the host, a sixty year old, refers to Diarmuid as a peer. Following this blow, Diarmoud finds himself mingling with the elderly. The leftovers.

Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small, useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quick to take offence. Someone had given them glasses of sherry and there were a few small biscuits of  a plate. They waited for supper, like children for a treat.

There’s one exciting aspect of Diarmuid’s life, amateur theatre, but even this is regulated by the church. Still, in his better moments Diarmuid can imagine that he’s a bit dangerous, a tad exciting, and that night at the party, he meets Una Clarke, a young protestant girl who’s moved from Dublin in a cloud of scandal and hopes to attend nursing school in Belfast. Diarmuid is attracted to her, and he begins to think this is his chance for love….

This is a closed, claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone else and gossip floats freely in the air. In this sort of atmosphere, people like Diarmuid can never escape the perceptions and judgments of others. Una is smart enough to know she has to escape to fresh pastures. She’s clearly someone who has her own mind and admires those “who defy people and do what they think is right.” An acquaintance describes Diarmuid as a “fella that wouldn’t say boo to a dead duck.” so this timid schoolmaster isn’t exactly her type. On one hand Diarmuid’s attracted to her, yet on the other he worries what people will think–that the “authorities” will think. She’s a curious choice for Diarmuid. He’d probably be better off going for a Catholic wallflower, but he selects Una partially because she is ‘dangerous’ but also because she’s open and not stigmatized by the rigidity of religion. But is he also interested in Una, perhaps, because, it’s not likely to work?….

The Feast of Lupercal examines one man’s struggles against himself, and author Brian Moore cleverly sets up the plot so that Diarmud eventually, finds himself in a tragic, moral dilemma. Diarmuid must face that fork in the road– who he is and who he’d like to be.

While this is an excellent novel, this isn’t my favourite Moore. I struggle with passive characters, and I struggle with characters whose lives are dictated by religion. I much preferred The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

In some ways, The Feast of Lupercal reminded me of a Wharton novel (The Age of Innocence) in which characters are suffocated and influenced by the society in which they live.

Here’s Jonathan’s review.

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The Luck of Ginger Coffey: Brian Moore

“Fifteen dollars and three cents. He counted it and put it in his trouser-pocket. Then picked up his Tyrolean hat off the dresser, wondering if the two Alpine buttons and the little brush dingus in the hatband weren’t a shade jaunty for the place he was going. Still, they might be lucky to him. And it was a lovely morning, clear and crisp and clean. Maybe that was a good augury. Maybe today his ship would come in.”

Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne concern female protagonists. The former novel is the story of a married woman who falls into an affair when her husband decides to not join her on holiday. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a spinster in her 40s, a piano teacher, who moves into a shabby boarding house where she meets the landlady’s shifty brother. Both novels are 5 star reads.

the luck of ginger coffey
The Luck of Ginger Coffey
centres on an Irishman who’s moved to Canada. When the novel opens, it’s 1956 and 39-year-old Ginger Coffey has run out of luck… Ginger, his long-suffering wife, Veronica and daughter live in a third-rate boarding house. So far, Ginger has had a number of lucky breaks. When he left the army, his wife’s family pulled strings to get him a job at a distillery. In a huff, Ginger resigned and so began an odyssey of different jobs in different towns.

Another lucky break: Ginger’s father, a solicitor, died and left his son 2,000 pounds and so Ginger used that money to move to Canada ostensibly as a representative for a distillery. Ginger runs through his inheritance, and now there’s a pittance left. Sensing disaster, Veronica wants him to use the money they have left to return to Ireland where at least relatives “would not let you starve so long as you were one of them.” Trouble is there’s not enough money for the tickets, and Veronica is unaware of this.

The novel follows Ginger’s humiliating attempts to find employment. Since he’s not really trained for anything, he has to start at the bottom and most employers consider him too old for jobs they hire kids for. At first Ginger takes a grandiose stance but soon he’s ready to take whatever comes his way.

He went into the living room with the Montreal Star but he was too upset to read it. He went back into the kitchen and brought out two quarts of beer. Last of the last. He poured himself a glass, lay down on the sofa and switched the radio on, trying to salvage something out of this miserable bloody evening. He searched for music, for music hath charms and had better have, because, looking back on the day, he had a savage bloody breast on him, all right. Hat in hand to younger men, wife sniveling to strangers, asked to lie his way into some job he’d be caught out in, and what else? Oh, a savage bloody breast.

Ginger’s charm worked in his youth, but now he comes across as sad and pathetic. He dresses somewhat inappropriately and the charm that got him places for all those years now seems tired, stale, and inappropriate.

“Hello there,” Coffey said, jovially advancing with his large hand outstretched, the ends of his mustache lifting into a smile. And Beauchemin took the proffered hand, his mind running back, trying to place this guy. He could not recall him at all. A limey type and, like most limey types, sort of queer. Look at this one with his tiny green hat, short bulky car coat and suede boots. A man that age should know better than to dress like a college boy, Beauchemin thought.

Ginger isn’t a bad man; he’s feckless, happy-go-lucky and convinced that he’s upper-management material. Basically Ginger has to suffer humiliations and grow up; his charm has worn thin, and since the day of reckoning has been delayed for over 2 decades, there are a lot of mortifying experiences along the way to his enlightenment. The underlying argument, of course, is that painful life lessons must be learned and the sooner the better. This is a much slighter novel than the other two I read from this author. I liked it but it wasn’t as powerful. The best parts of the plot concern Ginger’s working life at the newspaper and his camaraderie with fellow employees who all refer to their “Scottish Beelzebub” eagle-eyed boss as Hitler.’

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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I have a soft spot for novels set in boarding houses. Perhaps it’s the interesting possibilities of a houseful of people connected only by the fact they pay rent to the owner of the home. The residents have no shared ground of tastes or interests, apart from a desire for consideration, quiet and cleanliness as so wonderfully conveyed in Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary. This sort of social and economic arrangement is in decline, while ‘group homes’ seem to be in proliferation. Here in America, I see once beautiful Victorian mansions, in the shabbier areas of town, broken down into rooms for rent in “rooming houses.” Zoning rules effectively limit rooming houses, and these days rooming houses have an unsavoury reputation. For the purposes of Brian Moore’s novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, boarding houses are still a decent, respectable way of life for single people who live in modest circumstances, and who desire a safe, clean, quiet place to live.

The Lonely passion of Judith HearneThis particular shabby Belfast boarding house is owned and run by Mrs. Henry Rice, a middle-aged widow. She’s on the nosy side when it comes to her lodgers, and she’s also cheap when it comes to the provided breakfast which consists of tea and toast–with the exception of Sundays, when there’s a fried kipper for each lodger. The morning breakfast ceremony ensures some sort of communication, gives the aura of genteel respectability to the arrangement, reinforces Mrs. Rice’s authority while allowing her to keep an eye on her tenants and lends pretense to the idea that these are guests and not simply unconnected strangers in a boarding house. Breakfast times reveal the drab, parsimonious lives of the boarders, and in one wonderful scene, Mrs. Rice’s lay-about, would-be-poet son, Bernard, is fed bacon, eggs and fried bread while the lodgers sit there, disgruntled, with their toast and tea.

When the novel opens, a new tenant is moving in. It’s Miss Judith Hearne, a spinster in her 40s, who teaches piano for a living. There’s the impression that this latest move is one in a series in a life that’s in descent:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an exploration of loneliness, hypocrisy, the human capacity for self-destruction, and the role of religion as compensation in a life that’s less than satisfactory. Judith Hearne has been able to ply the holes in her life with religion, but this is becoming more difficult. She spent her life devoted to nursing controlling, battle-axe Aunt D’Arcy, now dead. Judith is educated, raised to expect a genteel lifestyle, and could have pursued a career if her aunt had allowed it. Now in her 40s, she survives on a small annuity and considers herself ‘left on the shelf,’ while other women, namely Moira O’Neill, somehow or another snared a man into marriage. Judith looks jealously at married women and envies them, yet are her days for romance and love past?

Judith’s big event of the week is to visit the O’Neill family. Moira O’Neill, who according to Judith is “like some contented hen,” pities Judith while all of the other members of the family poke fun at her and find excuses to avoid her company. The O’Neills are not related to Judith, but she likes to pretend that she’s a maiden aunt. Underneath all of Judith’s coping and genteel behaviour, however, there’s anger and desperation.

You might as well forget about eligible men. Because you’re too late, you’ve missed your market. Then you’re up for any offers. Marked down goods. You’re up for auction , a country auction, where the auctioneer stands up and says what am I bid?  And he starts at a high price, saying what he’d like best. No offers. Then second best. No offers. Third? No offers. What am I bid, Moira? and somebody comes along, laughable, and you take him. If you can take him. Because it’s either that or back on the shelf for you. Back to your furnished rooms and your prayers. And your hopes.

 Judith’s life is already unraveling when she meets James Madden, the landlady’s brother. He’s recently returned from thirty years in America and, to Judith, he carries the aura of exoticism. James Madden, an opportunist with a 10,000 dollar insurance settlement in his pocket, is as lost as Judith. He sees that she’s educated and ladylike, and he also notes the few pieces of valuable jewelry she still owns. James and Judith are drawn to each other–partly because they become allies of sorts in the boarding house, but also Judith is the only person who believes Madden’s stories about his life in America. He says he wants to “marry again and settle down,” and as far as Judith’s concerned, there’s only one way to interpret that statement.

Much of the information about Judith’s descent is given only in hints. We gradually learn that there’s been a series of boarding houses, and then what are all those ‘stories’ spread about Judith and her old friend from convent, Edie? And what’s the real story about Edie, another unattractive single woman permanently locked up–possibly for her own good.

 At times, there’s a giddiness to Judith Hearne regarding the male sex that echoes in Stephen Benatar’s marvelous novel,  Wish Her Safe at Home.  Both Benatar’s middle aged female protagonist, Rachel Waring and Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne are given to flights of fancy when men are in the vicinity. Just as we wince when Rachel makes her social blunders with the male sex, we wince when Judith lathers herself up with rouge. The single female protagonists of Wish Her Safe at Home and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne have a great deal in common, but, for this reader, Rachel, in her cocoon of insanity, has a degree of protection from the real world which Judith lacks. This makes Wish Her Safe at Home a very witty novel whereas The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it contains some funny scenes, is terribly sad.  We can laugh at Rachel Waring’s infatuation with various men as we know that reality will never penetrate her self-vision, but when Judith Hearne creates romantic fantasies, we know that painful reality is just around the corner. 

She watched the glass, a plain woman changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time; for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay to bring to fruition; a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

So she played. Woman, she saw her womanish glass image. Pulled her hair sideways, framing her imagined face with tresses. Gipsy, she thought fondly, like a gipsy girl on a chocolate box.

There’s a film version of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I’ve yet to see.

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The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore

“It’s books, of course, that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some if these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prosecuted. or maybe we should hand out prescriptions for books the way we do for drugs. Not to be taken by mouth. Not for people who can’t read right from wrong. Yes. Because you’re not the heroine of some bloody book.”

It’s probably a big mistake to return to the same city, the same hotel and the same suite you spent your honeymoon in 16 years earlier. If you agree with that statement, you should also agree with the idea that it’s downright careless, stupid, insensitive or cruel to send the wife off on what amounts to a  second honeymoon alone. But that’s just what happens in Brian Moore’s novel The Doctor’s Wife.

Attractive 37 -year-old Sheila Redden arrives in Paris from Belfast. The plan is that she’s to spend the night with Peg, an old friend from university, and then fly on alone to Villefranche where her husband, Kevin, is to join her the next day. In Paris, Sheila meets Peg’s new boyfriend, Ivo and a young American named Tom Lowry. There’s an immediate attraction between Sheila and Tom, and then circumstances lead to them spending a few pleasant hours together.  

Later that evening, a phone call between Kevin and Sheila reveals the underlying pathology of the Reddens’ marriage. Kevin announces, without a shred of regret but with a large dose of self-righteousness, that he’s volunteered to work for the next few days and that Sheila must spend at least the first part of their holiday alone.  He says he’ll join her in a few days:

“But why? They take advantage of you, time and time again. You’re always the one who works extra days. Surely just this once, they’ll have the decency to let you get away in peace.”

“Look, nobody forced me, it was my idea. And besides, it’s just for two more days.”

“But this is our holiday! We’ve been looking forward to it for ages.”

“You have,”  he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, will you stop nagging me. I’ll be in Villefranche on Friday. Just enjoy yourself and lie out in the sun. You don’t need me for that.”

“So you won’t be coming before Friday, is that it?”

“Let’s say Friday night. I’ll give you a ring.”

“Why bother?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t want to come on this holiday, then don’t. You’ll be far happier sitting at home, stuck into the telly.”

“Oh balls.” He was shouting now. “We can’t all live like you, ignoring the facts of life, dancing in the dark.”

It was his oldest jibe. Dancing in the dark. “Suit yourself,” she said.

“I’ll be there on Friday night. Look I’m sorry it turned out like this.”

“You’re not one bit sorry,” she said and hung up.

With the conversation still ringing in her ears, Sheila asks herself  “what did he think a woman did alone in the South of France.” And that, of course becomes the crux of the story. Sheila leaves Paris with some regret and flies to Villefranche. Tom follows her and so begins a passionate affair….

While this is a story of an affair, the backdrop is the story of a marriage–although that doesn’t become apparent until later. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I started The Doctor’s Wife--a book I came to courtesy of Asylum and John Self’s Moore-a-thon. I reasoned that if this blogger went to the trouble of reviewing 8 books by Brian Moore, then I might be missing out if I didn’t try this author. So I went looking for Moore’s books. Most of them are out-of-print and in the fading-out-of-view phase. New York Review Books, however, recently republished The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne reviewed here. After reading that Graham Greene claimed Moore as his “favourite living novelist,” no slight recommendation there, I decided this was more positive press for Moore, but then again both writers had that catholic thing going.  When I read the synopsis of The Doctor’s Wife, I winced at the possibilities of adultery, sin and guilt and hoped that I wasn’t about to step into a book that wheeled in a priest to solve the protagonist’s dilemma. I shouldn’t have troubled myself about Moore’s abilities. The Doctor’s Wife is written with incredible sensitivity towards its main character, Sheila Redden.

As the title suggests Sheila Redden is largely seen as an appendage to her husband, and just who or what she is remains tantalizingly and deliberately vague. This is a woman who never used her university education and whose husband views her with no small degree of contempt.  In a flashback of a particularly painful domestic scene Kevin accuses her of flirtations with their male friend, Brian, and Kevin tells Sheila that when it comes to men  “you make an absolute fool of yourself”  It escalates:

Kevin kept after her, mimicking her, mimicking Brian’s English accent, showing how she got excited when Brian talked about books, and then Kevin started to sing ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ making fun of her, and it was the most awful, hateful, hurtful row, malicious he was, he wouldn’t stop.

Subtly, unobtrusively, The Doctor’s Wife examines the politics of marriage: the power plays, the avoidance, the corrosive rot and decay of years of petty comments between two people who were never compatible in the first place and who are now divided by a chasm of dislike and resentment.

Catholicism does enter the tale but without an absolutist presence. A priest is wheeled in but he somewhat disconcertingly quotes Sartre instead of quoting god.

One of the strongest points that the novel makes is in its connections between the past, the present, and an unknown shadowy future. Stella makes inevitable, solitary comparisons between the original honeymoon and the bitter present.  The differences between the two periods in Stella’s life are striking, and she is left with the sad, yet angry acknowledgement that Kevin would rather find excuses to work than spend a week with his wife in Nice. But this is a comparison of the past and the present. In one passage Sheila calls home and as the phone rings, she conjures up the vision of her home–her life but without her in it:

She heard the phone ringing at home and thought of the black receiver sitting on the worn whorled top of the monk’s bench in the hall below the carved elephant tusks, which held an old brass dinner gong once owned by Kevin’s grandfather. The phone rang and rang. But she knew they were there, sitting in the den at the back, stuck in with the damned telly. 

 The plot addresses the idea that in the past people tolerated miserable mortal life because they expected a payoff after death. Along with this notion of heaven as a payoff for good behaviour, of course goes the idea that sin brings the price of damnation. This idea of the tradeoffs between lives (mortal and immortal) is complemented by Sheila’s belief that another sort of life might be possible.  Sheila’s brother, Owen Deane, who wrestles with his own domestic troubles, wobbles on the arguments of sin, and he realises that while these arguments may have worked in the past, somehow they now seem redundant. To Owen, Sheila voices the thought that:

People escape from their lives . Did you ever read those newspaper stories about the man who walks out of his house saying he’s going down to the corner to buy cigarettes? And he’s never heard from again.

The Doctor’s Wife is a stunning book, a lean, understated tale, full of gray areas of ambiguity that address notions of conformity and habit within the context of an unhappy marriage. I found the book impossible to put down.

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