In Margaret Forster’s Isa and May, Isamay, looking at 30, is struggling to focus on her thesis, and no wonder–the vast subject is grandmothers in history. She has landed on a few significant figures, including Elizabeth Fry, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Victoria and has several questions that she chews over: such as how do grandmothers view their roles? She’s looking for “links, consequences, direct connections” between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Isamay’s research, so far, draws no solid conclusion. Some grandmothers are “figures of authority” while others see being a grandmother as a chance to ‘do over’ motherhood. Some just enjoy it. It’s clear that Isamay’s thesis is unmanageable and her unsatisfying meetings with her advisor Claudia, usually don’t go well. Claudia, however, doesn’t dismiss Isamay’s project completely, and tries to add direction:
When someone assumed a new role in life, she said, they tend to copy or to reject the example of whoever has filled that role for them.
But at the heart of Isamay’s thesis is her desire to understand her own grandmothers: Isa and May. They are two very different women.
It will be obvious by now that I am obsessed with Isa and May, my grandmothers, or more precisely, I am obsessed by their significance without being sure what it is.
May is solidly, proudly, working class. She left school at 14 and worked in a factory. She tends to hide her personality in frustrating statements that block any discussion so that it’s impossible to know her beliefs or tell if she has an inner life. Here’s Isamay trying to discover May’s opinions on god.
“God is supposed to be a spiritual power,” I said, “Not actually a person.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“He is supposed to be an almighty spirit who created the universe and sent his son Jesus Christ to save us all.”
“Very kind of him.”
“But the point is, as I said, he is a spiritual presence, or idea…”
“Make your mind up.”
“…whose existence we can’t properly grasp because our minds can’t fully comprehend–“
“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, stop it! You’re making me poorly. Haven’t I gone through enough?”
“All I’m saying is that some very clever people believe in God…”
“Good luck to them.”
“So you don’t, then?”
“Believe in God.”
“Did I say that?”
“Well then, don’t twist my words.”
Isa is the complete opposite. Whereas it’s ok to drop in on May, Isa requires appointments. Isa is always immaculately groomed and lives a much more affluent lifestyle. May calls Isa, “Lady Muck,” while Isa calls May “Mrs. Wright.” “They were mutually suspicious” of each other from the moment they met. It’s no surprise that the two grandmothers don’t like each other and that Isamay is their battleground. Both grandmothers contributed a great deal to Isamay’s life and outlook. When the grandmothers become ill, Isamay steps in, and she’s also hot on the trail of some deep dark secret that Isa keeps deeply buried. Another subplot concerns Ian, Isamay’s boyfriend. On one hand he’s extremely supportive, but on the other, when it comes to the subject of family, he’s downright hostile, so there are secrets there too.
Not the best Forster I’ve read. The sections regarding Isamay’s research were interesting but Isamay’s inability to harness her thesis and batter it into shape impacts the novel. That said, the warring grandmothers are great. While these two women could not be more different, there’s a connection when it comes to walling off their inner lives.
My money’s on May any day.