It’s official, I’m a Dorothy Whipple fan to the core. Last year I read my first Whipple novel, The Priory. I enjoyed that book, although I thought everything tied up too nicely in the end. Someone at a Distance was a more engaging and thought-provoking read and even though I thought the ending too optimistic this novel is certainly more complex. WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!!!
Avery and Ellen North have been married for twenty years and have two children (Ann, 15ish, and Hugh, 19ish). Avery and Ellen are quite happy and comfortable with one another at the start of the novel, but by the end their marriage has ended in divorce, the children are embittered, Avery has a drinking problem, and Ellen feel utterly alone. The marriage unravels slowly and I could see its undoing and felt horribly helpless as I watched two people who love each other become so distant. The “home-wrecker” in this novel is a French woman, Louise, who is a lying, greedy, vain sociopath.
While reading Someone at a Distance I found myself voicing some modern complaints to Ellen as wife and Avery as husband. I don’t like that Ellen is a doormat to Avery. Avery is almost childlike in his sulky pride and inability to take care of himself. Ellen keeps him focused, centered, and freshly laundered, and sober, and fed. Truly, Ellen is the binding force in the family: she is strong for the children, she gains independence, she even goes to work and finds away to start fresh in a new home … and yet she still decides that as soon as the children are completely grown with families of their own she will go back to Avery. My modern sensibilities were piqued. Still, I know that in 1953 (when the novel was published) women were expected to cling to the husband.
Someone at a Distance is the type of novel one finds oneself thinking of well after the reading is over. I found the psychology of the characters immensely interesting and the plot was — emotionally painful — but richly written.