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January 11, 1987|Merle Rubin

ONLY YESTERDAY by Julian Gloag (Holt: $15.95; 170 pp.). The action of this brief novel, the author's eighth, takes place over one weekend when three generations of the Darley family converge on the grandparents' rambling home in the English countryside. Oliver, the grandfather, is a grumpy, opinionated old man, an architect who still cherishes the dream of building a vast "pyramid," a climate-controlled utopia capable of supporting a population of 50,000. His wife, May, a gentle, intelligent woman, is physically frail, but emotionally strong. She has been advised to check into a hospital but is worried about leaving her husband on his own. The Darleys are expecting a visit from their granddaughter, Miranda, a medical student. They are surprised when their son Rupert (Miranda's father) shows up as well. He is worried about how they will take his latest news: He is leaving his second wife.

This is a quiet, low-key, gently humorous novel that skillfully depicts the tensions among a group of people who care deeply for one another. Sometimes the tension masks the caring, often the tension is the result of caring. The characters are recognizable--perhaps even too familiar as types: Oliver, the curmudgeon; May, the self-sacrificing woman; Rupert, the middle-age man with a mid-life crisis, and young Miranda, practical, tough-minded, unsentimental and wise beyond her years. But it is a convincing group portrait, gracefully composed.

In writing about old age, Julian Gloag has avoided the opposing extremes of sentimentality and bitterness and chosen instead a tone that fully conveys the sadness of age, infirmity and impending death without allowing these very real shades to overwhelm the book's sense of the equally real pleasures of ordinary life.

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