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Book Review

Powerful Sense of Place Permeates Coming-of-Age Tale

Mary George of Allnorthover, \o7 By Lavinia Greenlaw\f7 , Houghton Mifflin, $24, 272 pages

July 16, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The title of Lavinia Greenlaw's first novel conjures up memories of a certain old-fashioned kind of coming-of-age novel: "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," "Anne of Green Gables." The juxtaposition of person and place suggests a significant link between the two: a heroine formed by the place where she has grown up, emerging from that place into the wider world. (Although "the D'Urbervilles" are a family, not a place, this link between person and place even holds true for Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles.") The place is often rural, small, close to the earth, yet distinctive: a setting that nurtures, that is fondly remembered, that continues to fortify and ground the protagonist even after she or he may have left it behind.

Place is indeed a key element in Greenlaw's strongly written account of a 17-year-old girl growing up in a rather dilapidated, almost seedy, village in Essex in the 1970s. Like the rest of England, Allnorthover is beset by power cuts, gasoline shortages and a long summer drought. Cramped, shrinking and not very picturesque, Allnorthover is a far cry from the quaint little hamlets memorialized by so much of English poetry and fiction.

Mary George, a sensitive, moody, extremely nearsighted girl with a penchant for black clothing and a tendency to misplace her glasses, is very much looking forward to leaving this dull backwater once she graduates from high school. But to others, Allnorthover is a real home. Twenty years earlier, Mary's parents, Matthew and Stella, came to here fresh from art school in London. Stella, who'd lived in the city all her life, was thrilled to be returning with her husband to the village where his family had lived for generations.

Father Barclay, one of the two local priests, chose to come to Allnorthover because, as he explains, "it seemed that everything belonged, and had belonged for centuries. People don't lock their doors. They know and help each other.... I liked the notion of unbroken lines, of things that stay in place." But Stella's husband and Mary's father, Matthew George, an architect, failed to stay in place: He divorced Stella and moved away, leaving his ex-wife and daughter to live on in the cottage where he grew up. Worse yet, he also was instrumental in drastically changing Allnorthover by causing a reservoir to be built in the little hollow that had previously been the site of the home of Iris Hepple, the woman who practically raised him after his mother died shortly after his birth.

Now dead herself, Iris was so devoted to Matthew that her own twin sons, Christie and Tom, were jealous. Christie has since married and is raising a family, but Tom, who in youth had seemed the more interesting of the two, has been in and out of mental institutions for over a decade. Christie's wife, Sophie, had met Tom first: He had been "beautiful and clever, and she had taken his trouble for sensitivity and his agitation for great thoughts. She hadn't had to get too close before realizing that he was a very bad idea--and then there had been Christie."

As the novel opens, Tom has been released, given his prescription for anti-psychotics and sent "home" to Allnorthover, where Christie is determined to look after him. Tom fixates on young Mary, who seems to him to have the ability to walk on water. He is convinced that she is the key to locating the house he grew up in, now somewhere beneath the waters of the reservoir. Mary, however, feels no interest in Tom: Indeed, she tries to avoid him. She longs for the company of her elusive father, resents her perfectly nice mother, spends a lot of time smoking dope, going to dances and parties, and skittishly responding to the overtures of her first real boyfriend.

Myopic in more ways than one, Mary is a rather maddening heroine: a typically self-involved postmodern adolescent, who is so busy feeling self-conscious and sorry for herself, she seldom stops to think what effect her behavior might have on those around her. Yet Greenlaw portrays her and the other characters with such conviction, accuracy and nuance that we can't help being drawn into the story. And when it comes to evoking a sense of place, Greenlaw provides us with a powerful impression of Allnorthover, the nearby towns and countryside. The action is suspenseful, the dialogue acutely rendered, and the book as a whole is exceptionally well thought out, well written and well paced.

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