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Discarded woman's graceful evolution

November 19, 2002|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

There's the coming-of-age novel, the first-love novel, the blossoming family novel, even the middle-age, on-the-cusp-of-divorce novel, but few works of fiction take seriously the perils and challenges, joys and quiet surrender of the latter years. British writer Margaret Drabble's lovely "The Seven Sisters" treads gently in this oft-neglected territory, illuminating the rich texture and thoughtfulness to be found there.

Candida Wilton is in many ways a discarded woman. Having lived a legion of carefully scripted years, she finds herself estranged from her three adult daughters and cast aside by her longtime husband, who has remarried. She leaves the comforts of her former life in quiet Suffolk as the wife of a respected headmaster to begin anew, alone, in a seedy part of London.

With neither friends nor family nearby, she resides austerely, walking graffiti-pocked streets, passing the drug addicts and drunks that inhabit her neighborhood. "I don't like the pigeon mess, and the old mattresses, and the broken bottles, and the people who lurk near the bottle bank. My heart beats a little faster as I walk under those two bridges."

The past is gone. The opportunities of her earlier life, particularly in relation to her children, are forever washed away. "There is no way back to the shapeless tumble of the small nest of hopeful and unfinished people that they once were," she writes in her journal, the text of which constitutes the novel. "The reel cannot be wound back. The cards cannot be put back in the pack."

Candida's current choices are not a form of penance for the unconscious life she'd previously lived. Rather, they represent a kind of dilation of the self, an enlarging of her life to unforeseen potential. "As a nun enters a convent in search of her god, so I entered my solitude. I felt fear, and I felt hope."

Initially, contacts with people in her new neighborhood are few. Candida joins a class studying Virgil's "Aeneid," only to find it disbanded when the building is to be redone into a health club. So as to not be completely isolated from humanity, she joins the resultant club; it's often the only place she hears her name aloud, the only time she speaks with another person all day. "I know they know my name only because it's written on my Club Pass ... but hearing it does remind me of who I am."

Moving gracefully through this paring-down process, Candida eliminates all that's not necessary in an effort to discover that which is vital. Female friends begin, ever so slowly, to populate her life, and her intellectual curiosity, reignited by her brief study of Virgil, is enkindled. Once released from the bondage of familial ties and social obligations, her latter years begin to resemble her season at boarding school, before the needs of men and children usurped her energy. She again indulges the pleasures of learning, the joy of female companionship and the nourishment found in one's self.

"I should feel powerless, but I do not.... I feel more powerful than I did when I was a new and beloved bride, than when I became three times a mother and could rule over small lives. I cannot explain this sense of power."

Thanks to an unforeseen inheritance, Candida takes the impetuous step of arranging a group trip for her budding cohort of friends, a journey that will follow the mythical path of Aeneas from Carthage to Naples and extend the women's study of Virgil. Together, these "seven sisters," subtly representing the periods of Candida's life, accompany her on an archetypal pilgrimage.

Although the journey becomes the centerpiece of the book, the tale of Candida's slow evolution as an individual offers the most compelling writing. Unsentimental and sharply drawn, Drabble's first-person narration of Candida's solitude is incisive, demonstrating the way that the simplest daily activity, such as shopping for one's dinner, can become utterly fresh and strange. Artfully, Drabble captures the experience of shocking newness commingled with sorrow, the uncertain balance between extant potential and lost opportunities. We may read along to see what the sibyl in the cave has to say to Candida, but we remain grateful for the way Drabble has made Candida's inner journey the real story.

Over the years, Drabble has created an impressive oeuvre with more than a dozen novels (among them "The Peppered Moth" and "The Ice Age") and numerous works of short fiction, many of which chronicle the passage of her generation through time and seasons. Focusing now on the inconstancies and richness of the aging life, she has again shepherded to the page a fertile muse.


The Seven Sisters

A Novel

Margaret Drabble

Harcourt: 308 pages, $25

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