- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
The Sea Ladyby Margaret Drabble
Synopses & Reviews
“Seductive as the tides, it pulls the reader in.” -Publishers Weekly
Two distinguished guests are traveling separately to a ceremony where they will meet for the first time in three decades. Both are apprehensive as they review the successes and failures of their public lives and their shared personal history.
Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman met as children by the gray North Sea to which they are returning. Humphrey was a serious child, drawn to the underwater world of marine biology. For her part, Ailsa could kick and bite like a pony, and she was as brave as a scorpion, qualities that foreshadowed her dazzling transformation into a flamboyant feminist celebrity. Margaret Drabble traces the evolution of their careers and their passionately entangled relationship, and brings them together again to see what they will make of their past and in what spirit they will be able to face the future.
At her acute, witty best, Margaret Drabble examines the ways in which place, chance, and time merge to make us what we are.
"Margaret Drabble's new novel about a renowned marine biologist and a famous feminist critic is a study of evolution, but it's also a convincing example of intelligent design. Almost the entire story takes place while two people who haven't seen each other for decades travel by separate trains to a town in northern England that they haven't visited since childhood. It's hard to imagine a more static... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) plot ('Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'), but while these two characters sit stuck in their seats for almost 300 pages, Drabble draws us into the past, 'through the metamorphoses of time,' laying out the significant moments of their lives like a set of fossil records, complete with fascinating signs of progress and inexplicable missing links. It's a thoroughly enchanting blend of scientific erudition, social satire and domestic comedy from a novelist who continues to surprise us. The language of marine biology washes across every page of 'The Sea Lady,' sometimes in discussions of discoveries and controversies, but more often as witty metaphor. Drabble notes in the acknowledgments that her inspiration for this story came from serving as a judge of a science book contest, and we meet her heroine, a flamboyant woman in her 60s named Ailsa Kelman, officiating at such an awards ceremony. 'She appeared to have dressed herself as a mermaid,' Drabble begins, 'in silver sequined scales. Her bodice was close-fitting, and the metallic skirt clung to her solid hips before it flared out below the knees, concealing what might once have been her tail.' In the ocean room of a London museum, she announces the finalists while standing beneath 'life-size models of sharks and dolphins.' With cameras rolling and the audience hushed, 'Ailsa Kelman shimmered and glittered as she approached her watery climax.' Meanwhile, Dr. Humphrey Clark has already boarded a train and started to feel waves of anxiety and regret. He's been invited to a new university in Ornemouth to accept an honorary degree for his life as a marine biologist. He pursued his career when it was still possible 'to be a serious scientist and to adopt a quasi-mystical approach to the natural world. It was still possible to regard the sea as a sea of faith.' The train ride provides him ample time to consider the ebbing of his life. 'How can he think for one moment that he has a hope, a chance, a possibility of redemption?' the narrator asks, giving voice to the currents of Humphrey's despair. 'He must learn to face the silence of the ending. The bell tower condemns him. The bell tower mocks him.' Humphrey lived in Ornemouth for several years as a boy during the war, and the trip back, 'like the salmon going up the falls,' reminds him of barefoot summers when 'the richness of the unknown world was almost unbearable to him.' These reminiscences are brilliantly drawn, full of charm and humor and the poignant intensity of childhood hopes and fears. 'Humpy' — an unfortunate nickname — was passionately devoted to another boy before their seaside antics were disrupted by the arrival of a bossy little girl named Ailsa Kelman, who 'had spread like an infestation of algae.' We gradually learn the extent of that infestation over the course of the novel as Humphrey travels — unknowingly — toward a reunion with the remarkable and outlandish woman Ailsa has become. Once Ailsa 'had been as beautiful to him as a zebra shark,' Drabble notes, but that was years ago before 'she had blotted him out' to begin a meteoric career as a public personality, a feminist provocateur, a ubiquitous (some might say, vulgar) cultural critic. 'She has worn an aborted foetus on a chain around her neck, and submitted to a cervical examination on television. ... She has appeared in court as a witness in defence of oral sex, risque art galleries, sodomy and sin.' We even get to see Ailsa deliver an iconoclastic lecture on Byron and Delacroix that substantiates the claims made about her wide-ranging scholarship and theatrical flair. All of this comes across in Drabble's marvelous tour of the 1960s, "70s and "80s. The genius of her prose is an ability to be incisive and satiric without sticking her characters on the end of a pin the way her older sister, A.S. Byatt, does in her own brilliant but increasingly impersonal novels. Drabble likes these people, no matter how obnoxious they can be. She appreciates their secret frailty and sympathizes with the anxieties that ripple beneath their confidence. How nice it would be to end here in a little flurry of praise, but there's something very odd swimming in the depths of this novel. Forty pages in, after the introduction of both characters, the narrative breaks off: 'The Public Orator pauses here, to take stock of what has happened so far. The Orator, a withdrawn, black-gowned, hooded, neuter, neutral and faceless figure, confronts choice.' This figure — not exactly the narrator — intrudes periodically throughout the novel ('The Public Orator pauses here' again), and he even seems to enter as a character toward the end. But it doesn't add much, except a touch of rather dated postmodernism, innovative in, say, Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town,' but a weary intrusion now. By the end, the novel tries to deconstruct itself, which is like watching a fish eat its own tail: 'We were brought up to believe that stories have meanings and that meanings have stories and that journeys have ends,' the Public Orator announces. 'We were brought up to believe that there would be an ending, that there would be completion. ... But now we know that that's not true.' But in fact, it is true, as this novel about the complicated reunion of old friends makes charmingly clear. Begone, Public Orator, and let us enjoy the stories and the meanings of these two remarkable people. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Marie AranaElizabeth McCrackenMargaret MacMillanJonathan YardleyRon Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
Advance Praise for The Sea Lady
“It is a pleasure to read The Sea Lady and find again the canny, cagey, unfooled, intransigent author of The Needles Eye…Drabbles generous and unsentimental truthfulness to the condition of childhood is very rare.” -Ursula Le Guin, The Guardian
“[A] dense, fascinating novel…Drabble writes beautifully about the passing of time and the sad, incomplete experience of human love.” -The New Statesman
“But for all its dark knowledge, oceanic psychology, and spiny social critique, Drabbles novel is as scintillating as a sunny day on board a fast-moving sailboat on the life-sustaining sea.” -Booklist (starred)
About the Author
MARGARET DRABBLE is the author of many novels and the editor of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. She lives in London.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like