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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 15th, 2001


The Peppered Moth

by Margaret Drabble

A review by Christina Schwarz

Burrowing under the present and layering her story with metaphor, Margaret Drabble explores the persistence of the past, for better and for worse. From a very early age Bessie Bawtry, born at the start of the twentieth century in the filthy Yorkshire coal-mining valley where her family has lived "since the end of the Ice Age," knows that "whatever the cost, she must escape or die." Drabble traces Bessie's life in an extraordinarily rich and lively tale of mothers and daughters and maiden aunts at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Although she leaves ugly Hammervale, intelligent, pretty, shy Bessie cannot escape the depression, "the infection of habit," passed matrilineally from generation to generation. Her patient husband, on his deathbed, remarks that "she's not the sweetheart that she used to be," and Chrissie, her daughter, tries unsuccessfully to remember a time when her mother was not bitter and contemptuous.

It is painful to learn, in her forthright afterword, that Drabble based Bessie on her mother, to whom she dedicates the book; but, amazingly, she probes the despair that accompanies attachment to those who are extremely difficult without rendering the novel itself depressing. Relieved by Chrissie, Chrissie's energetic and loving daughter, Faro, and a full and varied array of minor characters over three generations, together with a detailed examination of the artifacts that come with them, this book fairly bounces. Its zest derives in large part from the perfectly sustained tone, which expresses humor without poking fun, and deep regret without sentimentality.

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