Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan
Rating: •••• (Highly Recommended)
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In her new novel, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, Elizabeth Buchan captures the full range of emotions that protagonist Rose faces when her husband, Nathan, leaves her for a relationship with Rose’s assistant. Rose then loses her job, which the assistant also gets. In the hands of a lesser talent, this book could have turned into the Book of Job for modern Englishwomen, or some version of a Greek tragedy. With Buchan’s skills, readers can travel with Rose as she goes through all the stages of grief. Never maudlin, always right on pitch, Buchan allows Rose to transform her life in a gradual and realistic way. As readers come to know Rose, how she deals with the changes in her life suit her character perfectly. As to what happens to other characters, read Revenge, and find out for yourself.
Here are two excerpts to showcase Buchan’s fine writing. In the following selection (pp. 162-5), we see Rose in a state of depression, matching her prized garden:
It took me a little time to get back on my feet. Not only was I weak but, without the routines of work and play, the days felt soft-set, like underdone eggs. I was used to them being quite different, all neatly stacked up and filed. ;
The garden told me that summer was here: a languid seraglio, swooning with scent and covered in foaming, lacy white. When I felt up to it, I pushed open the French windows and stepped outside. I knew it so well. Each brick in the wall. The hole in the lawn dug by the squirrel. The intersection where the fence had rotted. When the children were small they had demanded grass to play football and French cricket on, but as they grew older, like the Dutchman claiming the polders, I snatched back my flowerbeds.
The olive in its pot was sway-backed and gray-green. It meant peace. It meant home. It meant green oil smelling of thyme and marjoram into which to dip a crust of bread. It
meant good things.
Hal had given me the olive after our second expedition together, walking through the Mani peninsula. Thin, dirty, dusty, happy, we were on our way home. In Kieros we sat under a clump of olive trees and waited for the bus to take us north to Athens, and ate bread and feta cheese. The sun blazed and dry harvest dust drifted in the hot air. Up in the valley, laden donkeys toiled up the slope and poppies bloomed at the edges of the fields and by the road. I leaned back on my rucksack and thought that I had never seen anywhere so harshly beautiful: gray-green olives, stony scrub, scarlet poppies and the blue of the sky. He chose that beautiful, wonderful, hot moment to tell me that he planned to stay in England for the time being. Why? I asked. He got out his penknife and scrambled to his feet. You know why, he said, with his back turned.
He excised a twig with a wedge of bark at the end and presented it to me. Cosseted in dampened tissue, it lay hidden in my rucksack until we got home. I mixed earth and compost in one of Ianthe's pots, but not too rich for a tree that likes heat and dust, and planted it. Olive trees didn't grow in this climate—Ianthe was suspicious and unhelpful—hadn't I noticed?
But I persevered and, one day, two buds were pushing through.
Now I pinched a leaf between my fingers. A breeze had sprung up and, depleted by illness, it made me shiver.
As I paced the garden, depression settled over me like a cold fog. In the absence of my care, the Iceberg had grown thin and attenuated. The Buff Beauty was half buried by the Solatium and I had failed to go to its rescue. My roses were unused to neglect and poured over their stems, feeding on the infant buds, was an undulating sheath of greenfly. I stopped, seized a branch of "Ispahan" and, not caring that the thorns drove into me, ran nay finger and thumb down it. That was the way to kill greenfly.
A yellow and green stain flared over my fingers. I bent down and wiped them on the grass. Then I went indoors, closed and locked the French windows behind me.
I did not want to go back into the garden. I cannot explain, but I felt it had let me down.
Ianthe made her weekly call. "Have you talked to Nathan? Have you?"
Robert Dodd rang (calls charged at twenty pounds). Nathan had asked him to discuss the separation details with me, the settlement of which was going to be expensive.
Poppy rang from God knew where to report that she was alive.
Mazarine rang from Paris. "You must come."
"I can't," I said. "I don't want to go anywhere." I looked out of the window at the street, which appeared unimaginably wide, and felt my knees tremble. The more time went by, the less I felt capable of negotiating the outside. "I'm finding it difficult to leave the house."
"Listen to me. You can. It will help you to forget the terrible Nathan and your little job."
"It was not a little job."
"If you say so, chere."
Curator of a left-bank art gallery. Mazarine still cherished her high intellectual standards and the tussle between her exacting vision and my populist leanings had given us much pleasure over the years. According to the flyer she sent over, the current show was a deconstruction of the mythology of underwear.
I made a huge effort and pulled myself together. "How are the knickers?"
"Stop it," she hissed down the phone. "I will expect you
In the following excerpt (pp. 201-4), Rose sees her first-love, Hal, after many years:
He leaned forward until our faces almost touched. “One thing I've always wanted to know. Did you have children in the end, Rose?"
"Two. A son and a daughter. Did you?"
"No, and I can't make up my mind if that's a relief or not."
There was a thoughtful silence and I thought of many possible replies. Again, I chose the most neutral. "You had other things to do, Hal." I began to feel more comfortable with this encounter, and very curious. "Tell me about the olive farm in Italy."
He relaxed in the chair. "At the moment the house is a tip, but the country is beautiful. The trees need a bit of attention, which I'm hoping to give them." He drank some brandy. "Second question. Did that olive cutting ever take?"
"It did. It's in my garden."
We caught each other's eye, and shades of the young Hal and the young me rose between us, impudently demanding readmission. A waiter edged past the table with an armful of tablecloths and I concentrated on that. "Seems odd making small talk with you," I said eventually.
"Okay. Let's move it on. I often wonder . . ."
"Don't." I looked down at my ringless left hand.
Hal followed my train of thought. "You mustn't fret." He spoke in the sweet, disarming way that I had known so well. "I don't. Not a good idea."
This was so Hal, and I laughed. "I knew you wouldn't fret. I knew you would be glad, and you were. You were perfectly free to do as you wished."
"Yes and no." He placed his hand on my bare arm and the flesh pricked under his fingers. "I'm not saying I didn't mind, Rose, because I did. But you taught me that you have to move on. You grow out of situations. They don't suit any longer. It happens. Of course I don't know the circumstances but you mustn't castigate yourself." He assessed the remains of the brandy in the glass. "If you can manage it, it's best to see it as an opportunity."
Hal was making it easy and I began to feel ridiculously light-hearted. "You haven't changed a bit. My husband has run off with a younger woman and it's opportunity knocking?" I put my glass on the table and noted that it was almost empty. "That's the kind of comment one makes years afterward, when it's all dead and past. But Mazarine—do you remember her?—would agree with you."
"So, you think it's too calculating to view it in that way?"
"But you made a cold calculation when you left me." He spoke evenly and without malice.
"Not cold, Hal." I looked up at him. "It seemed for the best of reasons at the time."
He rolled the stem of the glass between his fingers. "I'm sorry you've had a bad time." He smiled gently. "Would your husband's leaving have been less awful for you if the woman had been older rather than younger?"
"God knows. Possibly. It's useful having a hate figure, and if she'd been a nice hard-done-by widow, it's possible I might have felt differently." I brushed down the black dress over my knees. "Now the first shock is over I keep thinking about silly things, like how are we going to divide the china and who will take the gumboots? We have an archive of gumboots." I knew perfectly well I was veering from the point. "Actually, the woman, Minty, was my assistant and a friend, and while she was at it she took my job."
He raised an eyebrow. "Go on. We're making interesting small talk."
I took the last sustaining mouthful of brandy. "First I lost Nathan. That was bad enough. Then it was as if a wand had been waved and I was invisible. From having a settled position as a wife and all that that meant, I was suddenly the blurred figure in the background of a painting or photograph. You know, one of the nameless ones left behind to sweep up the manure after Napoleon's cavalcade has swept through. The ones who are asked to wait until last to climb on to the life raft. I don't mind being a nameless one—probably very good for the soul—but it was a shock" Emptied of my brandy words, I peered at him."Hal, am I talking sense? No, I don't think I am, but never mind."
The door to the dining room opened.
"Hal," interrupted a voice, "there you are. I've been looking for you."
A publicist I vaguely recognized had stuck her head round the door. "I've got Jayson Verey from Cariton who wants to see you. Can you come?"
The room had grown chilly and, emptied of its glitter, depressing. I bugged my flowerpot handbag. The publicist looked uncertainly between Hal and me. "It's Rose, isn't it?" Her forehead puckered. "I'm sure we've met."
"We have," I said. "You came to a Christmas party last year that I gave at the paper."
"Did I?" Her face cleared. "Oh, of course."
Hal got up, kissed my cheek and followed the girl out of the dining room. "I'll see you," he said.
Buchan writes with grace, wit, charm and poignancy. Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman tells a story with all those gifts and more.
Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Revenge.htm
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