Warning: I'm in the mood for mysteries again, so there might be a few mystery reviews in upcoming weeks. (And I've had to request some of the book club selections from the library, so while I'm waiting for those I think I'm going to devour a few mysteries.)
Another selection from a browse through the library shelves, I'm happy to have experienced P.D. James at last. I've heard the name before, but I just hadn't gotten around to reading one of her books. In a way, I'm disappointed to have waited so long to enjoy such an excellent author, but then again it's always nice to find and appreciate something new. I realize that James is probably most famous for her detective stories about Adam Dalgliesh, but I wasn't sure which (if any) came first in the series, so I opted for a book that was a stand-alone read. The back cover indicated the following: Philippa Palfrey was adopted as an eight-year old and has virtually no memory of her life before her adoption. She spent much of her childhood imagining that she was the illegitimate daughter of a parlor maid at a country estate and a visiting aristocrat. (Her adopted family gave her few details but suggested such a scenario, and Philippa embraced it gladly. Granted, the story is set in the late 1970s, but then again Philippa is a student of Victorian literature, so it's understandable why it would appeal to her so much.) Upon reaching her eighteenth birthday, Philippa -- who is not particularly close to her adoptive parents -- takes advantage of a change in the English law which allows her to request the names of her biological parents. She was told that her mother died soon after she was born, so she is more interested in finding out the name of her father and whether or not he is still alive. What Philippa discovers truly changes her life.
It turns out that it is Philippa's father who is dead and that he died in prison, arrested and incarcerated for raping a twelve-year old girl ten years before. It also turns out that Philippa's mother is still alive but is also in prison for killing the girl that her father raped and is soon to be paroled. Against the entreaties of her adoptive parents, Philippa decides to contact her mother and suggest that the two spend the summer getting to know each other before Philippa is due to attend Cambridge. Philippa rents a small flat and suggests that her mother come and live with her for a couple of months, without making any demands on each other for the future -- just getting to know each other.
If you're wondering why I've told you all of this up front, it's because none of this information is really a part of the mystery of the story, and the reader is told all of this within the first twenty or so pages. The mystery instead is one of self-discovery: Philippa learning who she is and where she came from, Philippa's mother learning to love her daughter, and Philippa's adoptive family coming to appreciate and love her in a way that they previously failed to do. In particular, Philippa must come to understand that part of her desire to reach out to her birth mother is related to her anger at her adoptive father, who was always kind and generous but never really loving as a father should be. Along the way, Philippa must also come to terms with the truth about her adoption and why her mother allowed her to be adopted in the first place. But most of all, the story centers around the very complex idea of love and family.
This is also a deeply psychological story that takes the reader on a journey through the minds of several important characters: Philippa (obviously), her adoptive father Maurice Palfrey, and Norman Scase, the man whose daughter was raped and murdered at the hands of Philippa's parents and who has vowed revenge against her mother. James has a way of exploring metaphor and the mind, and she is constantly taking the reader deeper and deeper into the motives of these characters. I have no idea where James stands on religious issues, but she strikes me as someone who doesn't entirely understand the Christian faith but is unable to ignore it or discount it. At the same time, she doesn't offer simple solutions for anything that her characters do, and there is no clean moment at the end of the book in which everyone sits down and explains his or her side of the story. Nor is there a clear moment of repentance or contrition, so to speak, but the understanding is that atonement is made. There is quite a lot that is left vague, but it makes for a far more realistic mystery than something that, say, Agatha Christie wrote. It's as though James is saying that ultimately the greatest mystery is human beings themselves.