Victoria Clayton published two children's novels in her early twenties (in the late 1960s), returned to Cambridge to earn a degree in English, married, and had two children before she wrote Out of Love, her first novel for adults. The story, about two school friends who are reunited after many years, is essentially a fairy tale. What happens when the handsome falls in love with the fairy godmother instead of the princess? Min is happily married to Robert, the mother of two children, living in a slightly ramshackle manor house in Lancashire. Homemaking is not one of Min's talents: the house is a mess, she's a dismal cook, her children are mildly neglected, her husband is grumpy, and her dog is flatulent from eating leftover cabbage because Min keeps forgetting to buy dog food. Enter Min's school friend Daisy, a beautiful Cambridge academic, who comes for a brief visit and ends up staying for weeks. During her stay at Weston Hall, Daisy puts the house in order, solves various problems in the children's lives, introduces French cuisine, buys dog food—and falls mutually in love with Min's husband, Robert (a classicist).
Like Victoria Clayton, Daisy studied English at university, and the story, which Daisy narrates, is filled with references to English literature—especially George Eliot, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë. The conversations between characters are often rather self-consciously literary. Here Daisy argues that if Jane Eyre had really loved Rochester, she would have sacrificed respectability for him and run away with him despite his mad wife—
"But plenty of lovers did run off with each other despite the social conventions of the times," I persisted. "Think of George Eliot in real life. It was only sever or eight years after the publication of Jane Eyre that she went off with Lewes."Victoria Clayton resembles the English novelist Elizabeth Taylor in her self-conscious appropriation of the tradition of British women's writing. Like Taylor's A View of the Harbour, Out of Love is a novel about readers and writers attempting to cope with real life. Daisy has mastered the reading list on love, but how will she handle the practicum? Clayton, though she writes well, lacks Taylor's fluid style, and her characters often seem to be holding a seminar rather than having a conversation. The literary references come thick and fast—beginning with a reference to Nancy Mitford on page 3 and ending with a reference to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis on page 371.
"We must distinguish between the experience of love and the expression of it," said Robert. "When the expression of love is suppressed to save inflicting pain on others, that must be a noble restraint. Most people are much too selfish."
George Eliot is a recurring presence in Out of Love. Daisy gives Min two gifts: a biography of George Eliot and a leather-bound copy of Eliot's novel Felix Holt, The Radical. The Mill on the Floss is also mentioned several times. Eliot was infamous in nineteenth-century England for living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, who was in an open marriage with his wife (who also had children by another man). Out of Love is set in the late 1960s, after the Summer of Love, and flirts with the fantasy of an open marriage involving Min, Daisy and Robert. Clayton explores the attractions and the costs of unfaithfulness, and the ties that bind together friends and husbands and wives.
Out of Love is an enjoyable summer read for Anglophiles, English majors, and readers looking for a more literate romance novel.
Update. Jim (see comments) wants to know: Did I like this novel? Yes. It had its flaws, but it was entertaining and interesting enough to hold my attention. I seldom review books that I don't like, because I usually don't keep reading them to the end.