Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Passing On

Passing On is a 1989 novel by prolific author Penelope Lively. I enjoy her writing. This book explores the aftermath of the death of a mother of three grown children. The mother's presence continues to occupy Helen's thoughts, and it's Helen's story we get. Parts of the tale are quite unpleasant, but parts of life are unpleasant.

from the back of the book:
Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively is that rare writer who goes from strength to strength in book after perfectly assured book. In Passing On, she applies her distinctive insight and consummate artistry to the subtle story of a domineering and manipulative mother's legacy to her children. With their mother's death, Helen and Edward, both middle-aged and both unmarried, are left to face the ramifications of their mother's hold on their lives for all of these years. Helen and Edward slowly learn to accept what has been lost in their own lives and embrace what can yet be retrieved.
favorite quotes:
At the time, fatal steps are seldom recognized as such.
[When asked by the lawyer after the funeral if they needed more advice] Helen racked her brains. Advice? Surely they needed advice? Of course they needed advice; she reviewed, in a flash, the whole unsatisfactory condition of Greystones, of her state of mind, of life itself. How can we stop the drain flooding whenever it rains? Why do I have to feel guilty because my mother has died? How can I achieve a comforting complacency?

"I can't think of anything."
Distant, hazy, dead Daddy. Long since drowned out by other voices, other opinions; bleached now to a faded outline, a few mannerisms, a vague remembered preference for anchovy paste as opposed to jam. Could a lifetime be reduced to that?
[after a reflection by Helen on what their mother was like] The others stared at her. "I'm not sure you should say all this," said Edward rather wildly.

"What's the difference between saying it and thinking it. And it's true. And it can't hurt her now because she'd dead. Also, it doesn't mean I feel any differently about her.

There was a silence. Louise, eventually, spoke. "What did you feel about her?"

"I loved her, I suppose," said Helen. "One does, willy-nilly."

"Sometimes I hated her," said Louise.

"Oh, that too."

The NYT closes its review with this:
On the surface, certainly, ''Passing On'' reads like a fine piece of miniaturist work, depicting the course of two circumscribed lives within a small, circumscribed community. Yet at the same time, it subtly opens out into an evocative examination of familial history; it shows the reader how the geometry of childhood emotion affects and alters the arc of grown-up lives; how temperament conspires with circumstance to shape individual choices, how the past may be made to yield clues about the present.
Kirkus Reviews describes it as "An exquisitely patterned and witty tribute to pacific souls indecently victimized -who ""make do"" firmly through psychic crises in a world of ""making it."

I've also read Moon Tiger and The Photograph.


  1. Another one for the list. Those quotes really got to me. Thanks!

    1. I can feel her characters as real people. I pick up books by her whenever I see them.