Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
[the narrator, Frances, is insinuating herself into a family of privileged Londoners; she has been invited to meet Polly, the daughter of the family, at an upmarket café-restaurant]
The place is full, and even though most of the people present are conducting business, there’s something sparkly and frivolous in the air. The atmosphere crackles with gossip and speculation. And cash. The place is full of cash.
Little groups of women in proper jewellery, drinking Bloody Marys. A captain of industry joking with a newspaper proprietor. A film star in shorts and heavy stubble sitting alone, eating an omelette and pencilling his way through a pile of notes…
Polly, seated at a table in the central circle, reaches over to kiss me hello. She looks different again today, a little Nouvelle Vague in a beanie and tight striped jersey, with lots of eyeliner, but I’m realizing this is part of her look: she can take it in any direction, at will.
observations: Frances is about to get dumped with the bill here, but will feel it is well worth it (even though she copied Polly’s order of muesli rather than choosing the eggs Benedict she would have preferred). She encounters the family – rich, well-connected, the father a prize-winning author – by chance, and builds on the connection thoroughly, efficiently and patiently. At the start of the book she is quiet, unnoticed, put-upon. By the end she is very different. All this is described beautifully by Harriet Lane, cleverly, subtly, and as insinuatingly as Frances could ever be. She is shown as being completely ruthless and hard-headed (and hard-hearted) and yet it is difficult to have any sympathy for the family she fixes on. It is much easier to go along with Frances and her wiles, faced as she is with a world full of entitlement and privilege easing the path of everyone except her. The reader tends to think that she and the family deserve each other – a sign of the author’s brilliance. It’s a debut novel, though you wouldn’t think so, so assured and perfectly constructed is it. Can’t wait to see what she will do next…
Links up with: Another character in the book, a young woman, is described as being badly-dressed but having the impermeable self-confidence of a John Singer Sargent portrait, self-possessed and complacent - one of his ladies lights up the blog entry here. Finding your way into a family features in many books, and the theme is discussed in the blog entry here.
The picture is from George Eastman House, via Flickr.