A novel about a middle-age couple who, in the midst of their own marital problems, take in a widowed relative and her son, both of whom pose a danger to the already fragile household. 1953.
My first “meeting” with Invitation to Folly was somewhat…doubtful. For one thing, it suffers from that horrible syndrome of having two titles, one book. That’s one too many titles for any book, if you ask me (unless perhaps it’s a subtitle, which is really like getting to legitimately have two titles, in the research-driven world; but I digress…). So not only was I faced with the issue of finding this Susan Ertz book, which, as an author who was once a bestseller but is now waaaaaay not read, like, at all, but now I had to search for her book under two separate titles. Interestingly enough, my county library system did own a copy—-their only Ertz book—-under the American title, Invitation to Folly.
Placed a hold. Bing bang boom, book delivered to my local branch. Right?
Except for this other hitch: around this time, here in way northern California we’d been having some seriously cold weather. Usually it snows here (no snow to speak of this season, an interesting side-note), but the winter temperatures hover right around freezing, dropping at most into the low 20s. Well, during this particular period we experienced temperatures more in the range of…0. Yes, that’s no degrees Fahreinheit! They say that zero is a tricky concept because it’s hard to say that something exists when there is nothing of it. Here in the mountains, we felt that paradoxical nothingness. And so did our pipes. In our house, the water pressure regulator broke, so suddenly everything that connected to water was dripping non-stop! That was fun. Also-—and more tragically—-the pipes in a library branch broke. All those ruined books!! My heart cried out for them. On top of everything else, the county library system now had to do a great big book and catalogue shuffle. And my dainty little vintage book on hold? Totally a low priority.
The hold did come in, eventually. But when my Manly Man swung by to pick it up, the computer wouldn’t let him check it out. The system thought that this book belonged to the broken-pipe library branch, and therefore needed to be processed along with those books. I’m told it was actually quite comical. There was the nice little volunteer, holding the book in his hand, yet unable to lend it. Finally someone managed to override the system, and Manly Man was able to bring the book home for me. Success!!
And yet…This really is too awful for words. I’m ashamed to admit it, after all the trouble everyone went to so this book might be delivered into my hands. But the simple fact is that when I started reading the first page, it wasn’t love at first sight. It starts with this middle-aged couple, driving home from somewhere, quarreling about something. Everything about that lead-in screamed: downer. As a general rule, I don’t like to read downer kinds of books. It’s for the same reason that I don’t like eating bad food, or hanging out with negative people. I like to fill my life with the positive.
So there I was, guiltily in possession of a book I wasn’t really sure I wanted to read. Instead of starting Invitation to Folly immediately, I read a few books that were so positive, it was ridiculous—-thank you, D.E. Stevenson! Once my heart was thoroughly melted by good, wholesome loving kindness (not to mention charming men and picturesque country estates), I was able to take the plunge. It was time for some Folly.
The experience turned out to be not happy, exactly, but it sure was memorable and fulfilling. It’s not a light read, but a sober, subtle, post-war kind of novel, not obviously diverting but at times dryly droll. Oh yes, and oh so British. As I said, the story begins with this unhappy married couple, Walter and Beatrice. They have two grown children, though only one makes an appearance in the novel. Walter and Beatrice are just returning from Walter’s father’s funeral. It’s not the funeral that causes tension and upset, so much as it’s the fact that, as Walter’s mother died about 15 years prior, the parents’ house is now empty. Beatrice obviously doesn’t like the place, doesn’t have very joyous memories of time spent with his family there, and the children certainly aren’t attached to keeping it in the family. But for Walter, the empty house is the final piece in the grand mosaic that is His Grief For His Dead Mother, a cold, beautiful French woman whom he idolized for some reason.
In the midst of this tension between Walter and Beatrice, there’s the fact, slowly and carefully revealed, that she was once unfaithful to Walter about a dozen years ago. Granted, he drove her to it, as it was just after his mother’s death and in his excessive grief he refused to be near Beatrice or their children. After years of this, she finally couldn’t take it anymore and fled to an old friend….a male friend, that is. Three days later, she returned to Walter. He guessed whom she had gone to, but he guessed wrong. She didn’t correct him.
Things blow up when, present day, the male friend enters her life again briefly and she sees that she needs to tell Walter the full truth. For a dozen years he’s been worrying the wound, always questioning why she sought comfort in the man (he thought) she went to. She wonders if by telling him the truth, he can let the subject drop…finally. So she tells him. Things blow up.
In the background of all this, Walter is contemplating some long-lost relatives. He does some research and discovers that his estranged cousin died in a motor accident not long ago, but he left behind a wife and son. Walter invites the widow and her teenaged son to stay at his place.
Now THIS is where Ertz’s artistry truly comes into play. At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with the widow, Alice. She’s not beautiful, not plain, a little short and plump. But boy can she command a room. She’s the kind of person who enters a room and immediately takes possession of it, like she’s always been there and moreover has every right to always be there. Then there’s her son: quiet, weak, but clearly a ticking bomb. When he first sees the daughter Walter and Beatrice’s live-in help, he perks up, follows her young form around the room with his eyes:
Beatrice thought how much the young resembled dogs, who, in the street, only notice one another.
I’d never thought of young people—-or dogs—-in quite those terms before. All the same, there’s something subtly creepy about the morose young man…
The fascinating thing about the widow Alice is that men seem to like her, but the women (Beatrice, her daughter, even the live-in help) feel an instant aversion to her. It’s like they recognize something about her, something dangerous, something untrustworthy, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. But then Beatrice is called away to take care of her own mother, and Alice and Walter are left alone in the house. Again, Alice doesn’t do anything flagrantly dishonest, but still we get the impression that she’s playing a part, saying exactly the things that, somehow, she knows Walter wants to hear. Are these two soul-mates, perfectly kindred spirits who, given the choice, might choose each other? Maybe. Still, there’s something about Alice…Something no woman could miss.
(UK title: The Undefended Gate)