A novel about a young woman who, after being jilted at the altar, goes to work at an art institute in a Lincolnshire industrial town, where she meets an eclectic group of people and begins to build a new life for herself. 1951.
I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.
The first chapter got me interested in the story. By the second chapter, I was in love. By the third, I felt I had gained a handful of new best friends. In many ways, this if-you-weren’t-fictional-could-we-be-BFFs quality reminded me a D.E. Stevenson book, where the characters are almost invariably the kinds of people you either know or wish you knew. To me, the main difference between Lucy Carmichael and a DES novel, though, is that while DES feels light and satisfying, Lucy Carmichael starts with similar characters and situations and takes them a step further. I wanted to live inside the pages of Lucy Carmichael. After I turned the last page, for a few minutes I just sat smiling. Then, smiling even wider, I flipped the book back open and read the final chapter. And again.
I dare say, Margaret Kennedy is destined to become one of my all-time favorite authors. But whereas I put off reading other books by my favorite authors (Margery Sharp, Susan Ertz, etc), with the understanding that once I read those other books I will have exhausted the supply, I don’t feel the same hesitation with Margaret Kennedy’s work. The first taste I’ve had of her writing has simply been too enchanting.
Lucy Carmichael is also noteworthy, to me, for the unique style of its opening. With a title like Lucy Carmichael, you’d think the story would start off with her, right? Well, not exactly…It begins with her best friend from college, Melissa, who is on the brink of announcing her engagement to a very nice young man, John. John can see, vaguely, that though Melissa puts on a brave front, she is worried about something. Not just worried—in her own way, deeply upset. We find out, through his coaxing, that it’s Lucy that Melissa is worried about. Lucy is about to get married to a minor celebrity, a travel-adventure writer who seems pretty cheesy. Melissa has heard that Lucy’s husband-to-be was recently seen with a previous (and notoriously wicked) lover. Melissa knows something is off here, and fears her best friend is about to be hurt.
Melissa goes to the wedding, makes small-talk with Lucy’s eccentric family, and prepares to fulfill her duties as a bridesmaid. When we first meet Lucy, it’s the eve of her wedding and she’s a borderline hysterical bride. She’s spent the day waiting by the phone, but her fiance hasn’t called to confirm that he’s arrived at the village inn. Melissa’s fears appear to be founded on something after all.
Lucy makes it to the church; her fiance does not. Hours later, with everything in shambles and Lucy’s eyes swollen with hurt and humiliation, they learn that he ran away with his former lover. Lucy’s story and photo have meanwhile made their way into the paper. Everywhere she goes, people look at her so pitifully:
While he talked he was covertly examining this girl who had been jilted at the altar. How could she have got herself into such a scrape? There was nothing wrong with her that he could see. She seemed a nice girl, a pretty girl—quite a lady. His meditations were as clear to Lucy as if he had shouted them at the top of his voice.
It’s clear that she needs to go somewhere new, somewhere where she and her sad story are not known. So via a friend she gets a job at an art institute in a small town up in Lincolnshire, teaching drama to interested members of the community. She gets to know the administration and her fellow faculty members, all of whom are a little quirky (as one would expect in the art world). She corresponds regularly with Melissa, but still she’s a bit sad and lonely and, yes, still broken-hearted. Eventually, though, her own woes are supplanted by the drama of the institute. First there’s the actual drama of her job, you know, putting on plays and such. She’ll get excited about a project, but then:
Suddenly everything went flat and her spirits came tumbling down. Comus was, after all, merely another job of work. It might be quite pretty, quite a success, but then it would be over, and then she would do something else, and then she would do something else, and then she would be old, and then she would die. Whither was she bustling so busily, year after year, and why did she bustle? What did she want?
It must be spring, she decided. The darned old spring which was supposed to cheer people up, but which could make one feel lonely and wasted. Was she never to be wildly happy? Never give wild happiness to anybody? Spring came along and other people were happy. Other girls were married. Other girls went courting. Other girls had a tumble in the barn or at least got kissed. But not Lucy! Oh, no! Lucy merely bustled about looking for car parks and would go on doing that for fifty springs until she bustled herself into her grave.
Then, there’s this political game going on within the institute’s administrative board, and it’s this drama, and the effect it has on her new friends, that ultimately restores Lucy’s interest in life. At the same time, I think the drama—both on and off the stage— gives Lucy the chance to decide what her own life story will be. We never get to see the “old” Lucy, only the jittery bride and hurt young woman. Through Melissa’s eyes, we are convinced that Lucy is a remarkable person. But in the end, we can never be sure whether the Lucy we see is actually the “old” Lucy. Is it possible to pass through life’s challenges without being changed by them?
I can’t, and I won’t, tell the whole of the novel here, but let me just say this: the final chapter is probably the best, most beautiful, most satisfying fiction I have ever read. I marked so many passages for quotation, I think I might save myself some time and just print off the whole chapter, frame it, and hang it on my bedroom wall. I could read it until I know it by heart.