Our narrator, Adele Ginsberg, wangles her way into university in the early 1970s by falsely asserting a family tie to the more famous Allen. The poet has obligingly sent her a card opening ‘Dear Cousin’. The tutor in charge of admissions is amused but unconvinced: ‘Our grandfathers were all liars, mine was, yours was. Still, it’s quite a good attempt.’ ‘We were an alliance of liars,’ Adele muses decades later, on a return visit to her alma mater, as another don marvels at how much has changed: ‘In those days we did take a risk on people, we were able to. I’m not even sure if the DofE would let us get away with it now. And the parents of applicants with the three As might even sue.’
An author’s note declares: ‘This novel is based on a particular time in my own life, but the characters are the product of my own imagination.’ Adele – like Grant, born in Liverpool – loses her father to suicide at a young age. She is restless, curious, not particularly academic but up for adventure; physically, she resembles the contemporary icon Patti Smith, or so her lovers tell her. More than that, she is marked with a habitually guarded expression that others deem ‘hard’. But events sink deep and mark her forever, not least what happened upstairs at a student birthday party, where a girl died.
Grant follows Adele to her late fifties, tracing the impact of her student choices on the rest of her life. Temporary, inessential traits in adolescence harden and fix into an adult personality. For a long time there seems to be no discernible plot; but this is not a problem, since Grant is so accomplished a novelist of recent social history. Old fashions, both intellectual and sartorial, are brought out, the bell-bottoms and cheesecloth just as risible as the Marxist analyses.
Although young Adele reads The Female Eunuch, she’s far from being a right-on feminist. On meeting a dowdy middle-aged woman who she learns was raped as a young woman, she can only marvel that she ‘had once been the object of such desire’. But the never-forgotten girl who died prompts her to think more deeply about the difficulty of being female in the world. This is a novel where women have painful and messy periods, go to the toilet and worry about birth control.
Adele wastes her twenties and thirties in affairs with seemingly dismal men, shunning simple marriage and motherhood, forever haunted by the party night. She vividly remembers becoming aroused by the nape of the dead girl’s neck, and becomes a connoisseur of male napes, though none stir the same erotic feelings. This seems the most important of the roads not taken.
The reunion belatedly cranks the plot into gear – this is the chance to revisit the night of the party and speak to the witnesses. A set of exercise books that went missing on the fatal night seems crucial to the mystery. But this isn’t ultimately the most satisfying aspect of the novel; the greatest pleasures involve the luxury of the long view. Who has aged best? Who is the most successful? Will the youthful Marxists have swapped one ideology for another or sold out completely? More serious are the meditations on the changing aims of higher education.
With a kindly but unsparing eye, Linda Grant shows how the group’s bold attempts at personal change peter out as the radicals and idealists fall back into old, almost predestined patterns. In particular, the metamorphoses of the ungainly Gillian, symbolised by her fluctuating relationship with the viola, are both comic and filled with pathos. Most tender and touching of all are the brief student love affairs, so self-defining at the time, but rendered by the passing years as just the most poignant of all life’s illusions.