Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
Rebecca Miller

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to but they do.
They fill you up with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have kids yourself.
Philip Larkin

Larkin provides an eloquent and accurate indicator of one of the central themes of Rebecca Miller's book The Private lives of Pippa Lee'. As the book opens we are brought into the front living room of the Lee's where they are celebrating with their friends the move to an up market retirement community. Pippa is in her early 50's and her husband Herb is 80. One of their friends gives a speech in which he describes Pippa:

'I've known Pippa Lee for a quarter of a century,but I'll never really know her. She's a mystery, a cypher...a person not controlled by ambition or greed or a crass need for attention, but a desire to experience life completely, and to make life a little easier for the people around her.'

But this seeming paragon has a dark side and when Pippa experiences episodes of sleep eating, smoking and driving it is clear that all is not well with the Lees. Indeed, Pippa herself does not agree with their old friend's description of her, preferring to think of herself as

'One of those shiny used cars that have been in a terrible accident. They look perfectly fine on the outside, but the axle is all bent.'

The novel is split into four parts, the first, third and fourth are told in the third person and the second in the first. It is in the second part that Pippa comes sharply into focus and it is the retelling of Pippa's early life and experience that forms the core of the novel and where Miller's writing is at it's best. We learn of Lee's childhood, the teenage rage and rebellion against her mother that leads her to flee her home and her subsequent behaviour that is most definitely not virtuous - despite Pippa herself praying to Jesus 'I am begging you to make me good,please'.

It is this desire to be good that leads Pippa into marriage with Herb Lee, a man 30 years her senior, and the married life she builds for herself. 'Marriage' Pippa says 'is an act of will' and Pippa is willing herself to be good, and she is so good at marriage and making life a little easier for the people around her that she all but disappears as a person and becomes a shadow of the 'old' Pippa - and this I think is the intention of the third person narrative. Rebecca Miller, who herself has said in an interview with Julia Llewellyn Smith for the Telegraph Newspaper ' I wouldn't be able to maintain my sanity if I gave up who I was. I just wouldn't be able to exist', has created a distancing of the reader from the central character in the first and last parts of the novel which cause us to disconnect from Pippa in the same way that Pippa is disconnected from herself. Whilst these parts are not as effective as the vibrant first person narrative, they are essential in understanding how far Pippa has moved from her true self so that she just does not exist any more in any meaningful way.

And what of those parents that Larkin castigates? Pippa has two experiences of a smothering intense love, that of her mother from whom she flees and her daughter who she can not flee in body but who she can mould - and the result? reread Larkin's poem.

A seemingly slight book, this is a novel that you can come back to again as you think about the mother - daughter relationship, the expected role of women in marriage as the nurturer and the issue of female identity after marriage.
A great book club read.

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