The action in The Radiant Way begins on New Year’s Eve 1979. A perfect moment to begin this novel that is all about the major cultural/economic/political shift that began in Britain at the end of the 1970s, in most cases due to, or at least coinciding with, the ascension of the Iron Lady to the right hand of God, err, I mean the position of British Prime Minister. I am not a scholar of late 20th century British politics but that won’t stop me from putting in my two cents (pence) worth.
But before I get to all of that I want to quote at length the opening passage of the book. I think Drabble brilliantly captures how this New Year’s Eve party, and indeed any party, no matter how homogeneous the guest list, is at best a collection of competing personal agenda and mundane practical concerns.
New Year’s Eve, and the end of a decade. A portentous moment, for those who pay attention to portents. Guests were invited for nine. Some are already on their way, travelling towards Harley Street from outlying districts, from Oxford and Tonbridge and Wantage, worried already about the drive home. Others are dining, on the cautious assumption that a nine-o’clock party might not provide adequate food. Some are uncertainly eating a sandwich or slice of toast, in front of mirrors women try on dresses, men select ties. As it is a night of many parties, the more social, the more gregarious, the more invited of the guests are wondering whether to go to Harley Street first, or whether to arrive there later, after sampling other offerings. A few are wondering whether to go at all, whether the festive season has not after all been too tiring, whether a night in slippers in front of the television with a bowl of soup might not be a wiser choice than the doubtful prospect of a crowded room. Most of them will go: the communal celebration draws them, they need to gather together to bid farewell to the 1970s, they need to reinforce their own expectations by witnessing those of others, by observing who is in, who is out, who is up, who is down. They need one another. Liz and Charles Headleand have invited them, and obediently, expectantly, they will go, dragging along their tired flat feet, their aching heads, their over-fed bellies and complaining livers, their exhausted opinions, their weary small talk, their professional and personal deformities, their doubts and enmities, their blurring vision and thickening ankles, in the hope of a miracle, in the hope of a midnight transformation, in the hope of a new self, a new, redeemed decade.
And so the party, and the 1980s begin for successful psychiatrist Liz Headleand. The complex associations evident during the party and one bombshell are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what will happen with Liz and her family and friends in the first half of the Thatcher 80s.
If you haven’t read Drabble, I would call her books intelligent and intellectual chick-lit. I shouldn’t do so because I neither want to narrow her reach nor offend Drabble (or chick-lit) lovers. But I had to ask myself if it was even appropriate to think in terms of the author’s gender and what that might mean for the characterization of the novel. Would I refer to a novel by a man as “intelligent and intellectual dick-lit”? Well, I think I would, or should actually. I think Philip Roth definitely writes smart dick-lit, and Sophie’s Choice I would also count as intelligent dick-lit. (Of course this is also the reason I prefer Drabble to Roth. I much prefer the female point of view in literature.) In any case Take Margaret Atwood, subtract the dystopia and add in a healthy dose of Iris Murdoch and I think you start to get the idea. Then again, the Thatcher/Reagan 80s are considered by many to be dystopic so maybe Drabble’s story is closer to Atwood than I thought.
In 1980, at the tender age of 11, my knowledge of Britain was fairly non-existent. And for many years after that consisted mainly of an obsession for the Princess of Wales and the Royal Family. But any self-respecting history major is hardly allowed to get a degree without knowing a little more about Britain than that. Even so my knowledge of late 20th century British history could be is limited to a very nebulous, oversimplified summary: In the 1970s nothing was working, everything was gloomy, Labour and labour were hamstringing the country and the economy. In the 1980s everyone but the rich and the climbers were gloomy, socialism became a dirty word as the poor got poorer and Maggie realized that warcraft was the only stagecraft she really need worry about (Take that, Argentina!). In the 1990s a kinder, gentler John Major got the country prepped for a Tony Blair’s Third Way and the dawning of a new millennium. The Radiant Way doesn’t necessarily contradict my oversimplifications, but it does add nuance to them that was personally enlightening.
Aside from the political and social history themes that run through The Radiant Way, the book focuses mainly on Liz and her friends Alix and Esther from her days at Cambridge. These are the parts of the book I like most. Each of them go through a crisis or two as the friendship among the three of them continue to ebb and flow as they have for 20-some years.
If you are looking for your first Drabble, I highly recommend Seven Sisters. If you know and like Drabble you won’t be disappointed.