Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

No, not Elizabeth Taylor the actress.

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 1971

It's about: Mrs. Palfrey, widowed, finds herself alone, living indefinitely at the Claremont Hotel in London, grasping at the threads of unaffectionate relationships with her daughter and grandson.  "We aren't allowed to die here," the other elderly guests tell her.  The Claremont is a transitory place, where the elderly still exert some independence before moving to a nursing home, and then to their graves.  With nothing to do and no one to visit her, Mrs. Palfrey wiles away her hours -- that is, until a young, struggling writer named Ludo helps her up from a spill in the streets and becomes her hope for twilight happiness.

I thought: I have mixed feelings about this book.  I was originally inclined to it, because I love books with older characters, not just teenage ninnies.  However, it seemed that the book never knew exactly what it wanted to be.  At times, it was nearing sentimental, other times it was farcical, and other times it was dreary and pessimistic.  I finished the novel not quite relating to Mrs. Palfrey, to her relatives, to Ludo, or to really any of the other elderly guests at the hotel, and, it would seem, none of them really related to each other, either.  As such, switching from Mrs. Palfrey's point of view to Ludo's and back again did not serve a clear purpose, since their relationship is never truly developed.

In the strengths category, however, it suggests the humanity that still resides in the elderly that perhaps the rest of us tend to forget.  It shows their need for connection and affection, the aimlessness of their hours and days, their personal histories we don't seem interested in, and their utter loneliness.  The final paragraph of the novel is particularly chilling, in the guilt-inducing sort of way.

All in all, what could have been an excellent book, through perhaps some flatness of character and an unclear purpose, fell short of what it could have been, though it is still a decent novel.

Verdict: In-between

Interesting information:  This book was interpreted into film in 2005, starring Rupert Friend as Ludo.  Though the film has many faults and in some ways falls short of several of the book's strengths, it does what the novel does not: it has a clear purpose and a defined relationship between Ludo and Mrs. Palfrey that, though flawed, is perhaps more touching.

Warnings: There isn't anything to fear in this novel beyond one particularly dirty-minded old man who insinuates at a couple of sexual topics briefly.

Favorite excerpts:
“The morning was to be filled in quite nicely, but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch.  I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she had thought it would be.   When she was young, it had always been later.”