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Only Children (Anglais) Broché – 1985
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At the beginning of the novel, Mary Ann's parents Bill and Honey, Lolly's parents Dan and Celia, and Anna do indeed seem friendly. Anna has invited the two families to stay with her in the hope that Bill will agree to serve on Eastwind's board of governors where his financial and administrative expertise will be greatly valued. (He is a senior Government bureaucrat). As the book progresses, however, we learn that Dan Zimmern and Honey Hubbard are conducting an adulterous affair with one another; Celia has her suspicions but Bill seems blithely unaware of his wife's infidelity. We also learn that, some fifteen years earlier, Dan and Anna were lovers and that he still harbours hopes of renewing their relationship.
The title "Only Children" has two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to Mary Ann and Lolly, both of whom are the only children of their parents' marriages, although Lolly has an older half-brother Leonard from her father's first marriage. (Leonard Zimmern- in adult life a prominent literary critic- is a character who appears in a number of Lurie's novels. He appears here as a moody, truculent teenager reluctantly spending a holiday with his father, stepmother and kid sister, but does not play an important part in the story).
On the other hand, the title also refers to the four parents, who are "only children" in the sense that they behave childishly, with frequent petty squabbles breaking out. Each of them is childish in his or her own way. Dan, a successful advertising executive, is a handsome but irresponsible playboy. Honey is a spoilt Southern belle used to getting her own way. They are in many ways similar in character, so their attraction to one another is understandable, especially as neither Celia nor Bill makes a particularly attractive partner. Celia, a weak, insipid woman, is Dan's second wife and, like many second wives, is haunted by the thought that her husband will treat her in the same way as he treated his first. Bill is a dry, dull man and a compulsive workaholic (he spends most of the weekend break poring over work from his office). To make matters worse he is also a fanatical and blinkered Communist, forever regaling Mary Ann with stories of how much better life is in Stalin's Russia than in the USA.(Honey never directly contradicts her husband about politics, but it is clear that she still retains the conservative social attitudes of her privileged Southern background- she insists, for example, on employing a black maid).
Although this is a third-person narrative, much of the story is seen as if through the eyes of the children. Alison Lurie would herself have been nine years old in 1935, so there may be some element of autobiography. Both Mary Ann and Lolly are intelligent but innocent of many of the concerns of adult life, especially sex, and Lurie uses their innocent world-view to comment on the doings of the adult characters. (It is difficult to imagine modern-day nine-year-olds being quite as naïve as those of the thirties). Bill's extremist political opinions, for example, are satirised by being presented to us through the eyes of his half-comprehending daughter. The children's views of the sexual obsessions of their elders and betters may be based on ignorance, but they also mean that it is difficult for the reader to take those obsessions altogether seriously. Sex- and some other things to which grown-ups attach importance- are just adult games, with no more significance than childish ones.
Lolly and Mary Ann are not only intelligent, but also sensitive and imaginative (especially Lolly, as befits a famous artist of the future), and there are many delightful and refreshing views of the world as seen from a child's perspective. Clouds look lie whipped cream, Virginia creepers become old women, the name Mussolini (misheard by Mary Ann as Mousy Leena) leads into an elaborate story about a mouse princess. In their imagination the girls are themselves princesses- a surprisingly reactionary fantasy for the children of self-proclaimed progressive parents. The book reminded me strongly of H E Bates's "The Distant Horns of Summer", another book in which the adult world is seen through the eyes of a sensitive and intelligent child.
"Only Children" displays many of the qualities which have made Alison Lurie one of my favourite authors- a sharp wit, intelligence, a fluent prose style and penetrating observation of human nature. It shows us one of America's finest writers at her best.
I did, however, spot one mistake. In 1935, Strasbourg was not part of Germany, as the author implies. It had been returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War.