The Echoing Grove

I wrote earlier about not exactly loving Rosamond Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove; I was interested in the book in a sort of detached, intellectual kind of way, but it never grabbed my attention and made me love it.  I did love her book A Note in Music, and I was hoping for more of the same but didn’t quite find it.  This has something to do with my mood; I’m not in a mood to think very hard about my fun reading (I picked up a Georgette Heyer novel, Venetia, after finishing Lehmann), and The Echoing Grove was more challenging than A Note in Music.  But I’m not sure it’s just a matter of mood.  I suspect that even if I’d wanted a challenge this book wouldn’t have satisfied me, and I would have still preferred the other.

In both cases, Lehmann works with a small group of characters, describing in great detail their mental and emotional states and their relationships with one another. She writes about friendships and love affairs, about desire and longing, and about shifting moods and emotions. So what makes The Echoing Grove more challenging than the other? She does interesting things with point of view, which can sometimes make the book a bit hard to follow; while the novel is written in third person, she will suddenly slip into first person and give us a character’s thoughts directly. There are passages that slip into stream of consciousness narration, with shifts in time and topic that are disorienting. There’s a particularly long example of this early in the novel, and I began to wonder just what I’d gotten myself into, but the novel returned to more straightforward narration eventually, and I decided to keep plugging along. There are also long sections of intense, emotionally-draining dialogue, of the sort that made me wonder whether people really talk that way (I felt similarly when reading Elizabeth Bowen). There is also a complicated time structure in the novel – the narration jumps around in time so much that I had a hard time figuring out what took place when.

So what is the story about? Simply put, Madeleine and Dinah are sisters; Madeleine is married to Rickie and Dinah has an affair with him. You can imagine, I’m sure, the family tension this creates. Madeleine is a fairly conventional woman, raising a family and participating in an acceptable social circle, while Dinah is more adventuresome and bohemian, getting caught up in love affairs with questionable men and disappearing for long stretches of time, doing nobody knows what. The novel begins with a meeting between the two long-estranged women, an awkward meeting where they seem to want to discuss their past but are hesitant. It then moves back in time to tell their history with occasional returns to the present moment to chart the sisters’ attempts to make amends. Although other characters make appearances, the interest of the novel is in the nature of these three main characters – Rickie’s haplessness when it comes to women, Dinah’s free-spiritedness countered by her suffering, and Madeleine’s calm patience and longsuffering.

My struggle with the novel was simply that I never came to care a whole lot about these people, and the formal elements, while interesting, weren’t enough to make up for my lack of emotional connection. I certainly don’t need to be emotionally connected to every book I read, but something has to catch my attention and either make me feel or make me think or, ideally, both. Now, if my description of the book intrigues you, don’t be scared away by my doubts – you may find a way into this book that I couldn’t. And I certainly am not turned off of Lehmann forever; I plan on reading more of her work, and I fully expect to like it.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

10 responses to “The Echoing Grove

  1. I find Rosamund Lehmann inconsistent in her writing. I adored Invitation to the Waltz, but could never quite get on with its sequel The Weather in the Streets (although many people love that book too). I think she had a number of approaches to her writing, one quite aridly intellectual, one compassionate and humorous, and one tragic and a bit queasy. It was that middle voice of hers I really appreciated, although of course you could say its the interaction between the three that make her interesting.

    Lovely review, Dorothy.

  2. Even though this hasn’t been your favorite Lehmann novel, you still make it sound intriguing despite its faults. I really do need to give her work a try. I recently got a copy of A Note in Music, so perhaps I’ll start there. It’s interesting reading more than one book by an author–you get to see what works and doesn’t work and see how they develop and progress.

  3. So which Lehmann book do I have on my shelves? That’s right , ‘The Echoing Grove’, not ‘A Note in Music’. Why are there so many writers out there whose works I want to dip into. Not enough time, not enough time!

  4. Too bad you and the book didn’t find a way to mesh. I like how you say “you may find a way into this book that I couldn’t.” It is not only tactful and encouraging, it also has a very Thursday Next ring to it :)

  5. verbivore

    I’m not familiar with Lehmann at all but now I’m very curious to check her out, will see what books of hers I can find on Bookmooch. Its frustrating when a book doesn’t manage to worm its way into your heart – still, I’m impressed you carried on and finished it!

  6. I’ve heard quite a bit about Lehmann but haven’t read her. Sorry this book didn’t grab you! Maybe I’ll try one of her others :) I hope Venetia was a nice distraction (Heyer always makes me laugh, and I remember liking Venetia…)

  7. Litlove — I’m glad to hear you say that about her writing — it makes me feel better! I’d say this book falls into the “tragic and a bit queasy” category. I remember your recommendation of Invitation to the Waltz, and I plan on reading that one when I can.

    Danielle — Enjoy A Note in Music when you get there! It IS interesting to read widely in an author’s work, and I don’t do it often enough.

    Ann — oh, I know, not nearly enough time! You might love The Echoing Grove, even though I didn’t; I can easily see how someone might disagree with me on this one!

    Stefanie — oh, if I could have “found a way into the book” in that sense, I probably would have felt very differently about it! :)

    Verbivore — I hope you enjoy her if you do read her work; certainly she’s an interesting writer, well worth thinking about.

    Gentle reader — Venetia is a lot of fun! I’m enjoying it a lot.

  8. I am curious to check out the Lehmann book. I keep hearing so much about her via the blogosphere of course. I hope your next read is better!

  9. Huh, sounds a little bit too much like Elizabeth Bowen for my tastes (even a similar plot). However, I haven’t yet given up on Elizabeth. I think I read something by Lehmann years ago, but I can’t remember what it was nor what I thought of it (it obviously left a huge impression). I’ll have to look through my book journals and see.

  10. Paul Leclercq

    I have just finished The Echoing Grove; I found it difficult, rivetting and disturbing; it must be read again. I am fond of Miss Lehmann’s writing; I have read Dusty Answer, A Note in Music, Invitation to The Waltz (three times) and The Ballad and the Source. Briefly, “Invitation” is charming and delightful, “A Note” is dull but not uninteresting, Dusty Answer, excellent and the Ballad and the Source, excellent but as difficult as The Echoing Grove.

    And that’s it!

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