Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The fourth volume in a big series in every sense was at one point the place where it all seemed to finish. Happily, I am convinced that you can read it as a standalone book (though I would strongly suggest that you track down the first three) and Howard actually did write a fifth book later, which ties up lots of loose ends. This is the Cazalet Chronicles, the addictive, huge and intimate portrait of a family beginning in the late 1930s in the first volume. This novel begins with the family adjusting to a peacetime world in July 1945 when men are returning home from fighting, imprisonment and other challenging circumstances to find a country that has been continuing without them, as teenagers have grown into adults and discovered the joys and sorrows of love, and where big decisions have to be made. Even those who have lived at Home Place for the duration are thinking of moving on, finding new places to live and new pressures in a new world with few or no servants. The Cazalet family, though never actually rich, have been able to employ cooks, gardeners, nannies and maids, but now must learn to do without, in a world where food and drink are still rationed. New beginnings for some and the discovery of awkward truths for others means that this book, with its beautifully intimate views from characters both central and on the fringes is a fascinating and addictive read for all 626 pages.
The novel opens with a problem familiar for many decades; Miss Pearson, Hugh’s devoted secretary is having to leave to look after her mother. He then goes onto lunch with Rachel and Sid, whose unresolved relationship causes problems as the question of where to live in London is unresolved for each generation. Hugh’s loneliness is in contrast to those wishing for independence, particularly Edward who is striving to come to terms with the result of his long term affair. Rupert and Zoe are existing in parallel worlds of secrecy, not made easier by the arrival of Zoe’s mother. This is now a London life of small houses as so many have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, a condition beautifully evoked by Howard as she describes scratch meals made in inefficient kitchens by inexperienced cooks and desperate attempts to add decoration and even heat in a country afflicted by deepening shortages. Even the young and beautiful Louise’s unhappiness in her marriage and motherhood is becoming deeper, while the lonely Christopher has to make decisions. Clary and Polly both struggle unhappily with love and adult life for different reasons; but this is not a book of straightforward romantic problems of young adults as they come of age as each generation has its own difficulties and quiet joys.
If you are at all interested in mid twentieth century writing, this is a book which transcribes all the little difficulties and big challenges of life in such an honest way that finishing it truly feels like a farewell to family friends. As a first read there is so much to discover here, as a re read it again brings to life the characters in their realistic settings. Howard’s skill is in the complete honesty with which she describes every character’s thoughts and feelings. I truly enjoyed this reread, and am looking forward to rediscovering volume five as soon as possible.
Last night a friend and I went to see a live streaming of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “As You Like It”, having already seen it live in Stratford. I saw new things and it seemed to flow better – whether that is because I knew what to expect or because the production has now been running for a couple of months rather than a few days when we originally saw it. Either way, do try to get to a cinema to see these live productions – they are shown around the world and are an excellent way to experience some great plays!