Ann Prentice falls in love with Richard Cauldfield and hopes for new happiness. Her only child, Sarah, cannot contemplate the idea of her mother marrying again and wrecks any chance of her remarriage. Resentment and jealousy corrode their relationship as each seeks relief in different directions. Are mother and daughter destined to be enemies for life or will their underlying love for each other finally win through?
Agatha Christie created Mary Westmacott as a secret identity that allowed her to write for her own pleasure, free from the constraints of the mystery genre. Between 1930 and 1956, Mary Westmacott published six novels. The secret identity remained undiscovered for nearly twenty years. Even when it became widely known that Christie was Westmacott, she continued to write as Westmacott, publishing two more novels, the first of which was ‘A Daughter’s A Daughter’ (1952). In that same year, Agatha Christie published Mrs McGinty’s Dead (Hercule Poirot #25), They Do It With Mirrors (Miss Marple #6) and opened The Mousetrap on London’s West End so, I was curious to see what kind of book Agatha Christie had made time for in a year when she was already so commercially successful.
The answer was a welcome surprise: a very open and engaging contemplation on what a forty-one-year-old widow with an adult daughter should look for from her life and what relationship she should seek with her adult daughter.
This Mary Westmacott novel seemed much more grown-up than Agatha Christie’s mysteries. Seventy years later, it still felt modern and relevant. It was full of gentle reflections on the problems that people create for themselves and others by trying to do what they think they ought to rather than what they really want to. It looks at the concept of sacrifice and asks whether the sacrifices a mother makes for her daughter are really for her daughter or for herself and warns that sacrifices aren’t one-off events but rather are self-inflicted wounds that leave scars and may fester if not tended to.
The book is cliché free and non-judgemental. This story is written with great precision. The arguments between the people feel real. The way the situation escalates feels inevitable. There’s a fairly unblinking confrontation of how fragile happiness is and how it differs from the pursuit of pleasure and of the dangers of loneliness and of drug addiction.
I realised how well the story was working when I found myself saying to the main character, Ann Prentice, who I know is fictional and who anyway couldn’t hear me, ‘Why do you want to marry this stubborn, deeply insecure man? He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t learn. He’s not terribly bright, not good at reading people, is dismissive of women, is easily embarrassed, quick to anger and constantly tries to assert his non-existent authority. What is his appeal?’
I particularly liked meeting Dame Laura Whitstable, an old friend of Ann Prentice, who sees the world very clearly. She is given to make succinct, unemotional pronouncements about people and their motivations and limitations but is very wary of giving advice. She seemed to me to be the embodiment of the authorial voice and perhaps an idealised version of Westmacott/Christie herself.
I’m very glad I read this. I loved its distinctive voice and the insights into the emotions of the people. I also enjoyed getting a feel for what the lives of the English middle class were like in the early years after World War II.
I recommend the audiobook version, narrated by Helen Longworth. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.