ARUN RATH, HOST:
In 2009, author Margaret Drabble declared she would no longer write fiction, claiming she didn't want to repeat herself. But like many authors who retire, Drabble couldn't stay out of the game for long. Her newest novel, "Pure Gold Baby," comes out this month. Meg Wolitzer has a review.
MEG WOLITZER, BYLINE: When I was young, I worshipped Margaret Drabble. She was 20 years older than me - hip, British, serious. Reading her books was like having a brainy, fashionable best friend who'd been educated at Cambridge and had really lived. Her books made me feel like I was much more sophisticated than I really was, and I loved them for that. As I got older, Drabble got older, too, and so did her characters. And though she published often, and even became a Dame, I guess that I felt less urgency about seeking out every book she'd written.
But her new novel deserves to be read. We're in vintage Drabble territory. Jessica, her main character, is an anthropology student who gets pregnant in the '60s and decides to keep the baby. Little Anna is beautiful, blonde and developmentally disabled. No one really knows what's wrong with her, but Jess is an accepting and kind parent. So we have a classic early Drabble heroine. She's in almost the exact same situation as the girl in "The Millstone," which Drabble wrote in 1965. But the author hasn't repeated herself. Instead, she's extended herself.
Rather than just focusing on Jess and Anna and the beginning of their life together, Drabble moves forward. At 74, she seems to have found the confidence and wisdom to push on into Jess's middle age and even, eventually, her old age. Would young Margaret Drabble have wanted to do that? My guess is no. As the book's narrator says: When you are young, you do not think you will grow old. But seasoned, long-view Margaret Drabble knows the truth. Characters do age, and history follows them.
While Jess has mostly left academia, anthropology is still deeply ingrained in her. We learn about a trip to Africa, where she saw children whose feet looked like lobster claws. Disability and difference and the observation of them as an anthropologist and as a mother turns out to be a theme. Not much actually happens in this book. There's a brief marriage to an affable, hairy American photographer named Bob, but Jess ends it for vague reasons. Old friends come and go. Someone's son goes to jail. Drabble is so good creating the nonlinear picture of life.
It's a low-key book filled with ideas, and it's more muted than a lot of her earlier work. But it's original and ultimately really affecting. I found a kind of somber bravery in the story of this unwavering, intelligent woman and her guileless and beautiful child. And in the end, I was glad that Margaret Drabble, like her characters, just decided to keep on going.
RATH: This book is "Pure Gold Baby" by Margaret Drabble. Our reviewer is Meg Wolitzer, and her latest novel is "The Interestings."
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