Anna, Constanza, Flavia--Three generations of women whose lives weave in and out of Italy, England, and other parts of Europe, taking us from the late nineteenth century into the 1940s. Money, marriage, and misunderstanding weave in and out of their lives like a tangled rope, sometimes tripping, sometimes choking. Anna, a conventional, stiff-necked American marries an insouciant Italian prince and finds herself supporting his household with her considerable wealth, while he carries on a decades-long affair with a family friend in the European way. Anna's reaction to her husband's infidelity (not the only one, incidentally) when she finally discovers it reflects her Protestant principles and her bruised rectitude. She flees with their only daughter, Constanza, and takes all her money with her, leaving behind a small son, whose birth cost her much and who grows up to be a disappointment and a thief.
"They fell back, as people--and nations--in a crisis do, upon ready-made standards and emotions....she dealt with it [the "prince's conduct"] as once it might have been judged and felt about by her New England family." For his part, he does the same, clinging to the sacrosanct idea of the family, puzzled by his wife's extravagant reaction. Indeed, their entire Italian community is more than a little amazed that Anna didn't know what was going on and simply ignore it, as so many wives have done. Or she might have taken a lover herself. That would have balanced things out. Discretion was much to be preferred to righteous indignation. Anna is technically innocent, yet it is she who sets in train the events that shape and sometimes blight the lives of her daughter and granddaughter. Constanza is led to believe her father didn't want her, which was not true, and Flavia trails around Europe after a mother whose metier is men. She receives a strangely unsentimental education and has no settled home.
World events simmer in the background, erupting occasionally into these peripatetic lives to inconvenience or impede, but, as in a Henry James novel, the overriding theme is the collision of new- and old-world manners and mores. Women live through their relations with men, while the men, though not peripheral to the action, are not the focus of Bedford's moral scrutiny. The only note of hope is at the end when Constanza and Flavia take a villa in St. Jean, a small French village often visited by tourists. Their neighbor is a Parisian, "un homme politique," who lives in a tower with a library of books. Constanza and Flavia refer to him as "the man of principles." After Anna dies, after the many men, Constanza moves yet again, this time with Michel, "the man of principles" who offers to drive her to Paris. He gives Flavia the key to his tower, and Constanza assures her that she will find plenty of books there to read. And so life goes on, not without hope.
What I love most about this novel has to be the way it is written. I have come to believe that just about any plot can be made interesting if the style it is written in is compelling. Bedford is highly intelligent, literate, and worldly, and it is a joy to be carried along by her well-crafted sentences. There is something about being in the hands of a skilled writer that settles a restless place in me, that invites trust. I can give myself over to the reading experience whole-heartedly and be rewarded with astute insights into the way things--and people--are. If the author's judgment is discriminating and articulate, the novel resonates with life. Without that magic (talent, deftness, call it what you will) the story lies flat upon the page. I am so happy to have discovered Sybille Bedford and will certainly read more of her.