Sunday, August 23, 2015

Fiction | Secrets of a Life Well-Lived

In following the theme of my last post, Rosamunde Pilcher is another author to whom I should apologize, because The Shell Seekers is another book I read long ago that has just been sitting quietly since, waiting to be doted upon. I've written several times before about my love for Ms. Pilcher's cozy, light-hearted family dramas, but somehow my first few encounters with this author never included her most well-known, popular work. This I finally amended several months ago.

Pilcher had written several novels before The Shell Seekers was published in 1987, but this was the one that propelled her name to notoriety amongst women readers in the 80s and 90s. I can imagine, at the time, she was a staple of grocery store book aisles, because the only versions I ever see of Pilcher titles are mass market paperbacks with flowery covers that currently cost between 10 and 20 cents at a local used bookstore—my good fortune!

The Shell Seekers centers around the life of Penelope Keeling. In present-day, she's an older woman that has recently suffered a mild heart attack, leaving her three children in various states of concern. Though the reader is quickly taken with this strong, witty, independent woman, the same cannot be said of this woman's progeny. The children differ from each other as much as they differ from their mother. The eldest, Nancy, comes off as a selfish but needy woman who seeks validation in appearance and status. Noel, the only son, is helplessly immature and generally self-serving in all actions and motivations. Olivia, the youngest, is the only redeeming one; she dutifully handles her siblings with a watchful and wary eye and is the only one that does not treat Penelope as though some great injustice was suffered in childhood that demands some sort of present-day retribution.

The main source of conflict in this story spawns from Penelope's prized possession, a painting called The Shell Seekers, painted by her posthumously famous father. All the memories and stories of her unconventional life, from a bohemian childhood to a young adulthood transformed by WWII, are captured in the essence of this seminal work of art. Naturally, with their grandfather's paintings now fetching so much at the auction houses, Nancy and Noel are eager for their mother to reap the rewards—rewards they will eventually reap as well through their assumed inheritance. The meat of this book, though, takes us through Penelope's expansive life and the pieces that define her as a woman, separate from any version familiar to her children.

Like all my encounters with Pilcher, this was a reading experience I didn't want to end. The worlds she creates are full of characters you want to really know (and some you unfortunately have to know), and she reminds you that it's the people that can bring the most joy and meaning to a life. I particularly enjoyed the character of Penelope, because it seems easy to forget—as a child—that a woman has more to her than the side her children see. Penelope, to me, was a reminder that people carry more history, more stories than the parts you know or see. 

Pilcher is a nostalgic, sentimental softy whose stories appeal to those like me who can curl up in the comfort of memories. I think I will love her books more the older I get, but I'm pretty sure I would've loved them as a teenager, too. 

No comments: