Monday, 9 June 2008

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

This book came to me through Library Thing's Early Reviewers, though I must admit that, thanks to both work and family, I am rather late in getting round to writing about it.

When Pippa Lee moves to a retirement community with the much older husband to whom she is devoted, she finds herself out of step with the other residents and, increasingly, with her chosen life. Suspecting that her husband is showing signs of senility, instead she discovers that she is reacting to her new circumstances by sleepwalking. Faced with the revelation that her subconscious is rebelling against the life she has chosen, she finds herself reviewing her past, her childhood, and the circumstances which led to marriage and motherhood.

Although events are seen from Pippa's point of view throughout, the narration alternates between first and third person, permitting access to her thoughts while events are moved along within an occasionally more distanced framework. I'm not sure that this achieves a great deal, as it offers neither a more privileged insight into Pippa's moods and motives nor, mostly, any knowledge of those of the other characters, except in two brief interludes; however, the book doesn't lack pace as a result, and Pippa is an interesting and attractive protagonist, despite her troubled youth. This latter caused me a greater problem, in that I found the disjunct between troubled youth and contented marriage the least convincing element in the story – yes, so much was buried that it was bound to resurface later, and the move in her fifties to the retirement community, for which her husband might be ready, but she certainly is not, is a plausible trigger, but I'm not entirely persuaded that she could have quashed it so thoroughly. Of course, it emerges that there were signs of strain even within the contented marriage but, nonetheless, Pippa seems to have believed the myth along with everyone else.

I felt, in some sense that I can't pin down, that Pippa's voice was younger than her years. The immediacy of her exploration of her younger years, while attracting the reader's attention and empathy, both lacks contrast with her mature voice and offers no feeling of reflection on the past – it is a little too immediate. I also felt that the character of the husband required more depth.

Despite these reservations this was an entertaining book. A brisk read, it reminded me a little of Updike in its considered analysis of a modern American marriage. Not profound, nor even especially thought-provoking, but absorbing enough, and the author's handling of Pippa's emotional life has a clear-sighted quality which lends a feeling of veracity. Nicely produced by Canongate, too, which always adds to the pleasure.


  1. Is that the Rebecca Miller that is married to Daniel Day Lewis, or do I have my names mixed up?

  2. It's interesting that as I was reading your review from what you were saying I was picturing Pippa as younger than she then turns out to be. There may well be a problem with the representation of her age that you've managed to pick up on.

  3. Goodness, raidergirl, the things people know! I had to Google it, and she is.

    TT, could be - other reviews on LT suggest that I wasn't the only person to feel it didn't quite work.

  4. What an odd cover for a book about a 50 year old's thoughts. And that her voice sounds younger.

    I'm in the middle of my 4th reading of Back When We Were Grownups, and the narrator is 53, and is wondering about her past. She is so real, and definitely her age. An excellent book.

  5. Yes, I loved Back When We Were Grown-Ups, Nan. Now thinking of ordering Pippa Lee all the same.