The Lingering Echoes of a Singular Evening




The Cost of Living by Kathleen Farrell (Macmillan)

Having successfully laid bare the machinations of what love is to many in her previous novel, Take It To Heart, one could have expected Farrell to have continued with the same astute intensity. Instead, in 1956 she delivered the breezy The Cost of Living, a colorful, deceptively simple affair, its lightness of touch belying a certainty of purpose in presenting an apparently scatty arrangement of existence and the echoes of a singular evening.

Seldom can appearances have been so delightfully deceptive, and although the flippant undertone never quite deserts these pages, the tone darkens gradually and imperceptibly, in the way an afternoon slips into night. This is London in the mid-1950s, a northern suburb well before the swinging abandonment of the next decade, but from a milieu that in many ways provides the foundation stones for the Carnaby Street ethos. It begins with Marianne, an observer of people and a typist of mundane manuscripts, and centers upon her friendship with Alexandra, an aspiring graphic artist and portrait painter of unwilling children, who has more time on her hands than work. They represent two women at different points on the same journey. Alexandra has an eye for a good time, and if a potential husband were to fall her way in the process of having one, that would be quite acceptable to her. Marianne, a decade older and more worldly, can take or leave such wishes; the dynamics of the situations they throw into her orbit she finds endlessly fascinating, but from a distance. The novel begins with their plans for a party, and the rest of the book is really the progress of the slowly spreading stain that reaches beyond this sole, apparently inconsequential, event. One unexpected guest, the scatty Pisa -- foreign, chaotic and eccentric -- becomes Marianne's unplanned lodger, and a whirlwind of intrigues transpire to shatter the coziness the reader first encounters. Despite her best efforts, it becomes impossible for Marianne to remain detached and aloof. Conversations get repeated, and situations evolve that pull her in directions she would gladly have steered clear of. She cannot avoid the highs and lows of Alexandra's relationship with an Australian called Frederick.

In short, the party exerts a longer sphere of influence than they could ever have imagined. Even the cute but dull bus conductor that Marianne invites becomes a prickly customer, despite being initially written off as the kind of guest one only includes in order to keep up the numbers. The book has the slightly claustrophobic aspect of a tightly constructed play. The drama fans out as much from their conversations as from any major moments of explosive significance. It is an intimate and confidential work of love and friendship, the things that remain and on which we depend once the initial promise of romance has floundered. Despite revealing moments of joy that are seldom entirely joyful, and miseries, though often acute, that can also provide the catalyst for laughter, it harnesses these contradictions well.

As Alexandra ruefully observes:

"I feel that it might be better to look intelligent... There's an awful lot of prettiness around, and it doesn't actually get one anywhere." A line that still resonates with exquisite mockery.

Few novels have such a perfect sense of balance. In execution it provides the reader with a sense of completeness. If her previous books were more somber in tone, this much lighter approach still permitted Farrell the luxury of flaying conventional aspirations with more of a wry smile. Just when you consider her to be at her most frivolous, she exacts a stringent revenge with some casually delivered observation. There is a price to everything, especially the pursuit of a good time. After all the tumult and soul searching, the two women are again together, pondering their lot and planning another small gathering. They know they are playing with fire, but it keeps them alive. The alternative of not doing so is simply too grim for serious consideration, although their conversations are littered with shrewd takes on the differences between the sexes. It has to be said that both genders are withered with equally unflattering deductions.

Farrell believed in a democracy of derision, and when this seeped into her everyday remarks, the effects were devastating in their apparent discretion. She once observed that a novel by her former lover, Kay Dick had obviously been "excellently edited" by their mutual friend, the writer Francis King, "because there were sentences with verbs in them and proper punctuation." As the title of her third novel suggests, living's costs are always more than simply financial.