A compartmentalized life becomes entangled
Mary Wesley was born near Windsor in 1912. Her education took her to the London School of Economics and during the War she worked in the War Office. Although she initially fulfilled her parent's expectations in marrying an aristocrat she then scandalised them when she divorced him in 1945 and moved in with the great love of her life, Eric Siepmann. The couple married in 1952, once his wife had finally been persuaded to divorce him. She used to comment that her 'chief claim to fame is arrested development, getting my first novel Jumping the Queue published at the age of seventy'. She went on to write a further nine novels, three of which were adapted for television, including the best-selling The Camomile Lawn. Mary Wesley was awarded the CBE in the 1995 New Year's honour list and died in 2002.
So disarming is this novel by the author of The Camomile Lawn, that its spoof of a plot and its spiral of coincidence don't matter a bit. It concerns Hebe Rutter (Hebe, messenger of the gods, the peacock-harnesser of the title), chef extraordinaire and founder and sole member of the Syndicate, an exclusive club patronized by rich young men enamored of Hebe and her sexual gifts. A laid-back beauty of impeccable lineage, Hebe supports her 12-year-old son Silas, father unknown, by replacing full-time cooks when they are on vacation from the English country houses where they are employed. Thus she meets and ensnares the young sons of the household, sometimes married, often her collateral relatives, since her familywhich quite literally showed her the door when she turned up pregnantis connected to almost everyone of social stature for miles around. One of Hebe's part-time employers inadvertently becomes part of the unspoken plot to legitimize Silas. The boy's father keeps Hebe and the reader waiting while suspense mounts, but, happily for these beguiling characters, everything comes right in the end. (April)
"Delightful, intelligent entertainment" * Sunday Telegraph * "Tremendously lively, very funny, touching, spirited" * Susan Hill * "Hugely enjoyable" -- Nicholas Shakespeare * The Times * "Warm, wise, witty, sexy" * Boston Globe *
Despite a somewhat melodramatic start this is an entertaining tale about an unconventional young Englishwoman and her friends, lovers, and son. As a teenager pregnant Hebe had run away from home to bear her child and create a new life. Now, 12 years later, she is living in a seaside town, working alternately as a gourmet cook and a prostitute, and doing both on her own terms and with flair. Hebe's son is having a rough time at the pretentious upper-class school his mother sends him to. A change in his summer vacation plans sets things in motion as Hebe's assorted acquaintances meet up unexpectedly, and her discreet-seeming existence goes wildly askew. Eventually, character triumphs, and snobs receive their just desserts. Coincidental meetings aboundbut Britain is a small island, after all. First published at 70, the author achieves comic turns and lively pacing that belie her age. Laurie Spector Sullivan, Regis Coll. Archives, Weston, Mass.