Mark, a respected biographer, is researching Gilbert Strong a once renowned but now largely forgotten literary figure. Mark travels to Dorset to the home once owned by Strong and meets and becomes infatuated with Strong's granddaughter Carrie who lives in the sprawling estate; she runs a successful gardening centre with her gay friend Bill.
Mark persuades Carrie to accompany him on a trip to France to interview Carrie's mother, Hermione for the biography and en route they have a brief affair. While mark remains besotted Carrie is largely indifferent and when mark's wife, Diane, joins them in France Carrie runs away to Paris. There she meets and falls desperately in love with another man.
I have read and hugely enjoyed most of Penelope Lively's novels and love her style and ability to create likeable if sometimes quite troubled characters.
One or two minor quibbles. I found the behaviour of Mark's wife, Diane, incredible in the extreme. Even when Mark admits to his affair with Carrie, Diane is not only amazingly solicitous of Mark's feelings and well-being but she is also amicable almost downright friendly towards Carrie. She even discusses her husband with his erstwhile lover and passes on the message from Carrie "Give mark my love". While this is clearly just a nicety, it is the idea of a cheated-on middle-aged wife carrying such a message to her "dumped" husband that is completely unrealistic.
Towards the end of the novel, having turned up a cache of love letters written by Strong, Mark is troubled by feelings of prurience at digging into peoples' lives but is reassured by a colleague that the dead have no feelings. Mark then reflects that "the only feelings in question are one's own". I had a problem accepting this sweeping generalization since I have witnessed and read of families irrevocably sundered by biographies which exposed family secrets; the same applies to friends and colleagues. Indeed the families, friends and colleagues most certainly do have feelings.
However, the quality of the writing, the depiction of the characters and a well-told tale are more than enough to make this book well worth reading