This is the first book I've read from Penelope Lively. It's a novel set in Oxford in the late 1970s about a young teenage girl, Clare, living with her great-aunts in an antiquated Victorian house. The house is still packed full of things from the 1920s, including a tribal mask from Papua New Guinea that Clare's great-grandfather (the great-aunts' father) brought back from an expedition to the country. Clare unearths the mask one day in the attic and can't stop thinking about it, and she begins to have dreams about the people of Papua New Guinea and how their lives change as the twentieth century encroaches on them. The mask storyline serves as a metaphor for how time affects our lives, and is directly parallel to how time affects the lives of Clare and her great-aunts.
Nothing really happens in this story: there is not much action, it's more of a story about how people feel and think about their futures and their pasts. Clare does the regular sort of things that 14-year-old girls do -- she goes to school, plays with her friend, goes shopping for presents in stores where the shopkeepers look down their noses at her, and misbehaves in a play at school. While she's doing all that, though, she makes some interesting observations about life and time -- the house she lives in has seen the lives of many people pass by, and all the things they've left behind make it seem almost like those people still live there. She thinks about how her great-aunts are sort of stuck in the 1920s, the time period when they were most active. She thinks about how you can't wait for the weekend to get here, and then spend most of the weekend being bored and not having anything to do.
I only gave this book two stars because while Clare's observations are interesting, I spent a lot of time waiting for something to happen in the novel and being slightly disappointed when nothing really did. Looking at the reviews of Lively's other books, though, it seems like most of her novels are more internal stories rather than action-packed, so I don't think I would have been as impatient with the novel if I had known this, but as I hadn't known this, I found the story boring. The best part about this book is the descriptions of her house and Oxford, which are very realistic -- I would love to live in a house with character like Clare's! The story is slow, overall, but if you're looking for something that will make you think about how we view getting older and the process of modernization, then I think this would be a good choice.