Jess Speight, a young anthropologist, returns from Zambia where she has been studying a genetic mutation, back to London and the swinging sixties. She becomes pregnant by her supervising professor who promptly does a disappearing act shortly after daughter Anna is born. The narrative is provided from a distance by Jess's friend, Eleanor. It gradually becomes clear that Anna is slow in her mental development although the exact nature of the underlying problem is never revealed. Single mother Jess and Anna's journey takes the reader from the 1960's to the present day. Eleanor flicks between past and present tense. Jess remains fiercely independent whilst sharing her life with the lovable Anna who is totally dependent on Jess.
From Eleanor's narration, we learn of the people surrounding Jess, of motherhood, treatment of mental illness, affairs, marriage, divorces, ageing, death, blurring of memories and senses. The rich developing relationship and lives of Jess and Anna, how they interact and are affected by Anna's disability are central to the novel interweaving famous figures with family members with disabilities, including David Livingston, the novelists Jane Austen and Pearl Buck. Not overly sentimental nor melodramatic, the author's strength is in her shrewdness, observation and character insight; how we interpret our inner lives and what it means to live a meaningful life with the transition into the very different modern times. A stirring, intelligently written book. Not Margaret Drabble's best but a meaningful and enjoyable read.