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Odd Girl Out
on 24 May 2014
Edmund and Anne Cornhill, a childless couple approaching middle-age, have been married for ten years and live happily together in a wonderful house on the river at Henley. Edmund commutes into the city where he works at an upmarket estate agency; Anne stays home, spending her time working in their beautiful garden, sewing petit point covers for the chairs, and driving off in her little MG with her wicker baskets to shop for food, which she then lovingly makes into delicious meals for Edmund to come home to. They are both exceedingly considerate of one another's feelings and even their rare disagreements are conducted with as much good grace as possible. When Edmund receives a phone call from his ex-stepmother, Clara (six times married and terribly well-off) asking him to take her twenty-two-year-old daughter, Arabella, under his wing for short time whilst she recuperates from an unspecified ailment, Edmund, good-mannered as always, agrees to have Arabella to stay, even though he has never met his step-sister. And so the beautiful, amoral, 'Botticelli-like' Arabella arrives at the Cornhills' home (where they soon discover the 'unspecified ailment' that she needs to recover from is actually a termination of an unwanted pregnancy) and in her own devastatingly charming way, Arabella causes all sorts of difficulties for Edmund and Anne, but maybe not quite in the way we might have initially thought. Alongside the main story, in a very secondary tale, we read about Henry, an impoverished actor who, infatuated with Arabella, leaves his wife, Janet, and their two small children, and whose selfish actions cause misery and tragedy for all involved. And is Arabella, after causing strife for more than one couple in a period of just a few weeks, any the happier, or the wiser? Or is she destined to be the eternal cuckoo in the nest or the 'odd girl out'?
Elizabeth Jane Howard, who always writes with perception and elegance, describes the Cornhills' marriage with a keen insight enabling the reader to observe how their partnership works and, also, where it doesn't. It is interesting to read how Edmund always brings Anne her breakfast on a tray, imagining that she wants to remain in bed chatting to him whilst he prepares for work when, in fact, Anne actually prefers not to waste the best time of the day in bed, but cannot tell Edmund in case she appears ungrateful. And then there is Anne, who spends her time shopping, preparing and cooking delicious and sometimes unnecessarily elaborate meals for Edmund, who when she is alone, would rather garden until it is nearly dark and then eat boiled eggs at the kitchen table with a novel propped up against a loaf of bread. At the beginning of the book, we learn how seemingly contented the pair are in their marriage - but is this marriage really as contented and secure as we initially think when Arabella so easily disrupts it? This novel, first published in 1972, is beautifully written and is full of lovely descriptions of the Cornhills' home and their lifestyle - I could almost taste the salmon trout, the dressed crab, the fresh raspberries and the chilled Sancerre - making parts of this novel a real pleasure to read. Elizabeth Jane Howard also cleverly and interestingly contrasts the Cornhills' and Arabella's privileged way of life against the poverty-stricken existence of the depressed and increasingly desperate Janet, making this novel both an enjoyable and entertaining, yet very poignant read.