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Not my Kind of Novel
on 15 September 2009
The Beginning of Spring is a well structured and crafted novel. For example, without giving away too much, an incident occurs on the first page of the novel and the reverse of that same incident occurs on the very last page. However, clever novelistic devices do not of themselves make a great novel. This is the first novel of Penelope Fitzgerald that I have read. It was read with the knowledge that during her writing career, Penelope Fitzgerald received high critical acclaim for most of her work. For me, however, The Beginning of Spring, whilst it is a well written novel, does not merit such high critical acclaim.
The novel has a simple straight forward plot. Set mainly in Moscow, the novel tells the story of Frank Reid who inherits his father's printing business and takes his wife Nellie to live in Moscow. Nellie leaves him taking their three children. She had planned to start a new relationship with a business colleague of her husband. When he does not show up to meet Nellie she abandons the children and pursues her separation from her husband on her own. The children are subsequently discovered at a railway station and are reunited with their father. The children's father, Frank, now has a business in decline to run and also his children to care for. Frank hires a Russian nanny, Lisa, who soon becomes the cause of problems for Frank.
Fitzgerald presets us with a middle class family saga. The family is placed the first decade of the twentieth century in a Russia that was in the early throes of upheaval and revolution. However, interesting though this world might seem, it was a world that was too narrow for me and did not reveal any broad issues that are of great importance.
Technically, Fitzgerald was a master of her craft. Her sentences are well constructed, the dialogue flows fluently and the third person narration rests easily with the dialogue. As for the characters they are well observed and drawn. With quiet subtlety we learn about the characters merits and demerits. Her description of Moscow is very good. The reader gets a good sense of being in Moscow, wandering through the streets and observing the scenes Fitzgerald describes.
However, the above strengths are far outweighed by what I consider The Beginning of Spring to be. Basically, it is a drawing room comedy of manners. It is solely concerned with the light hearted comic predicaments of a group of middle class people in the narrow confines of a domestic setting. This world was too narrow for my outlook and as a result the novel hardly engaged me.