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3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 1 October 2002
Margaret Drabble - from her first book - charted the progress of the English family life in the welfare state. Her keen eye for detail makes readers nostalgic for years less influenced by television. Her protagonists were energetic, larky intelligent women. Candida Wilton - the diarist of "Seven Sisters" is the older version of those amazing characters and so, a bit slower. When the book opens, Candida has been living alone for a couple of years since being supplanted by a younger woman. Her headmaster ex-husband and her daughters having reduced her to invisible wife-work - they don't appear to notice she has gone. By now, she has come to terms with solitude, managing a small budget and coping. It sounds depressing but domesticated wives are watchers, and slowly her wry, crafty humour emerges into the diary. The spirited young woman she must have been, made her choose a flat in a mixed area of West London - very unlike the Georgian house in Sussex she left behind. Candida's life started to change when the building where she took evening classes was redeveloped into a health club, and she was encouraged to join. The flattening of her personality from a long boring marriage, begins to open out - she suggests the old classmates meet to continue their study. They discuss travelling to the Mediterranean to follow in the footsteps of Virgil's story. Then an unexpected windfall encourages her to organise the trip - six assorted intelligent women - and an exotic tour operator who drives their vehicle - makes seven. The grey of Ladbroke Grove explodes into brilliant colour and they start their great adventure. The atmosphere of symbolism & legend is beautifully maintained - a kind of tranquility produced by supportive companions on a pilgimage together. Then a minor drama from the inquisitive husband, temporarily brings her family nearer - but by this time - she is complete on her own. Candida is a beautiful character - a witty grumpy, complex and intelligent woman. I read every page slowly with pleasure - it's a marvellous book.
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Candida Wilton, a reticent and unassuming divorcee is approaching her sixtieth birthday; her headmaster ex-husband, an outwardly charming, but vain and shallow man, has found a younger, more exuberant woman to take Candida's place; her three grown-up daughters have lives of their own and seem to show very little interest in how their mother is coping after the divorce and, to varying amounts, Candida feels estranged from all three. Now living alone in a flat in West London, Candida visits a local health club to keep herself in the swim of things, but she misses the evening classes at which she was studying Virgil's Aeneid, and which were held in the health club building before it was transformed from an adult education centre into a trendy gym. When a surprising windfall comes Candida's way, she throws caution to the wind and gets in touch with some of the ladies she'd become friendly with at the Virgil class; she also contacts her novelist friend, Julia, a classmate from her schooldays and suggests that Julia and the ladies from the evening class all accompany Candida on a trip to the Mediterranean to follow in Aeneas' footsteps. After a visit to the hairdresser and the purchase of some new clothes, Candida is ready to join her five companions on what could be the trip of a lifetime - but is it?

An unusual, offbeat story which is presented in the form of a diary written by Candida for the first part of the book, followed by a third-person narrated section relating the journey of the women as they travel through Tunis, Naples and Pompeii; this is followed by a short and rather surprising third section, which is supposedly narrated by one of Candida's daughters, and a fourth and final section - but I cannot discuss these last two parts of the story without revealing spoilers. As a main protagonist, Candida sometimes comes across as a bit of a cold fish, but she is an intriguing character and her travelling companions are interesting characters also - especially the elderly Mrs Jarrold, the rather bohemian ex-tutor of the Virgil classes and someone about whom I would have liked to have learnt more; then there is Cynthia who is married to a wealthy gay man who has a dangerous penchant for "late-night roaming"; and the exotic Anais Al-Sayyab with her oriental carpets and wall hangings amongst which can be detected the "unmistakeable perfume of high-quality North African hash" - but we do not really have the opportunity to learn as much about these people, or the other interesting characters who appear during the course of the novel, as perhaps we would like. That said, I was intrigued by Candida's story the moment I began reading and found this an unusual and entertaining, if sometimes poignant, read.

4 Stars.
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on 19 February 2016
Bit of an odd tale really. I have had this book for quite a while and took it on a journey with me when I had a mini break recently. I thought it did not seem to be actually going anywhere quickly. The characters were well described but I could not fathom out some of the plot. Definitely not for the young female readers but as someone of over 50 I could relate to some of the things spoken about. The journey to Italy was entertaining but the ending was disappointing.
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on 11 November 2008
I have not read Margaret Drabble's entire extensive list of novels, but I have always enjoyed them from as far back as I can recall. I think the first one I read was Jerusalem the Golden in 1967 and over forty years later she is still writing entertaining and literary novels.
The humour and excellent characterisation is up to the author's normal high standards.
`The Seven Sisters' is not written in chapters but in four parts, which made it a little harder to know at what point to stop for sleep, although it is mostly divided into journal type entries. Part One `Her Diary' consists of the journal entries of the protagonist Candida Wilton describing the changes in her lifestyle as a recently divorced woman who has moved from Suffolk to London. She describes her circumstances both past and present and introduces us through her diary to her friends old and new. An unexpected windfall leads her and a group of friends to plan a cultural trip to Tunisia and Italy. Part Two `An Italian Journey' describes the journey of the seven sisters, Candida, Cynthia Barclay, Ida Jerrold, Sally Hepburn, Julia Jordan, Anais Al-Sayyab and Valeria. The latter is the guide for the trip, making the seventh and the rest are friends of Candida's old and new. We follow the ladies as friendships are strengthened on the journey that most of them have long dreamed of to Tunis, Naples and Pompeii in the footsteps of Virgil's Aeneid. Part Three titled `Ellen's Version was for me a complete and unexpected twist to the tale. As was the final twist and ending in Part Four `A Dying Fall' to say more here will spoil it for other readers.

This novel will probably appeal to women of a certain age; whether or not they are already fans of Margaret Drabble.
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on 12 August 2003
This is the first Drabble book I have read and I enjoyed the first three quarters (probably a little more) very much indeed. Undoubtedly women of a certain age and trauma (myself included) will have a lot in common with the storyline - but the humour and characters in the book stop this being "typical". At a time when I was finding it hard to read, this book really did draw me into the narrative very quickly and I very much liked the motley collection of characters the book draws together. Whilst the end is not all it could be the majority of the book is well worth that disappointment (which you see coming anyway). This is one I shall be giving out as birthday presents this coming year with no problems whatsoever.
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on 5 March 2003
I'm a newcomer to the work of Margaret Drabble and from what I can tell she isn't someone that writes books that I would normally gravitate towards but, I must say I really enjoyed "The Seven Sisters." It's a mature work with mature characters - and I found myself savoring the language and quality of Ms. Drabble's talent.
This story of "starting over" was rich with tone and intelligence. It's literature in the true sense of the word and I really enjoyed stretching myself and trying something new.
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on 10 June 2012
The Seven Sisters is a superb novel by Margaret Drabble. Seven characters - who all happen to be women - eventually find themselves on a classically-inspired Mediterranean journey. It is a trip of literary and perhaps psychological significance. Thus extracted from their respective comfort zones - if comfort is a relevant term to describe their life-scarred lives - they react individually to their collective experience in quite different ways, differences driven by personality and personal history. But almost defiantly they remain a group determined to share the experience.

The central character of the book, Candida Wilton, became a Virgilian. Attending a class to study the Aeneid provided the label and the partially adopted identity. There were others involved, of course, all under the splendid wing of an aging retired classics teacher.

Candida has moved to London from Suffolk. Approaching sixty, she finds herself single again, divorced from a husband who has sought more tender pastures in which to graze. Occasionally she blames herself for his desertion, especially when reality focuses attention on herself. Somewhat surprisingly Candida is also estranged from her three daughters, an estrangement for which she usually takes responsibility. Reality may have offered a different interpretation and indeed at one point we believe we are getting one. Like may aspects of reality, the experience proves illusory.

So now alone, after the gentility and perhaps predictability of rural married life, Candida's move to a small flat in a none too salubrious area of west London presents something of a challenge. As she embarks upon her fight for independence, Candida keeps a diary in which she records events, reflections, descriptions, and almost anything that is commonplace. She swims, she prepares skimpy meals for one, starts to recognise the local down-and-outs and attends her Virgil class. In time she accommodates her loneliness as well as her past.

When an unexpected windfall allows some flexibility in her life, she invites her acquaintances and friends on a journey to Carthage and Naples to follow in the footsteps of their man, Aeneas. The woman they engage as their guide becomes the seventh of the sisters, all of who are women of varied and contrasting backgrounds. They are determined to share their experience, but individually respond to it in remarkably different ways. But collectively they leave Dido to her funeral pyre in pursuit of their wandering sailor.

The Seven Sisters is not a novel with a linear plot where events form the story. Margaret Drabble is a much better writer than that. Her novel is simply about the lives of the women involved, how they cope differently with surviving each day and how they approach life's demands and rewards. It is Candida's perspective that is always at the centre of the narrative, and it is through her estimations and reactions that we come to know the others. And so vivid is the portrayal of these lives that they almost leave the page to come alive. They seem to have rather more than three dimensions. Inasmuch as it is possible to know anyone, we feel we know all of these women by the end of the trip. That in itself is surprising because Candida at least is not even sure if she knows herself.

In Margaret Drabble's hands, no life is ordinary and it is the experience of life, itself, to read her engaging and moving novel. The Seven Sisters is no more or less than a remarkable study in character. And Aeneas left Dido. Is there anything new under the sun?
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on 22 February 2010
This is the second Margaret Drabble book I've read and it won't be the last. Rarely have I enjoyed the first half of a book so much. The character of depressed, intellegent Candida Wilton is beautifully drawn and the reader is instantly sucked into her world as an outsider in Ladbroke Grove. There are a number of odd encounters and quirky events all described in a highly entertaining way. The description of the Health club was wonderful. The seven sisters themselves are colourful and yet believable. I particularly liked Drabble's study of the relationship between Candida and her monster friend, Sally.

Reaching the end of Part Two - Italian Journey, it seemed to me to be a crime that the book has not yet been adapted for film as it has all the ingredients. But then I hit Part Three - Ellen's Version, and I saw why. My heart sunk as the pace braked sharply and the plot veered off cutting the magic short. For me this chapter pretending to be written by Candida's favourite daughter was a literary mechanism that didn't quite work.

However, by the end of the book Candida's life has become quietly upbeat and perhaps her improved relationship with Ellen, fortnightly Bridge at Mrs Jerrold and trips to the cinema with Cynthia and Anais is the realistic conclusion. But I couldn't help wanting more for funny old Candida! The finish does not live up to the novel's 5 star sparkling start and middle. For this reason I've knocked off a star.
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on 13 November 2010
I hadn't heard of Margaret Drabble when I selected the book from the shelf, and I'm uncertain what attracted me, as it certainly doesn't have the content I would usually go for. Having said that, I was captivated. An easy read with some strong characters who weave themselves together to form the Seven Sisters through Candida. To me the ending was odd, and I do feel slightly short-changed as I'm uncertain if the story really did come to a conclusion?
I thought the opening was reminiscent of me and so recognisable by many of us - people-watching at the gym! And such a delicate sense of humour in the text. I rarely smile when I'm reading, but the book was a great tonic.
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on 17 April 2016
Loved this sensitive novel about a complex divorcee struggling to make a new life for herself. I enjoyed Margaret Drabble's very realistic and perceptive account of mundane living; she never sugar-coats that particular pill.
The novel then makes a seismic shift in tone, as hope is rekindled and friends old and new are amassed for a trek across the Mediterranean.
Several unexpected twists occur in the narrative - I won't disclose any spoilers - which spice things up nicely.
A great read, which inspires me to try more of Drabble's work.
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