Top positive review
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Elizabeth Taylor always writes with flair, simplicity, authenticity and great social observer skills
on 5 May 2014
Elizabeth Taylor is a highly rated author, and having seen the charming and moving film of the book on television recently, I realised I had not yet read this book, having read various others of hers. For example, Angel, which I have also reviewed in the past. Angel: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
The narrative is simple, plain and very British. Taylor's great talent is her acute social eye. The novel delights in its penetrating insight into the lives, minds and psychology of the Claremont's elderly well-heeled residents, their last stopping point before ending their days in a nursing home.
The Claremont is a not-quite-five-star hotel situated in the back streets of South Kensington, nearby Cromwell Road and the Natural History Museum, both locations that feature in the book as being within easy walking distance.
Taylor's great strength is the voice of authenticity, and one only needs to think of the end days of Margaret Thatcher, found dead in a similar hotel in Belgravia, as one of its long-term residents, to realise the truth of her writing.
This novel greatly precedes Thatcher, having been written decades before she was even Prime Minister. The residents of the Claremont, into whose world Mrs Palfrey is introduced, who like many of the residents, has recently been widowed, are immediately likeable and compelling, as they comprise a ready social group, each keeping tabs on the other in the natural curiosity - even to the extent of being busybodies - to which we, as humans, (as the reader!) have a propensity.
Finding, to her dismay, that her family are barely interested in her daily existence, Mrs Palfrey forms a relationship with a young man she literally stumbles upon after a fall outside his basement flat in the area whilst taking a walk. He is a penniless artist, writing his novel about an elderly woman from the waiting room sofas at Harrods, as his workplace.
In exchange for his kindness, Mrs Palfrey asks him to lunch at the Claremont, substituting him for her recalcitrant grandson who lives in London, but fails to visit, much to the intrusive nosiness of her Claremont associates. Of course, the reader is made deliciously aware that if or when the real grandson appears, it would give rise to a gentle comedy of errors. (I shall not spoil it!)
The book is both poignant and amusing, dealing as it does, with the end days of the lonely, widow/widower living out their autumn years as permanent hotel residents. Hotels are cold impersonal places at the best of times and we see this in the various conflicts that arise between the hotel management and the elderly posse who are viewed at times as a nuisance. As soon as they show any sign of embarrassing illness or age-related conditions, they are ordered to leave.
Elizabeth Taylor always writes with flair, simplicity, authenticity and great social observer skills. And how clever to get the idea to write this book.