7 November 2012
I have to confess I didn't actually intend to buy this book - it came in an omnibus edition with another Buchan book I HAD ordered, and I thought I might as well read both as I had them.
'Perfect Love' is the story of Prue Valour, a middle-aged woman living in happy domesticity with her banker husband Max and teenage daughter Jane in a small Hampshire village near Winchester. Prue is, from the start, clearly an extremely good woman. She married Max, twenty years her senior, after his first wife left him and almost immediately after died in unpleasant circumstances, and uncomplainingly reared Max's difficult daughter Violet, despite Violet's regular unpleasantness to her. Now, with Violet married and living in America, and her own daughter a weekly boarder at a nearby school, Prue devotes a lot of her time to good works. She works part-time in a bookshop, is a leading force in the local Women's Institute and church flower-arranging rota, organizes local charity events and the village Christmas concert, and still finds time to cook delicious food and tend her husband. In her spare time she is (slightly implausibly bearing in mind her almost total lack of qualifications, and the fact she appears to have no publisher and do no detailed research) writing a book on Joan of Arc. A good and happy life then - and Prue can't imagine it changing. But then, said difficult stepdaughter Violet returns from New York with her husband Jamie, another banker, and their baby. And Prue and Jamie find themselves irresistibly attracted to each other. Soon, Prue and Jamie are in the grip of a tumultuous passion, with Prue sneaking off to London whenever she can to meet Jamie in a hotel, and Jamie fantasizing about leaving his wife to marry Prue. Meanwhile Violet is struggling to be a career woman and a mother, and Prue's husband, aware that something is going on, is struggling with his feelings, believing that he shouldn't confront Prue as he somehow owes a moral debt for forcing his first wife Helen to marry him. And to add to the complications, Violet's nanny, a local girl from Prue's village, gets pregnant by her builder boyfriend, and Prue's daughter, aware all is not well at home, develops anorexia. How will these complications resolve themselves?
All credit to Buchan, she does make you want to read on and find out, and her depiction of some of the characters emotions and thoughts is well worked out, and convincing. She's also a mistress of describing suburban middle-class life, in London and in the shires. However, I have to say that the book didn't entirely work for me. I couldn't believe, for example, that Prue, who had seemingly been happy in her marriage, would have an affair with such little guilt, embracing not only passion but 'the power of selfishness' (as she puts it) quite cheerfully. I was never entirely clear what the big attraction - apart from sex - was between her and Jamie, and why she fell for him so much. I also found the constant comparisons between Prue and Joan of Arc rather pretentious and inappropriate: Joan was a religious visionary who believed she was working for God - this is not the same as giving in to an all-consuming physical passion for another woman's husband. Bearing in mind Jamie's relationship to Prue Racine's Phaedra would have been a much better comparison; but Ms Buchan probably assumed most of her readers wouldn't have known this character. I felt that both Prue and Jamie would have felt a lot more guilt over deceiving their partners. The partners themselves I found a little hard to believe in. Max was interesting though I found it hard to quite make him out - did he really love his wife, and was Buchan implying his troubled childhood had emotionally damaged him? - and I didn't believe he would have acted as he did towards Violet's nanny, Emmy. And Violet came across as an almost stereotypically nasty career woman with her lack of maternal feelings and constant self-centredness, though there were moments when one felt sorry for her (I also didn't believe in her name - how many high-flying career women in their thirties are called Violet these days?). And I agree with Roman Clodia that the subplot with the nanny seemed a bit unnecessary. The rather olde-worlde atmosphere of the village felt slightly dated too, though I suppose it made an effective ironic background for Prue's passions.
All in all, a perfectly pleasant light read, and I found the ending quite moving, but this novel is not the profound examination of human nature that it may seem to be from the opening pages.