The Road to Lichfield by Penelope Lively

Sometimes I’m in the mood for something Very British.  Oh, heck, I’m in the mood for that all the time!  When it comes to books I’m very much an Anglophile – Ruth Rendell, Barbara Pym, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner, Kate Atkinson – they’re some of my favorite authors ever. The wit, the famous reserve, the atmosphere – there’s something about books set in the UK that I find hard to resist.

Add Penelope Lively to the list.  I’d read two of her novels previously – Moon Tiger and Passing On – that’s what my Goodreads account tells me, anyway.  I couldn’t tell you a single thing about either one of them, truth be told!  It’s kind of sad how little my brain retains – I guess that happens to many voracious readers like myself.  If I don’t re-read a book, or perhaps discuss it in my book group, then chances are good I’ll forget most of it in a few years!

The Road to Lichfield is a quiet novel, but still waters run deep, don’t they?  Our heroine is Anne, a married forty-year-old mother of two, teaching history at a prep school.  Her husband is sort of bland, but nice, and they’ve been together for seventeen years.  Her father is dying, and the road to Lichfield takes her to visit him at the nursing home.  She begins cleaning out his house and finds some papers that open her eyes to another side of her father, one she never expected.  In the meantime, she meets his neighbor, David, a friendly, handsome, also married teacher about her age who used to spend some time with her dad fishing.  You can guess what happens, right?

Anne sort of wakes up, as from a deep sleep, seeing the landscape anew – the roads are not just roads anymore, they’re beautiful and sacred.

I have never before, Anne thought, realized that cooling towers are beautiful.  Or that front gardens of houses are infinite in their variety.  Or that clouds piled on the skyline take on the shape of castles and cathedrals.  If fields are always that color in late April, then it seems to have escaped me hitherto.  And never have I sat in a traffic jam, sandwiched between two shuddering lorries, and hummed or tried to all I can remember of The Marriage of Figaro.  I have never particularly enjoyed driving.  I have certainly never realized that roads one has known for years could be sanctified in the course of three weeks.

Written in 1977, it feels remarkably modern.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it – I relished every opportunity I had to return to its pages.  Making dinner, my son’s nap time, every chance I could I wanted to dive back in to Anne’s life – not so much to find out what happens, but more to experience Lively’s lovely, measured prose.  It’s not a revolutionary plot by any means, but it is the kind of novel I am often drawn to – one about tangled, messy relationships and family secrets, with lots of interior “action” inside the characters’ minds.  Sort of a cross between the more somber Anita Brookner and the witty Barbara Pym, this was just the novel I needed to re-energize my reading.  I now intend to read all of Lively’s novels and probably re-read the other two I have already (allegedly) read. It’s always exciting to add another author to the list!


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