“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” by Rebecca Miller (Canongate) – Novel Review

Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

The film’s not made it to Leicester, so I turned to the book.

“Well I congratulate you. You are the first person who has ever walked across the threshold of this house who isn’t riddled with ambition, frustrated or otherwise.  Even the butler is writing a short story. He broke the news to me yesterday,” Herb comments on his first meeting with Pippa.

A misspent youth pushes Pippa into marriage with a man 30 years her senior as the third Mrs Herb Lee.  She falls into the apparently humdrum life of a housewife and mother, enabling Herb to continue his successful publishing career.  Determination not to make the mistakes her own mother made sours Pippa’s relationship with her own daughter whom Pippa suspects sees her as a doormat.

Herb, now 80, moves them to a retirement village.  He continues to run his publishing business.  Pippa discovers that the security of her marriage was achieved through emotional compromise.  Disgusted by the doctor’s “sleeping pills and take up a hobby” advice as she finally acknowledges she’s been sleepwalking, Pippa begins to admit her past and explore her future options.

Rebecca Miller draws Pippa as a piece of unfired clay, moulding herself to her family’s wants.  She’s the one cooking dinners so Herb can entertain, she’s bringing a bottle to a neighbour’s party while Herb’s chasing a manuscript, she’s proud and supportive of her son’s lawyerly respectability and counsellor to her friends’ emotional dramas.   But what of Pippa?  You suspect she’s envious of her daughter’s self-sufficiency and drive, something hinted at when the book returns to Pippa’s youth and that problematic lack of ambition. 

Almost in Anne Tyler’s territory, but not quite with her confidence and absolute attention to detail.  Anne Tyler would never have given us a second wife’s death as “a fine spray of blood the shape of a huge Japanese fan surged out of her serpentine black hair, spattering him, all of us, like lava shooting out of an angry volcano.  The glass behind her was coated ruby red.”  But this over-poetic prose is generally rare, suggesting first-novel nerves from Rebecca Miller.   Anne Tyler’s prose gives a texture and detail that makes it very difficult to translate to film.  Rebecca Miller’s prose is a line that draws a sketch, giving space for the reader to colour the picture in.  Very easy to see how the book became a film.

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