There comes a point when your life begins to resemble your job.”–D. J. Taylor’s From the Heart
Taylor, whose novel, Derby Day, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and whose biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Biography Award in 2003, is one of my favorite contemporary writers.
This fascinating, complex novella is a fictional consideration of work, love, and loss. It is told from three points-of-view: Anthony’s, Alison’s, and Lucy’s. The main character, Anthony, is an Oxford alumnus, age 38, dissatisfied, as so many are in their late thirties, with the direction his life has taken. Although he is not nostalgic about Oxford, he is morose about his work and marriage. Anthony is an insolvency practitioner who works on the liquidation of bankrupt companies. He married Alison, a PR director, because she “liked” him. They have two children.
But he has long been in love with Lucy, his fantasy woman, an Oxford friend who has, unbeknownst to him, become a researcher-writer-interviewer for a BBC history show. He hasn’t seen her in 17 years, but often illicitly examines what he calls the “Lucy file” (photos and papers) when Alison is busy.
Anthony’s soulless occupation is balanced by his bookishness and his obsession with the heart. He still has Lucy’s copy of Silas Marner from college; he admires her marginal notes (she has written an essay on goodness). And he muses fascinatingly on the image of the heart in literature and art and its differences from the actual muscle. As a student he saw a photo of a heart from the dissection lab. The heart was
…simply a slump of muscle and sprouting, hacked-off tubers….Had any of the poets who wrote so blithely of the stirrings of the human heart, compared it to singing doves, arrows, anvils, india rubber, stone, said that it was clogged, aching, timorous or sullen, ever seen one?
His very nice, ordinary wife Alison (who did not, by the way, go to Oxford) knows Anthony is discontented. She thinks:
Even now, at an age when most of us can barely remember what we did at university, he still wishes he was sitting in a set of panelled rooms, telling a sofa full of nineteen-year-olds about George Eliot and Anthony bloody Trollope.
Elsewhere in London, Lucy is also discontented with her life. Her bookish boyfriend, Mark, who in situation and interests in similar to Anthony, also has a complicated life in the City. Their relationship is unraveling. He charms her parents in the same way that Anthony charms Alison’s parents. (Both women are annoyed by this charm.) She wittily, cynically observes,
In her decade-and-a-half in London, Lucy had never known a man who hadn’t left for work by 7:30.
Insolvency practice in the city is changing, becoming more sophisticated and global. Things are falling apart for the upper classes: Ian Kennedy, a beefy Oxford graduate who has gone bankrupt, cannot believe his company will be liquidated. At the same time, Kwanko, an African educated in Paris, is on his way up, part of an international exchange at Anthony’s firm. When Kwanko moves in to Anthony’s basement to avoid the ambassador’s wife, who has a crush on him, we learn that, like Anthony, he reads Victorian novels. The life of the well-educated African aristocrat is not that different from Anthony’s, as long as the political life is stable.
Adultery is a complicated issue for all these numb readers of Victorian novels. They do not just jump into bed, like the characters in a film.
Morality matters. Changing lovers is complicated. Is it worth it? There are a couple of endearing married sex scenes that show Anthony still finds his wife attractive, even though he’s restless. “Outward primness and secret lack of shame is a failsafe combination.”
From the Heart is compelling, astute, and witty. Real life can be dull, and even those of us who didn’t go to Oxford sometimes burn out and wonder why why why… We’ve all had our Anthony /Lucy moments. I enjoyed this very much, and consider it a great book to read indoors. Definitely not a beach read.