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Reading Peter Cameron’s latest novel, Coral Glynn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I can’t help but feel as if I were watching a more contemporary episode of the PBS smash hit Downton Abbey. A looming manse on an expansive estate, tortured aristocracy, meaningful looks and glances—it’s all there. If, by some chance, Laura Linney reads the audio-book, the circle will be complete.
This isn’t, of course, to minimize the pleasures of Coral Glynn (or of Downton Abbey, for that matter), but to point out the resonances between the two. Because, for all of its soap opera hokeyness, Coral Glynn is quite compelling. Indeed, one could argue, its soap opera qualities are precisely what makes it compelling.
On its surface, the story of Coral Glynn appears simple: the titular nurse Coral arrives at Hart House to care for an elderly woman dying of cancer, and her son, Major Clement Hart, takes a shine to her. Can wedding bells be far behind? (In a word: no.) But before Coral can find true happiness, she must endure any number of obstacles—grumpy servants, jewelry thefts, unwanted pregnancies, lost letters, and murders most foul—not to mention that her dearly beloved might still be in love with his best friend from childhood, Robin.
The mid-century British setting provides Cameron ample opportunity for exploration. Obviously, being set on an English estate, class differences weigh heavily in the story. (The tut-tutting after Major Hart announces his engagement to Coral, for instance, brings to mind the infamous grape-cutting scene from Cameron’s second novel The Weekend.)
But, more to the point, Cameron’s roving narrative eye examines the different varieties of love, from the sexless marriage of Robin to the spitfire Dolly to Coral’s own misgivings about her impetuous nuptials. And with this, Major Hart emerges as a particularly complex character—disfigured from the war and in constant pain, he considers himself unlovable. (In this, Major Hart resembles the gay main character from Cameron’s O. Henry Prize-winning story The End of My Life in New York.) Yet he desires Coral’s company. Love, for him, is an antidote to loneliness. But, as Coral continually asks herself, is this enough?
In less deft hands, this material would be ripe for all sorts of weeping and rending of garments, but Cameron works with a deft hand, never succumbing to histrionics. Instead, things proceed at a stately—one might hazard the description of British—pace. Indeed, the more dramatic elements of the plot are dispatched handily, allowing Coral the space to discover her own voice, her own calling. Even as she’s thrust into ill-fitting roles (caregiver, wife, fugitive nurse), she manages to carve out a life of her very own.
But lest you think that Coral Glynn is nothing more than gloomy taverns and brooding women, it’s evident that Cameron is having fun with the material. His light and breezy style at times suggests a Barbara Pym-like comedy of manners. The narrator, paying homage to the precepts of a middlebrow ‘women’s novel,’ lavishes the description on clothing and foodstuffs. (Fans of Evelyn Waugh will note the brief but priceless moment where the narrator intrudes, ever-so-slightly, into the story.) The dialogue, as well, is brisk and crisp, evoking upper-crust poshies at their wittiest.
The main downside? The Maggie Smith character disappears much too early in the novel. Now, all together, in our best Dowager Countess voice: I forbid it!
By Peter Cameron
Farrar, Straus and Giroux