Penguin £9.99

The Seven Sisters, By Margaret Drabble

The second lives club

How successful would Margaret Drabble's publishing career be if she started out today?

The doyenne of the "Hampstead dinner party" novel has become unfashionable, and this 2002 novel does not suggest that she was interested in reinventing herself.

Which is possibly why it works so beautifully. Drabble takes her time, building up the inconsequentialities of her middle-aged heroine's quiet life, now that she has divorced her husband and her three daughters are grown up. In among the seemingly unimportant detail about local shops, people buying for large dinner parties (the novel is set in Ladbroke Grove, west London, not Hampstead, but its characters still give dinner parties) and the younger women at the health club, Drabble carves out a picture of a woman facing the loneliness of her final years in some confusion. Is she sorry for herself; bitter that her husband had an affair and remarried? Or is she happy to have escaped the confines of a dull relationship and established herself in her own flat, her own territory? She's not sure.

Drabble possesses the rare and wonderful gift of making her characters seem utterly real. There's a painful honesty in this tale of a woman who heads off to Italy with female friends old and new, an admission of failure and a life not lived as fully as it should have been. And yet, for all that, it is not bleak. Stoicism is not fashionable either, but when we meet it we wonder why it is so undervalued.

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