Books: ‘Paralyzed by Triviality’

Penelope Mortimer always seems poised to have a moment, and yet never quite breaks through. That’s a shame, because her semi-autobiographical writing—sharp, clean, and dispassionate, but not unkind—has withstood the test of time.

Never mind her family life, famous husband, large household. Mortimer’s mordant wit sets her apart from fellow novelists of the mid-century years. The Pumpkin Eater (made into a film starring Anne Bancroft) may be her best-known novel, but there are treasures aplenty to be discovered. And chief among them is Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (McNally Editions, May 17), her 1958 novel initially published in the states as Cave of Ice.

Cave of Ice as a title seems like a joke played on the novel, about Ruth, a frustrated wife and mother who throws off a nervous breakdown caused from suburbia as much as anything else to help her daughter secure an abortion. Her daughter doesn’t necessarily want one (though that depends on her ever-fluctuating desire to annoy her mother); Ruth long ago gave up on connecting with her husband; and the commuters who sleep and breathe in their sleepy neighborhood are exactly the types of adulterous, gossipy neighbors you’d expect in a town like this.

Like many of Mortimer’s novels, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting undergoes a few surprising shifts. What initially seems like an icy dissection of suburban ennui turns darker and more personal when Ruth’s daughter returns from school pregnant, seemingly bent on repeating Ruth’s own youthful mistakes; likewise, Ruth’s battles with her nurse—who is overseeing her “convalescence”—are both funny and alarming. But Ruth rallies for her daughter, and Mortimer keeps things on the knife’s edge of bleak comedy and social satire.

Other novels offered Mortimer a wider canvas (and a few scores to settle, often with herself), but Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is so precisely calibrated one is frustrated that Mortimer isn’t better-known. But never mind. Mortimer is back in print, and that’s something to relish.

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