First things first: This is not THE Elizabeth Taylor (except maybe to hardcore lit fans!? 😉 ), but a very talented and well-known author, and even lauded as the Jane Austen of the 20th century. If you see a copy of this book that has the movie cover, don´t let it scare you off, it´s a wonderful book and I think the cover above does it much more justice.
On a rainy Sunday in January, the recently widowed Mrs Palfrey arrives at the Claremont Hotel where she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are magnificently eccentric and endlessly curious, living off crumbs of affection and snippets of gossip. Together, upper lips stiffened, they fight off their twin enemies: boredom and the Grim Reaper. Then one day Mrs Palfrey strikes up an unexpected friendship with Ludo, a handsome young writer, and learns that even the old can fall in love… (amazon.com)
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont gives us a glimpse into old age. Some of it applies more to the 1970s, what with people really living in hotels (I don´t think that´s really done anymore, except maybe for rich people in movies), but most of it is universal. There is Mrs Palfrey´s dismay at her untrustworthy legs, the loneliness, and the fact that they often feel like they are only waiting for death.
Mrs Palfrey is described as looking too big, with huge hands and strong features, and that she would have made a distinguished man. The description of Mrs Palfrey is really not very flattering but I found that this just adds to the authenticity of the character, and Taylor is not afraid of portraying the characters and their life with grim honesty. Her observations are unrelenting and brutal and all the better because of it. However, there is also humour and sometimes even affection for her characters apparent in her writing.
Life at the Claremont consits of almost oppressing boredom and routine. The residents have little to entertain them, the food is always the same, in the evenings they sit down to knit or read or watch tv, and the long afternoons are spent walking by Mrs Palfrey. It is no wonder that they jump at each small diversion, such as the rare visits of relatives. Mrs Palfrey has a grandson in London but he cannot be bothered to visit her, and when she falls while walking and a young man named Ludo shows her kindness, Mrs Palfrey asks him to pretend to be her grandson. With Ludo´s appearance the story becomes a bit more of a comedy, although tragedy is never far away. Mrs Palfrey comes to love Ludo, who gives her attention and a purpose, and Ludo (and his writing) seems to thrive under her care.
Despite the theme of aging, and Taylor´s unmasking of the sad states of human relationships, this novel is actually at times something of a comfort read. The residents are quite eccentric, and I enjoyed the following the progressing friendship of Mrs Palfrey and Ludo. It´s just fun enough to not be a depressive read, but this book will stay with you forsome time after you´ve finished it. I will definitely read more by Elizabeth Taylor!
Some of my favorite passages:
“There was usually a demonstration on Sundays, with milling crowds in Trafalgar Square and forays into Downing Street. The policemen and the horses were always sympathized with. They had the Claremont solidly behind them.” (52)
“If you don´t praise people just sometimes a little early on they die of despair, or turn into Hitlers, you know.´” (61)
“As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr. Osmond more like an old woman.” (68)
“She realized that she never walked now without knowing what she was doing and concentrating upon it; once, walking had been like breathing, something unheeded. The disaster of being old was in not feeling safe to venture anywhere, of seeing freedom put out of reach.” (73)
“She did not explain to him how deeply pessimistic one must be in the first place, to need the sort of optimism she now had at her command.” (98)
“It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby, in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost.” (184)
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I´ll add a link!