Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel is unusual, in that it has a male protagonist. Vinny Tumulty is a fifty-ish man living under the thumb of his domineering mother. He has a large number of women friends, having been unable to muster the passion required to turn friendship into romance. In the opening pages, Vinny has come to the aid of his recently widowed friend Isabella, who lives in the aptly named seaside town of Seething. Early on, Taylor makes sure we know Vinny is not one to learn from his mistakes:
Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience. (p.22)
While visiting Isabella, Vinny spies the young and beautiful Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title. He makes a point of meeting her, and is smitten. Emily lives a reclusive life with her sister Rose, who runs an inn. Emily’s primary responsibility is caring for Rose’s daughter, Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently. Rose is repressed and insecure, resenting her sister’s good looks while being “obsessed by sex as only those who fear it can be.” As Vinny and Emily’s relationship develops she becomes increasingly agitated and resentful. But Vinny has a secret in his past, that threatens his plans for wedded bliss with Emily. As he is trying to defuse the situation, others are trying to bring it to light.
The Sleeping Beauty is a richly layered story with several sub-plots that could easily have been short stories or novels in their own right. There is of course Rose, who is alone even though she is surrounded by others. A bevy of middle-aged women give comic relief through their past-times and attitudes. Isabella’s son, Laurence, is a moody character study and his romance with a girl in town runs along in parallel to Vinny & Emily, providing contrast as well as depth. These threads become intertwined as Vinny becomes further involved with Emily, and the book appears to be heading towards a dramatic conclusion. However, the ending left a lot unanswered for me. This is characteristic of Taylor, who doesn’t go in for high drama, and as with her earlier work it has kept me reflecting on The Sleeping Beauty long after I turned the last page.