Review: The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor

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.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor

  1. I think you’ve picked up on a pivotal point in this book in that sex is quite an issue. Not in an over-the-top way, as that wouldn’t be very ET, but she’s not the genteel lady writer she’s made out to be! There’s a whole lot of repression going on, what with Rose and Isabella and Laurence – I think she’s making the point that although Emily’s behaviour is condemned by Rose, it’s probably healthier than how Rose ends up – a very damaged person with no capacity for affection and thus a daughter who is deprived of a normal loving relationship with her mother. Also, Emily has become very repressed since her accident and positively blossoms under Vinny’s attentions.

    I enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected. The more ET I’m reading, the more I’m finding that she actually has quite a bleak outlook on life and her characters are not straightforward. I’m always amazed at her skill as a writer too – the way she casually drops into the story the truth about Laurence’s farther’s death is masterly.

    I liked the unresolved nature of the ending, personally – my main concern was what Emily’s reaction to Vinny’s secret would be, as I perceived their relationship as a little fragile and beset with outside dangers. Once that was resolved I felt that whatever life threw at them, they would weather it.

    From what I’ve read, some people seem to consider that ET’s first five novels were her best and that the later ones are not so good. I’d disagree with this view as I found this book very readable, interesting and intriguing – it got quite unputdownable towards the end and it was also very funny in places. Like you I kept thinking about it long after I’d finished it, and I’m looking forward to next month’s read of “Angel”!

    • kaggsy, you make such insightful comments! I, too have found there’s much more to Elizabeth Taylor than meets the eye. And her ability to drop bombshells is amazing. How many times have you been reading along, and suddenly stopped in your tracks: “wait … what was that?” and then had to re-read the passage because it was a huge point? Happens to me a lot with her work. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of her novels.

      • Exactly! Those bombshell moments take your breath away! Early on she mentions Vinny’s wife and I had to go back and re-read to make sure I hadn’t make a mistake! I’m trying to spread reading of her books out a little so as not to spoil them but I think reviewers over the years must have just been lazy or not read her work properly because I think she’s very misunderstood. Roll on next month’s read!

  2. Pingback: Virago Volumes: #2 – The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor « Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings

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