It had been different when they were all young and at school. She had felt then that they were her own, but perhaps she had been mistaken, perhaps she had not known their secret selves, and she remembered, for the first time for years, how she had once found Lydia crying in the nursery and had not been able to find out what her trouble was. It seemed to her that what she had missed then might be evading her still. She had given birth to five bodies and she would always be a stranger to their souls. This was a terrible thought and it would have been more terrible still if she had known that it was William’s too.
William and Kate Nesbitt raised five children; all but the youngest, Janet, have left home to start families of their own. William has a successful career in shipping, and they live comfortably. The extended family often gathers at their home, for Sunday lunch and special occasions like Kate’s birthday. William and Kate should be content, happy with the success of their children and ready to resume life as a couple.
But Kate, in particular, struggles with letting go. She’s not completely happy with some of the choices her children have made, choices ranging from partners to articles of clothing. She frets constantly, where William is more pragmatic. He understands that children grow up, separate, and forge their own paths. But both William and Kate are sorely tested when their second-youngest daughter Lydia leaves her husband to live with another man. In the early twentieth century, this was simply was. not. done.
Kate is crushed because Lydia confided in William instead of her. She is outraged by Lydia’s decision, and cuts off communication. She tries to prevent siblings from contacting Lydia as well. But instead of feeling satisfied, her self-righteousness leaves her feeling miserable. William is equally unhappy, but his feelings are directed more at Kate than Lydia. Who is this woman? Why has she built a wall between herself and her daughter? He is intensely irritated by Kate’s petty behavior and her hardened exterior. Meanwhile, Janet is threatening to fly the nest in her own, quiet way. As she asserts her independence both William and Kate try to influence the outcome. Sadly, Kate’s efforts seem controlling and shrewish. William remains a confidante, inherently good. Both Lydia and Janet’s situations are resolved in the course of the novel, but not without much emotion and pain for William and Kate.
I found this book quite emotional, perhaps because I will soon experience my eldest flying the nest. Like William and Kate, my husband and I often reflect on who our children have become and hope that we continue to be involved in their lives to an appropriate degree. And I could empathize with Kate, whose efforts to forge adult relationships with her children often fell flat. E. H. Yong has a keen eye for mannerisms and foibles, as well as the dynamics of human relationships. In William, she created a very realistic family portrait that remains valid today, even though social norms have changed.