When a group of middle-aged Oxford school friends reconnects at a gala summer ball, they set in motion a series of events that forever change their relationships with one another. When Jean Cambus dances with David Crimond an old flame is rekindled, Jean’s husband Duncan gets into an argument with Crimond, and Jean ends up leaving Duncan for Crimond (for the second time, in fact).
The rest of the group is stunned. Their personal and collective responses offer a way for Murdoch to explore various archetypes and relationships. The cast is rich and varied. Gerard Hernshaw views himself as somewhat in charge, but is tormented by childhood loss and a general sense of emptiness. His sister and brother-in-law have moved into his house and are increasingly putting down roots, but Gerard is unable to confront them. Rose Curtland has always loved Gerard but never acted on her feelings. Jenkin Riderhood is a quiet, unattached schoolmaster; Lily Boyne attends the ball as Crimond’s date. Gulliver Ashe is a younger man who has been unable to find a job, and Tamar Hernshaw, Gerard’s niece, is younger still.
Several years earlier, the group formed a “brotherhood” to finance Crimond’s effort to write a political book, but the book has yet to be published. Each member of the brotherhood pays their annual dues, but demands nothing from Crimond; they are reluctant even to approach him about his progress. Even Jean cannot speak to him about it. And while this drama is in progress, several other subplots unfold involving the other characters. Tamar’s youthful naiveté and conflicted relationship with her mother lead her into a situation with significant personal consequences. Gerard takes steps towards a relationship he never thought possible. Rose faces her spinsterhood with a stiff upper lip.
And then there’s Crimond, the only character consistently referred to only by his surname. Arrogant and detached, when he finally finishes his book he loses his sense of purpose. He tries to engage Jean in some shocking behavior that culminates in one of the novel’s most harrowing scenes. And there’s still more dramatic tension as Crimond goes a bit off his rocker. Tragic events follow, made even more so as each member of the “brotherhood” feels somewhat at fault. One by one, Murdoch gets into their heads as they examine their role, dwelling on small actions that led to other actions that ultimately led to the tragedy.
The Book and the Brotherhood also serves as a forum for Murdoch’s own ideology, which I admit often goes over my head. I enjoyed the character-driven nature of this book much more. I also felt it went on a bit long, and some of the subplots could have been resolved more quickly. Taken as a whole, this was fairly representative of Murdoch’s work, even if it wasn’t my favorite.