Elizabeth Taylor writes such exquisite prose, within a few short pages I can be whisked away to a different time and place. Take, for example, the opening of A Wreath of Roses. A woman arrives at a train station on a hot summer day. She and another passenger wait for the next train. The station is quiet; a chair scrapes the floor, and traffic can be heard outside the station. It was all so leisurely, and then:
This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganised, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another. (p. 3)
Isn’t that ominous? Aren’t you overcome by a sense of foreboding? And you want to know what the “happening” was, don’t you?
You’ll have to read it to find out, but suffice to say the “happening” causes Camilla and Richard, the people waiting for the train, to meet. Camilla is en route to a holiday with her long-time friend Liz and Liz’s friend and former governess, Frances. Richard is … well, he’s rather vague about his purpose. But he’s good-looking and a smooth talker, and Camilla is surprised to find herself attracted to him. Camilla is also very conflicted about her friendship with Liz, which has changed since Liz married and had a baby.
What had seemed plenty in other years, now appeared threadbare. She felt a restlessness, like milk beginning to sway up to the boil, a trembling excitement, sometimes pleasurable as it had been in the Griffin last night; but often painful, as it was when she held Liz’s baby or watched Liz with him. She knew that what had charmed her in other summers could not charm her now; and felt that, because of this, the holiday must be different and had been different from the beginning, different at the railway station, at her arrival, different with Liz. The long series of these summer holidays from girlhood onwards was suddenly broken. (p. 39)
Through Richard, Camilla can escape the painful emotions that swell while she’s with Liz and Frances. But he preys on Camilla’s insecurity and jealousy, and weaves an elaborate tale about his past to draw her closer. Richard is vaguely sinister, but it takes the reader and Camilla quite a while to discover the truth. Meanwhile, Liz and Frances experience drama of their own: Liz is uncertain about her marriage; Frances anticipates the arrival of a man she has corresponded with for years, but never met.
Taylor’s characterizations are as finely drawn as the scenes they inhabit. Her keen powers of observation enabled her to squirrel away a myriad of details that would later be embodied in her characters. In A Wreath of Roses, Liz and Camilla represent two very different kinds of women. Or, as Nicola Beauman suggested in her biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps they represent two sides of Taylor herself: a wife and mother, and an independent but vulnerable woman. The plot is almost secondary, serving as a way to explore each woman’s emotions and world view. And yet, there’s just enough plot to hold the reader’s interest and make them care about these women and their search for happiness and fulfillment.