Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Frances, starting now

At the beginning of Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, Frances Thorpe shares an odd, tense moment of intimacy with a stranger. There has been a car accident, and Frances speaks to a woman trapped inside an overturned vehicle. The woman, Alys Kyte, dies. When Frances meets with Alys’s husband and children, she tells them that Alys’s last words were “Tell them I love them.”

It’s a lie. Alys never said anything like that. So why does Frances claim she did? Is it an impulsive attempt to make them feel better? Or does Frances have another motive, one that’s less kind?

 Alys, Always is a British novel of manners that at first seems to be about a nice young woman meeting a lovely family under unusual circumstances.  Soon you notice, though, that it absolutely reeks of class jealousy, covetousness, and manipulation.

Frances is a lowly copyeditor at a beleaguered literary magazine, with embarrassing parents and a gray London flat, who longs for a more beautiful life - the kind that money can buy. At Alys’s funeral, Frances checks out the Kyte house and notices the rugs, the china, the “bathroom with a rolltop bath, a snatched impression of an airing cupboard luxuriously stashed with fat, white towels.”

In her world, novelists are regarded as celebrities. Alys was the wife of a Booker Award-winning author and screenwriter, and her upper-class gentility shines even as she’s dying in a crushed car.

What can Frances possibly do with that brief connection? It’s hard to imagine; but the sly and industrious Frances knows how to make the most of her chances. She is not a good person, but she's so smart and so remorseless in going after what she knows she deserves, you have to admire her nerve.

Pick up Alys, Always, for an entertaining read about one very ambitious character.

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