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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

1853As Pippa Lee, thirty years younger than her powerful publisher husband Herb, makes the move for his sake into a retirement home, the sense of suffocation is almost immediate. In her early fifties, with her husband just turned eighty and showing no signs of slowing down, Pippa is one of the “young ones” in the village. A fact she initially revels in. But as I said, the suffocation is immediate and horrible. Reading it I felt trapped myself and couldn’t understand how she could take it all so calmly, something which Miller attempts to explain in the flashback section of the book.

The book is in three parts. Parts one and three are in third person and cover Pippa and Herb’s move into Marigold Village and their life there after Herb’s recent heart attacks. Part two uses first person to cover Pippa’s past from her intense and twisted relationship with her mother through her wild youth and up to meeting and marrying Herb. I preferred the first person narrative most because that’s where I actually feel you get to know Pippa better. Prior to Part Two, Pippa is pretty unassuming. She is a dedicated wife and mother and Herb’s best friend Sam Shapiro declares that she is “the perfect artist’s wife.” Due to Herb’s work as a publisher, their friends are all poets and writers, but Pippa is almost proud of her total lack of talent (as demonstrated in a disastrous pottery class). In this opening section you can see why her fierce and independent daughter Grace looks down on her.

But Part Two is where Pippa comes into her own. No longer smothered by the retirement village and it’s aging population and dull routine, Pippa comes alive. She reveals her turbulent childhood – she was the only daughter amongst several boys of a minister and suffered at the hands of her mother’s all-consuming love. But there’s something a bit old hat about Pippa’s “wild youth” – drugs, sex and destroying her loved ones all seems a bit done. Pippa doesn’t actually do anything that I haven’t read or seen or heard about elsewhere. There is nothing shocking here. Perhaps that’s a bit sad. But Pippa’s voice, now she has it, is compelling enough to keep me interested.

Her first meeting and the beginning of her relationship with Herb rang false with me. Why does this fragile, pill-popping, bed-hopping young girl captivate him to the point that he leaves his wife for her? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer and it’s a shame to think that such a convincing marriage is written on such shaky foundations.

The move back to third person in Part Three was a disappointment. I was enjoying Pippa’s voice and as cliché as some of her youth was, it was infinitely preferable to that bloody retirement village. And it’s a tad too neat at the end. Problems that have gone on for years are healed overnight and massive betrayals are shrugged off. And there’s something about Pippa and relationships that just never seems to ring true – her odd friendship with a friend’s thirty-year-old son just didn’t make sense to me.

This is a slim book – I read it in a day – and despite it’s clichés, it’s a great read. But if you’re claustrophobic, avoid Parts One and Two, the suffocation wells out of the pages. If there’s one thing that Rebecca Miller can do, it’s atmosphere!

Canongate Books Ltd, 2008. ISBN-10: 1847673430. 233pp.

If you want to know more about Nikki’s private life, check out her new blog The Possibility Engine

3 comments on “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee by Rebecca Miller

  1. Anne Brooke
    October 6, 2010

    It seems a little disappointing, Nikki – maybe she should have stuck to the first person narrative all the way through? And avoided the cliches!


  2. Jackie
    October 6, 2010

    It sounds like an interesting character study despite all the flaws. That seems like such a young age to go into a retirement village, too, so I can see how it might be insular. I wonder why the author went back & forth between the first & third person? Maybe she didn’t want it to get monotonous?
    You did a great job with the mixed feelings the book aroused in you & brought a balanced view to the good & not so good parts of the book.

  3. Nikki
    October 7, 2010

    In some ways, Anne, it was disappointing. But I actually think the insular, claustrophobia in the third-person sections made what may have been a cliched first-person readable. The escape out of that retirement village into Pippa’s youth was a relief! Jackie, I think she travelled between third and first because we really needed to understand her in that middle section, we needed to understand why Pippa would be willing to go to a retirement village. And I do think that worked. I also think that the third-persion had its place because it showed Pippa as rather aloof, which explained her relationship with her daugther Grace.

    Yes, it is a very interesting character study and on the whole I did enjoy it. But as I said, it’s very short – maybe that was the main problem?

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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