Vulpes Libris

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.

Penelope Lively’s Passing On

LivelyFor most of my life the name Penelope Lively has meant The Whispering Knights, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, Astercote and The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, books I reread for years as a teenager. I was dimly aware that she wrote adult fiction, but none of it came my way, and the cover of her Booker-winning Moon Tiger was so boring I didn’t even open it.

Last week, because I’ve been living in the UK again for nine months and thought it was about time, I joined the local library. I prowled the shelves, noting with interest how many authors and titles I had never heard of, and noted with dismay how thick and heavy most of the books were, as I only had a bike basket to carry them home in. Ching! warned the ten-minute closing bell, and I galloped round the shelves scooping up titles at random. In went a Penelope Lively because her name was familiar, it was a slim volume, and because the plot sounded like a Barbara Pym.

Flumped onto the sofa after dinner, I began to read Passing On, and that was the end of any plans to do a bit more work that evening. I was wholly absorbed in this novel (it followed Moon Tiger in 1989) about the dictatorial influence of the dead Dorothy Glover that continues long after her funeral. Her middle-aged children keep discovering things that she has hidden, or done, or that they have done, or hidden, to the gradual disruption of their unhappy, restricted lives. I loved it, and am simply embarrassed that I have failed to appreciate Penelope Lively until now. I’ve since read her Treasures of Time which is, if possible, even better.

Passing On is also one of the rare novels that instantly recommends itself to book group reading. Its subtlety, its assured characterisation through action and tone, its perfectly balanced structure and forward action in the plot, all inspired me to mutter aloud about sending this as a present to an increasing list of friends and relations. Soon I was scribbling down book group discussion questions, even though I don’t (any longer) belong to one (am looking). So if you’re looking for a new book for your group, I heartily recommend Penelope Lively’s Passing On (that sentence structure sounds a little macabre), and offer these to think about:

  • Which, if any, of Dorothy’s personality characteristics can you see in Helen, Edward and Louise? Are these assets, or hindrances in their lives?
  • Why did Dorothy hide, and not destroy, Helen’s party dress from thirty years earlier?
  • Edward’s horror of clearing out and throwing away doesn’t matter when he’s dealing with the woodland: why?
  • Their builder neighbour Ron Paget is a predator in their lives, but is defeated by Helen’s techniques of defence: how does she manage this?
  • Love, and the desperate need for it, dominates the three siblings’ lives after Dorothy’s death. Why has her removal from their home allowed this need to emerge?

Penelope Lively, Passing On (1989)

Kate writes about books that enthuse her mightily at, and is soon going to be publishing books (not her own) with



About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

9 comments on “Penelope Lively’s Passing On

  1. Pingback: Now posting on Vulpes Libris: Penelope Lively’s Passing On – Kate Macdonald

  2. Café Society
    September 22, 2017

    Like you I came to Lively first as a children’s author, in my case reading them to my year six classes. ‘The Voyage of QV66’ was a great favourite. But her adult fiction is superb. I think ‘Family Album’ is probably my favourite.

  3. Kate
    September 22, 2017

    I’m now in Lively-spotting mode, no bookshop is safe.

  4. Rhoda Baxter
    September 25, 2017

    I’ve read a few of her children’s books and really enjoyed them, especially The House In Norham Gardens.

    I disliked Moon Tiger though (it was a long time ago, so I can’t remember why exactly, but I remember thinking ‘I don’t care’ a lot. It was back in the days when I still felt I had to finish a book even if it didn’t interest me – now I’d just put it down). It put me off her adult fiction, but perhaps I should revisit it.

  5. John Perry
    October 1, 2017

    I’ve read all of Penelope Lively’s novels, short story collections and memoirs, and can recommend all of them – her books are consistently entertaining and engrossing. Particular favourites are Moon Tiger (sorry, don’t understand your dislike of the cover!), According to Mark and Family Album, but all are well worth reading,

  6. Kate
    October 2, 2017

    I found a copy of Moon Tiger yesterday, with the cover I don’t like (wishy-washy pale blue vaguely Asian setting) and am looking forward to reading it!

  7. Grier
    October 9, 2017

    I just finished this book and really loved it. I’ve read six Lively adult novels and this is my favorite. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. Ela
    December 10, 2017

    Lively is not an author I usually pick up, though all her books are beautifully written. I really enjoyed MOON TIGER and JUDGEMENT DAY of her adult novels. Her memoir OLEANDER, JACARANDA is elegiac and amusing.

  9. Pingback: The trouble with Penelope Lively: Oleander, Jacaranda – Kate Macdonald

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2017 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction: 20th Century, Fiction: women's, GLBT Fiction, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .



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