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Eliza Peabody, a slender woman of 50 with dark, flashing eyes, is married to a terribly aloof dignitary and lives in a very posh section of London where everyone knows everyone else and their dogs, or at least pretends to. Eliza, a bit outre because of her lack of children and abundance of imagination, becomes obsessed with Joan, her enigmatic neighbor. We know this because we're privy to some very patronizing letters Eliza writes to Joan just before Joan ditches husband, children, and, yes, dog, and sets out on an arduous journey to such unvacationy places as Bangladesh. Joan's abrupt departure coincides with the disintegration of Eliza's marriage. Eliza slips into a rather mad frame of mind, which we learn about solely through the hilarious and poignant letters she continues to write and not necessarily send to the ever-elusive Joan. Gardam, recipient of two Whitbread Awards, strikes an unusual balance between wit and sweetness, creating a smart but gentle novel that seems to be from a far less explicit era than our own. --Donna Seaman
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This splendidly engaging, quirky epistolary novel is told from the point of view of Eliza Peabody, a middle-aged woman living in present-day South London. Eliza is an exceptionally unreliable narrator who begins a fervid letter-writing campaign to her neighbor, Joan, after Joan abandons her husband and children to go see the world. Early on, Eliza writes: ``After all, any woman must be sick who can leave that wonderful house, those two energetic children, all Charles's money and dear, uncomplaining Charles himself.... Turkey, Afghanistan, Nepal, Chinaall this was done by Victorian women, Joan. There is no need for us to follow the intrepid trail again.'' Soon it becomes clear that Eliza's letters are attempts by one woman to keep another woman down and, by doing so, to justify her own listless life. But Eliza's effort slides into temporary madness. It is revealed that Eliza receives no responses to the scores of letters she writes Joan; that Eliza hardly knows Joan and that, in fact, she doesn't even mail all the letters. This last bit of knowledge becomes increasingly important as, ironically, Eliza's letters allow her to tell her own story. A series of bizarre twists follow one another (for instance, Joan's husband and Eliza's husband move in together) as Gardam knits together antic humor, a complex narrator and a sophisticated narrative form, all the while showing an admirable trust in the reader's ability to perceive the intricate pattern she has woven. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved