At age sixty-five, retired anthropologist Stella Brentwood buys a cottage in Somerset, England, and slowly acquires neighbors, a dog, and a professional curiosity about the country village where she intends to settle and put down roots for the first time. She has spent her life studying communities of people--their families, social structures, how they welcome outsiders into their midst-remaining an observer, privileged to share in their intimate life but not obliged, and finally unwilling to tie herself closely to any lover, friend, or social group. In Somerset, Stella once again finds an opportunity to become part of the web of relationships that make for human society, as well as a chance at true friendship and love. How will independent-minded Stella, Lays reluctant to make an emotional commitment, respond? Written in exquisitely nuanced prose, Spiderweb is a captivating and deeply moving novel, a brilliant vision of our modern experience.
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The author of 16 previous works of fiction, Penelope Lively almost invariably lives up to her name. She knows, in other words, how to animate a comedy of manners--how to bring its participants to eccentric and intriguing life. Take Stella Brentwood, the 65-year-old anthropologist at the center of Spiderweb. This lifelong student of human behavior is the sort of mouthpiece most authors would die for: who better to record our foibles and self-destructive follies? Yet Stella is also a career outsider who's never stood still long enough to get her bearings: "In her trade, you travelled most fruitfully if you travelled alone. And it helped if you were footloose and singularly unfettered by personal possessions."
Now, however, Stella is ready for retirement. And once she takes the plunge, buying a cottage in rural Somerset, her detachment receives a few superficial dents. For one thing, her friendships--with a neighboring widower and a retired female archaeologist--come to at least a low boil (perhaps a mild simmer would be a better phrase). For another, the English countryside does exercise its intermittent charms: "A small ancient-looking chapel of perfect simplicity perched above a hedgebank that sparkled with flowers. Sometimes it was difficult to take this landscape seriously--to remember that it had evolved from centuries of agricultural endeavour and blithe environmental disregard." But by arresting her habit of perpetual motion, Stella also has time to review her past--both her professional excursions to Egypt and Malta and the Orkney Islands, and her accident-prone personal life.
There isn't, please note, a warm-and-fuzzy denouement, in which the protagonist learns to reach out and touch: she's English, for God's sake. Yet her story has the power to move us. For Stella is not only independent but self-aware, which can be a very mixed blessing. "I am no longer in business," she muses toward the end of Spiderweb. "I am a part of the landscape like everyone else. And some of us are more tenuously placed within that landscape than others." In the end, even this meticulous transient is headed in the same direction as her fellows. --Bob BrandeisAbout the Author:
Penelope Lively was born in 1933 in Cairo and spent her childhood there, moving to England in the last year of World War II. She has written many prizewinning novels and collections of short stories for both adults and children, including the novel Moon Tiger, which won England's prestigious Booker Prize in England in 1987, and most recently Heat Wave. She lives in Oxfordshire and London.
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