Over the weekend I reminded myself why I think Penelope Lively is the best author of whom many Americans have never heard. As an aside, the link above points toward Lively's Wikipedia entry; you can take a look at her official homepage, too, but she's a vastly better writer than she is at appreciating good web design. So, with apologies to Ms. Lively for that criticism, I just read her 1993 novel Cleopatra's Sister after remembering how much I absolutely loved her 1987 Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (which I've read twice and listened to once).
Similar to Moon Tiger in that both novels feature very independent, female British journalists who visits north Africa and experience intense and unexpected love affairs, Cleopatra's Sister differs from the earlier novel in every other way. From a structural and narrative standpoint, Moon Tiger is more complex moving forward and back in time over several decades while recounting the protagonists memories from the perspective of several different characters. Cleopatra's Sister is a simple third person narrative describing events over the course of several days as they occur.
Basics aside, Lively demonstrates in Cleopatra's Sister her facility for telling a story both in a manner that reads very quickly while also providing fascinating and believable insights into the characters about whom she writes. Told essentially as two novels in one, the first half of the story represents character development of the two protagonists as revealed through their earlier, failed attempts at meaningful relationships. While the detail is impressive and the opportunity to understand these people, Lucy Faulkner and Howard Beamish, through the intimate details of their lives is engrossing, the first half of the novel does nothing to prepare the reader for the abrupt pace of the story in the second half.
Fundamentally a thriller, the remainder of the novel recounts the treatment of Lucy, Howard, and a plane of travelers as they are taken hostage after an emergency landing in a ficticious African country experiencing severe civil unrest. It is within this context that Lucy and Howard meet and fall in love. And it is within this context that the primary theme of Lively's novel is understood.
Cleopatra's Sister opens with the line: "Howard Beamish became a paleontologist because of a rise in the interest rate when he was six years old". Throughout the novel, the reader experiences the utter randomness of life. Similar to the psychotic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men as he demands that a store owner "call" his own fate by guessing heads or tails on a flipped coin that has "been traveling twenty-two years to get here", the characters in Cleopatra's Sister experience entire lives that have developed not from careful planning but only due to one chance event after another. Ultimately not as brilliant as Moon Tiger, Cleopatra's Sister is still a wonderful read that would make for a fantastic book club selection, as well.