The Sea Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard is one of those timeless novels that can still feel modern even though it was first published more than fifty years ago. Of course, it is a story about a failing marriage, about love and obligation, innocence and temptation and all the ways we lie to ourselves. Those things never change.
The center of the story is Emmanuel, a famed playwright. In his orbit are his devoted manager Jimmy and his fragile wife Lillian. He and Lillian had a daughter named Sarah who died when she was only two and that tragedy has bound them together in grief, guilt and dependence. “He was late and she did not like it; she was dressed and he did not like it: she would want to know exactly how he had spent the day and he did not want to tell her; she would want to tell him exactly how she had spent hers, and he did not want to know.” Their marriage is a blend of understanding, compassion and barely concealed irritation.
Emmanuel has the privileged man’s habit of casually cheating on his wife while Jimmy covers up for him and Lillian pretends she does not know. They are in a rinse and repeat cycle of indulgence, guilt and accommodation with only the shallowest concern for the women.
Enter young Sarah, a vicar’s daughter who was hired on to be Emmanuel’s secretary. To protect Lillian, they ask her to call herself Alberta. She travels with them from England to New York and Greece. Her guileless innocence and country wisdom upset their balance and alter the orbits in their little galaxy and perhaps even a sea change.
Howard writes beautifully with a tremendous sense of place England is as comfortable as an old shoe, New York looms and Greece shimmers. The sights and the moods of places are powerful. When Alberta and Emmanuel fly to New York, the plane ascends “into a melting sky cropped with milky hesitant star.”
The prose is delightful with sparkling gems strewn about the conversations. Howard delights in deconstructing words for clever word play. For example, when asked if she will be disappointed, Alberta does not think so because “I didn’t appoint myself.” Later, when asked to change the subject, “I haven’t got another subject to change into right now.” Another time, she writes, “It was much more comfortable to be in one’s place than to have someone – anyone – put one there.” This wit always made me smile and was a large part of why I enjoyed this book so much.
The rich, worldly man who fascinates a naive, unsuspecting young woman is an old trope. It has powered hundreds of genre romances, but Howard turns it on its head. Emmanuel is just that much too old to be right for the part and Alberta is just that much too commonsensical to be right for her part. Instead, the center of gravity shifts to the other players, Jimmy and Lillian whose own sea change are what take this story out of the ordinary and elevate it to something worthy of being republished more than fifty years later.
I was provided an e-galley of The Sea Change by NetGalley.