“According to Mark” by Penelope Lively

I picked up this book based a recommendation in the weekly NY Times magazine, where they often highlight older books that they find interesting. I hadn’t heard of Penelope Lively, let alone read any of her books. This is despite the fact that she won the Booker prize in 1987, something I found out when I researched her. The prize wasn’t for the book, According to Mark, which she wrote in 1984, although that was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize the year it was published. (Obviously, my knowledge of prize-winning authors and books is far from adequate!)

That said, I didn’t do any of this research before reading According to Mark, and I am grateful for that as I went into it with no expectations whatsoever. I ended up loving it. The writing was reminiscent of Somerset Maugham, one of my all-time favorite authors — very unassuming, not at all flashy, yet so vivid and rich in detail, capturing the everyday lives of the characters as well as the range and complexity of their emotions. There were also so many wry observations about life and living scattered throughout the book that I actually bought a copy of it (after reading the library copy) just so that I could highlight them.

According to Mark is a love story of sorts. The main protagonist, Mark, is a well-established biographer, who lives in London with his smart and sophisticated wife, Diana. They have been married for over ten years and have settled into a comfortable and companiable relationship where they each have their individual work and routines while enjoying their daily lives together. They never got around to having kids, but they have each other and are content. This is a good example:

They ate [their supper] to the accompaniment of that spasmodic conversation which is a feature of marriage and curiously restful: interludes imply not uneasiness or tension or inability to think of something to say but merely retreats into privacy.

Mark is just starting out on a new project, a biography of a famous writer, Gilbert Strong. As part of the groundwork for this project, he needs to spend some time at the writer’s estate, which has been preserved after his death by a historical society and which is currently being managed by his granddaughter, Carrie. Not only is Carrie not in the least bit literary, she is completely obsessed with horticulture and is running a garden center at the site of the estate with a business partner. While Mark is by no means a romantic hero – he is in his early forties, nondescript in appearance, and very much a bookworm — Carrie is even less of a heroine — she is almost like a waif, not pretty in the conventional sense, awkward and tongue-tied, and with no interest in dressing up or, in fact, in anything apart from plants.

Despite being a happily married man, and despite Carrie being so unlike his “type,” Mark finds out after a few visits to the estate that he has fallen violently in love with her. This is deeply distressing to him, as he has never felt anything like this before (“some kind of awful involuntary seizure”) and wishes with all his heart that he didn’t. This is how he thinks of it:

It came to him that he was, quite simply, suffering a form of illness. He was temporarily disabled; there should be some kind of treatment for men of his age and situation thus stricken. It should be possible to go along to some professional but understanding bloke in a consulting room and say, ‘Look, I have this tiresome problem; I’m a busy man and I’ve fallen in love with a girl with whom I have nothing whatsoever in common and I happen to love my wife anyway and I can’t afford the expenditure of time and emotion.’ And that chap would nod and reach for a prescription pad and say, ‘There’s a lot of it around at the moment. Take these three times a day — they usually do the trick.’ And that would be that.

But Mark can’t help his feelings, and he shares them with Carrie. She, however, does not feel the same way about him, and while Mark had expected this, he cannot help being embittered that his feelings are unrequited. Carrie, on her part, feels deep compassion for him, even though she has never experienced the pain of intense passion and unrequited love herself. It is because she feels so bad for him that she agrees to accompany him on a trip to France where Mark can meet and interview her mother (who is Gilbert Strong’s daughter) for his book.

So, what happens? Does Carrie end up falling in love with Mark too? Does Mark leave his wife? And how does Diana deal with this? Does she find out what Mark is feeling? What does she do? This is what the rest of the book is about.

While I have to admit that the romantic in me was a little disappointed at how the story concluded, I still loved the book all the way through. I especially love these kind of books — where the writing is not flashy or stylistic, but the story is so powerful and told with so much of richness and depth and detail that the writing is there to simply tell the story. And nothing else.

According to Mark
Author: Penelope Lively
Publisher: Heinemann, UK
Publication Date: 1984

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

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