17/10/2004

Under Gemini (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

How I love Rosamunde Pilcher's books! Both her longer sagas and her shorter, lighter romances have the most wonderful characters who get right under my skin, almost from the first chapter.

I last read 'Under Gemini' in 1999 so it was more than time for a re-read.

Rose and Flora are twins, separated at birth when their parents divorced, and decided to take one of them each. Bizarrely, neither parent mentioned the existence of a twin to the child they raised. They look identical, but have rather different personalities. By a somewhat unlikely coincidence they meet, for the first time, in their early twenties.

The story doesn't switch between the perspectives of the twins, as I thought it might. Instead it focuses on Flora, a friendly and caring person who was brought up in Cornwall by her father. She is temporarily a little envious of her sister's evident wealth and casual confidence, but quickly realises that she is probably the happier of the two.

Because Flora is a nice person, she gets drawn into a plan to play out a masquerade: to go with Rose's ex-fiancé Antony to meet his grandmother, who is seriously ill. Her honest nature baulks at living a lie, yet her naturally generous side is moved by Antony's appeal to do a good turn. So she goes with him to Scotland - where the bulk of the story takes place - pretending to be her twin. Here she meets Antony's delightful extended family and is welcomed with open arms. But (being a stranger to dishonesty) she feels increasingly uncomfortable with the part she is having to play...

There are quite a few other main characters in this book - indeed, each of the ten chapters focuses on a different one - and many minor ones, but they are all treated respectfully. Moreover, they are all distinct enough that I never once muddled even the housekeeper or the nurse in my mind.

'Under Gemini' is set firmly in the upper-middle class world where this author seems most comfortable. It was written in 1976 but set perhaps a few years before that. Money is rarely a problem to anyone in Pilcher's earlier novels. Older people expect to have housekeepers or cleaners to do their work, children are expected to be sent to boarding school by the time they're eleven at the latest. This rather barbaric practice slightly dimmed my appreciation of her books the first time I read them; now I take it for granted as the cultural context of the books. These people belong to the kind of circle I am never likely to mix in but whom I can still appreciate as charming and lovable.

And indeed, every person in this book from 77-year-old Tuppy, Antony's grandmother, down to Jason, his seven-year-old nephew, is skilfully and sympathetically portrayed. Besides that there's an interesting plot to go along with the characters. This isn't a rambling saga-type book, nor is it full of introspection and flashback. Instead it's driven forward by the major dilemma - what on earth will Antony and Flora do? If they confess their duplicity, they will hurt the whole family. The longer they leave it, the more painful it will be. Yet if they continue with the pretence their internal values are compromised and they feel increasingly stressed and uncomfortable.

But there are no moral recriminations. This is not a Victorian novel decrying the sin of falsehood or pointing out that deceit leads to a tangled web. Nevertheless, it's quite thought-provoking. Is a white lie sometimes appropriate in order to save someone else from pain? Is it acceptable when it's apparently the last wishes of an elderly and much-loved relative?

It's not a long book, it's certainly not difficult to read and it's not particularly deep despite the interesting questions that occurred in my mind. I've read it three times now and enjoyed it afresh each time; it's the ideal kind of book for a wet weekend or a beach holiday.

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