27/03/2008

Those who Serve (by Marcia Willett)

I've been reading and enjoying Marcia Willett's novels for about ten years, and recently decided to re-read. I began with my favourite 'Chadwick' trilogy; then I decided to read the rest in the order they were written, rather than the order I first read them. This is because many of the characters re-appear in other novels; having read them out of order at first, I got a little confused at times.

'Those who Serve' is Marcia Willett's first published novel; I first read it in 2000 and enjoyed it. I had forgotten quite what an emotional roller-coaster it was when I re-read it in the past few days.

It opens in 1981 with a funeral. Charlotte, a teenager, is being buried. As the minister intones the words, Charlotte's mother Cass is in despair and agony, helped only by her oldest and closest friend Kate, who is nearly as distraught as she is.

This prologue is just a couple of pages. The novel then returns us to 1964, when Kate and Cass are both newly-married to men in the British Navy. Kate is a gentle person, unsure of herself in many ways, and not at all happy in her marriage. Her husband Mark puts her down continually, doesn't seem to want her with him, and cares very little about her happiness. Cass, by contrast, is very happily married to Tom - the two are outgoing, liking social gatherings and parties, openly affectionate to each other.

Kate is basically a highly moral person, yet Cass is (as Kate puts it) amoral. Kate remains faithful to Mark, yet Cass sees nothing wrong with casual affairs when Tom is away at sea. She is very attractive, and likes to have power over men who are drawn to her. This should make her an unpleasant person, yet she isn't. Marcia Willett is skilled in her characterisation: Cass, despite her many faults, is a very likeable young woman. She is always generous, and deeply attached to Kate.

There are some other delightful people in this novel - Cass's father the General, for one, who Kate goes to for comfort and advice whenever she is in despair. And there's Mrs Hammond, who cleans and cooks for the General, and helps out with several other families. There are also several other young married couples - I got a bit confused sometimes about who was who, but it didn't seem to matter.

The book gradually moves forward in time - chapters cover two or three years, then we leap ahead another three or four, and only see the intervening years in flashback. This is a technique that worked very well in the Chadwick trilogy, and I found it effective here. We see snapshots in time, rather than a continuum. During the years covered in the book, Kate gives birth to twin sons, and Cass eventually has four children, the oldest of whom is Charlotte.

Despite having read the book eight years previously, I'd totally forgotten what happened, and how Charlotte died. I watched her grow up - a lovely, caring home-loving girl who had no wish to be farmed out to boarding school like her brothers. She finds life difficult as a teenager, and hates the way her mother seems to chase after new men all the time.

I suppose the overall message of the novel is that people who play 'russian roulette' (as Cass describes her lifestyle) will inevitably end up badly hurt. Yet it's not at all preachy or condemnatory. At the end of the book, Cass behaves particularly badly to Charlotte, yet she herself has been hurt. Tom, too, feels guilt at an infatuation of his own, as does a young man who Charlotte was rather keen on.

The ending is dramatic, and tragic, and yet probably necessary in order to bring some resolution and hope for the future. I was glad of the prologue warning of what was to come: it would have been more shocking had I not known, but I would probably have felt cheated.

The characters aren't quite as real and empathic as those of Rosamunde Pilcher (to whom Marcia Willett is often compared) but they still came alive; I cared about what happened to them, and thought about them after finishing the book. I did find that there was slightly too much description of life in the Navy, which I was able to skim over entirely; but other than that, it was a very enjoyable light read.

Recommended. Still in print in the UK, and widely available second-hand.

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