The Shell Seekers (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I discovered Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels nearly thirty years ago, and fell in love with them almost immediately. I’ve collected them all, over the years, and have read most of them at least twice. It was nearly ten years since I last read some of them, so it was more than time for a re-read.

‘The Shell Seekers’ is the novel that brought the author into the public eye. Until she produced this, she had written many short stories for magazines, and some shorter novels. But at last she produced an epic family saga, spanning the years from before World War II up to the year 1984 in which it’s mainly set.

However it doesn’t open in the 1930s and move gradually forward. Instead, the novel opens with Penelope Keeling returning from hospital after discharging herself, after a minor heart attack. She’s only in her mid-sixties, and insists that the doctors got it wrong. She is determined to return to her much-loved home in Gloucestershire, and we meet her in a taxi, enjoying afresh the beauties of the village where she lives.

Penelope thinks about her three very different adult children as she decides which one to phone. It’s a good way of introducing them: Nancy, who is convention bound and married to someone Penelope dislikes, with two spoiled children; Noel, her youngest (and only son) who is a materialistic entrepreneur without a lot of business sense; or Olivia, the elegant businesswoman, the only one who seems to be on Penelope’s wavelength.

The second chapter is then written from Olivia’s point of view, so we see her in the context of her work, and then are taken back, in her mind, to 1979, a wonderful year when she fell in love and took a sabbatical in Ibiza. The next chapter lets us know about Cosmo, the man she lived with, and we also meet his daughter Antonia, who at the time is thirteen…

It sounds like a large cast, but they are introduced so naturally that it never becomes confusing. Each chapter focuses on a different person, some expected and some less so. Penelope’s children worry about her living alone, and Antonia, now 18, has to come to the UK. We also gradually learn about Penelope’s father, who was a great deal older than his wife, and who was a painter prior to the war years. Penelope has one of his paintings - the Shell Seekers of the title - hanging in her living room, and it’s her dearest possession. But her father’s style of painting has suddenly become fashionable, and her children realise that she could potentially sell it for a large sum of money…

The first time I read this, I kept thinking some disaster would occur: that Penelope would be robbed, or that one of the many people she trusted would turn out to be a crook. But it’s a warm and wonderful novel, and the characters are so three-dimensional that it’s easy to learn to love the right ones, and to feel rather sorry for those who are self-centred and greedy.

There are some caricatures - Nancy’s spoiled children don’t come directly into the book, although they are mentioned many times - and there’s some inevitable class-consciousness that goes along with most of this author’s writing. Boarding schools and lots of alcohol in the home seem to be considered entirely normal; those of the working classes are much loved, and considered invaluable, and treated as friends… but still are seen as inherently different to the upper middle classes who form the main characters of the books.

But still, that’s part of social history, even as recently as the 1980s, apparently. Moreover, as is evident from her other books too, it’s what came naturally to Rosamunde Pilcher. The likable people are generous and friendly and open-hearted, and often love to do some of their own housework and cooking. But they still employ housekeepers and gardeners, and are surprised if they are highly educated or from professional families.

None of that detracts from the wonderful depth of this novel, and the people who get under my skin each time I read. There’s one incident towards the end which shocked me to the core the first time I read it. It’s foreshadowed, and should not have been unexpected, but it breaks the unwritten rules of fiction writing. And it upset me, although it’s realistic, and turns out to be necessary for the sake of the last couple of chapters of the book, and the eventual resolution of several questions.

Even re-reading for at least the third time, knowing what was coming, I felt tense as I approached the final chapters, and quite emotional at the ending which leads to a delightfully positive resolution.

This lengthy novel is not for people who prefer books with fast action, or excitement, or the kind of plot that only moves forward chronologically. But if you enjoy family sagas, and a gentle story where the past gradually impinges on the present, cleverly crafted and beautifully written, I recommend ‘The Shell Seekers’ wholeheartedly.

Still in print in paperback, and now available in Kindle form too.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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