Under Gemini (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I’m very much enjoying re-reading my books by Rosamunde Pilcher (interspersed with others). Although I list 64 favourite authors at the side of this blog, with links to books I have read and reviewed by them, Rosamunde Pilcher would rank amongst my top ten. Before she retired she wrote short stories, medium length novels and lengthy sagas, and I have loved them all.

I last read ‘Under Gemini’ in 2004, but had almost entirely forgotten what it was about, other than identical twins who meet as adults, unaware until that point that the other existed. So I was slightly surprised that the first chapter was about a middle-aged woman called Isobel, who kept house for her wealthy but poorly mother, known to all as Tuppy. Tuppy has just got over a nasty bout of pneumonia, and although she seems to be recovering, she’s 77 and taking a while to get better. Hugh, the family doctor, seems to be concerned and Isobel assumes that the outlook is dire.

Tuppy’s greatest wish is to see her grandson Antony and his fiancĂ©e Rose. Tuppy and her household are in the highlands of Scotland, and Antony works in Edinburgh. But Rose - we gather - has been in the United States with her mother, and although Antony thinks she’s back in London, she’s remarkably difficult to contact.

The second chapter then switches to a beach in Cornwall. Flora has just been swimming with her father and is feeling sad that she is soon to move to London. He would love her to stay longer, but she needs to move on with her life, to find a job and to live independently. So she says her farewells and travels up to London; only then to we learn that the offer of temporary accommodation from a friend has fallen through. She has no idea what she will do…

The unexpected meeting, mentioned in the blurb on the back, happens soon afterwards with quick recognition, and rather mixed feelings. An unlikely coincidence, but I don't have a problem with that. And then one of the pair flies to Greece… leaving her twin to agree to what seems like an innocent (if somewhat outrageous) deception, for the sake of Tuppy, who is assumed to be dying.

Most of the book takes place in Tuppy’s home, with quite a cast of characters, both family and staff, as well as some local friends. Pilcher has such a gift of characterisation that I had no problem remember who was whom - indeed, any slight confusion might have been deliberate, as Flora herself is a tad bewildered, pretending to be someone she has only met once. As she soon learns, she and her twin are very different in character.

I may have recalled some of the events subconsciously; or it may have been clever writing that meant I was very wary on Flora’s behalf when she went on a supposedly innocent dinner date. Yet I had forgotten all the details and the outcome. I had an inkling of who she would end up falling for - but that may have been because it followed the classic romantic device of an initial clash. It really didn’t matter. I was drawn into the storyline and the people, and could scarcely put the book down.

First published in 1976, the novel feels like a product of that era, set firmly in the upper middle classes. All the main characters are friendly towards the staff, eating with them at times, helping them when asked. Yet there’s very much a sense of separation and entitlement. Tuppy can ‘organise’ a party by employing people to cook, and expecting her housekeeper and his husband to manage the rooms and furniture. Boarding school was the norm for children of about eight and upwards. It’s not a world I’m part of, but like Georgette Heyer’s regency romances, it transports me to a different way of life, in a different era, albeit only forty years ago.

I wish I knew how the author manages, with just a few words, to create such distinct and three-dimensional people. Even the minor ones, if a tad typecast, are not caricatured. The nurse, with a face like a horse, is nonetheless kind-hearted, excellent in the sick room, and shows an unexpected talent at sewing.

Seven-year-old Jason is a typically enthusiastic boy who loves outdoor activities and is devoted to his uncle Antony, but he’s also quite sensitive and quick on the uptake. Flora is a wonderful character, full of doubts and confusions, but basically extremely likeable. And Tuppy is autocratic and controlling - but also lovable and full of nostalgia.

There were places where I smiled, and felt warmed. There were more than a couple of scenes which brought a few tears to my eyes. And when I finally put the book down, after an all-too-short concluding chapter, I felt a tinge of regret that I had to say goodbye to these delightful people until - in another ten years or so - I pick it up to read again.

Very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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