“What is character but the determination of incident?” Henry James asked. “What is incident but the illustration of character?” There is a particular kind of novel—James wrote them as did Jane Austen—in which the actors and the action are as interdependent as oxygen and flame. Those books can be exceptionally satisfying and thoughtful reads.
In Heat Wave, Penelope Lively constructs a tense drama out of the fervors and failures of the human heart. Pauline is settled for the summer in a two-family stone cottage in the English countryside. She has a list of books to edit and an avid appreciation of the rural environment that surrounds her—its deceptive bucolic appearance and its roiling, half-hidden complexity.
Next door her only child, Teresa, spends her days tending to toddler Luke and husband Maurice. Teresa is in love with the perfection of her life—the delightful demanding child, the attentive amusing academic she has married. Maurice is writing a book about the marketing of pastoral settings to tourists. His editor, James, and James’ girlfriend Carol are frequent guests as the two men hammer out progress on the book and the two couples visit historical theme parks and tour grand estates.
Pauline was once married to an academic, Teresa’s father, who also wrote books and expanded the bright cocoon of their marriage to include his many serial dalliances. When Maurice shifts slight attention to Carol, Pauline’s antennae pick up the reprise of an old, damaging story. Teresa hovers over Luke, protecting him from harm. And Pauline holds her breath, anticipating a harm she knows too well that begins to affect her daughter.
The summer stretches into a record heat wave as lives come unraveled. The writer of the romance Pauline is editing loses his wife and his way. Carol and James turn up more and more often and Maurice finds moments to linger over Carol. Teresa is radiant and clueless—and then she is not. And a stunning twist at the end of the novel opens the door to questions that can never be asked but arrive with answers anyway.
Lively can write seductive narratives about scenery and weather. Every detail is lovingly portrayed and each one reveals another layer of the story. Pauline reflects on the wreckage of her marriage and the wasted years of misery when she could not let go. She dreads the very real possibility that Teresa is headed into the same dark passage as Maurice makes charming excuses for his absences and slips into the neighboring village for clandestine phone calls. Heat Wave is a meticulous rendering of intimacy and betrayal. Its characters are effortlessly and vividly drawn; its calm surface masks fierce passions and desperate pretensions—as compelling a page-turner as any thriller.
Heat Wave: A Novel Penelope Lively | HarperCollins 1997