Margaret Drabble
The Seven Sisters
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002. Pp. 307. $24.49

Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel

Does the novel The Seven Sisters take its title from a constellation named for "The Seven Daughters of Atlas" (267), American Ivy League women's colleges, the London suburb (44), or perhaps all three? The novel is dedicated to six individuals, friends of the author, presumably, the author herself being the seventh. Within the novel itself, the protagonist, Candida Wilton, journeys to Italy in the company of six women. Thereby hangs the tale.

Heretofore, Candida has thought in terms of three groups: her two school friends Janet Milgram and Julia Jordan"Juicy Julia," as she was known, a "wicked woman" (25) and famous novelist, author of a "succes de scandale" (31); then her two Suffolk friends, Sally Hepburn and Henrietta Parks; and finally her three estranged daughtersEllen, Isobel, and Martha. "Women's lives. How they entwine about one another and strangle one another" (41).

Drabble's latest novel is structured in four parts: "Her Diary," "Italian Journey," "Ellen's Version," and "A Dying Fall." "Her Diary," the longest of the four, represents the journal of Candida Wilton. Curiously, Candida, the classic unreliable narrator, composes her diary in the first person with headings in the third person. Reduced to playing solitaire on her laptop, Candida's only confidant is her cheeky spellchecker. Drabble enjoys metafictional moments, and Candida's laptop provides plenty of those. But laptop solitaire "won't let you follow an alternative, unchosen route, even out of curiosity" (35), as Candida wishes to do; instead, "there is nothing on the table at all except what you see" (36).

Candida Wilton is that most pathetic of wilted womena jilted wife and rejected mother. Rendered redundant by her husband Andrew, headmaster of a Suffolk school, rejected by her three daughters Ellen, Isobel, and Martha, and replaced by Anthea Richards, Candida has abandoned Suffolk and relocated in the anonymity of London. She lives in the limbo of a grotty little flat in Ladbroke Grove, whence she watches her own dark heart reflected in the "dark heart" (125) of London through the distorting flaw in her windowpane.

"Women have a long afterlife, though not always a happy one" (89), Candida comments; it is that "afterlife" that she explores. "Nothing much happens to me now nor ever will again," she reflects, but considers, "This nothingness is significant.... I will have faith that something or someone is waiting for me on the far shore" (3). Her narrative pursues the quest for a life after marriage and menopausewoman's third age, the age of ageing. The dedication is hopeful: "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? / And not one of them is forgotten before God." Candida awaits in her chrysalis her metamorphosis.

Hints of a sea change surface from time to time, and drowning is one leitmotif that forms an undercurrent to Candida's narrative. The drowning of Anthea's daughter in the Lady Pond at the school brought Anthea and Candida's husband together. Candida befriends a murderer in the Wormwood Scrubs prison after he and his mates rape and drown a woman in the canal. Candida, rather ghoulishly, takes to strolling by the canal where the woman was tormented. The canal suggests the Fisher King of Eliot's Waste Land and Frazer's Golden Bough, as well as Aeneas's visit to the underworld. On the other side of the tumid river lies the land of the dead. Candida must cross that river and return to tell the tale to the land of the living. Where Aeneas had his golden bough to lead him across the river Styx to Hades, Candida has her ghost orchid"a blossoming of my ghostly self" (124).

Candida, strangely, enrolls in a course in the Aeneid, taught by "birdlike bardic" Ida Jerrold, "the Cumean sibyl in disguise" (152), who reads The Death of Vergil as she "play[s] with tragic brilliance the endgame" (122). There she meets other unlikely students of Vergil"the exotic and oriental" (152) Anais El-Sayyab and Cynthia Barclay, a former chorus girl now married to a wealthy, effete importer. Together, they read Book Six of Vergil's Aeneid, wherein Aeneas crosses the river Acheron to visit the land of the dead, where his jilted lover Dido refuses to speak to him. Parallels, anyone?

Metamorphoses continue when her adult education center is transformed into a health club. As a disenfranchised scholar, Candida is offered free enrollment in the tony health club, where she meets more women, including one with a malignant lymphoma. Candida puts closure to her marriage by dropping her sapphire engagement ring in the club's pool.

In the classical tradition, a deus ex machina descends in the form of a small fortune from Northam Providential, prepared by Candida's foresightful but long-deceased father. Transformed by the sense of freedom and power that this windfall catalyzes, Candida decides to follow in Aeneas's footsteps from Carthage to Naples. In her new empowered persona, she invites her six sisters to join her on her pilgrimage to the promised land of sunny Italy under the aegis of their Junoesque guide Valeria. Despite Candida's delight in this mission, the saying "See Naples and die" strikes the reader as ambiguous.

Part two, "Italian Journey," is colorful and lively. Travelogues make interesting reading, and Drabble is expert at evoking a sense of place. At Cumae, Candida visits the cave of the sibyl, who whispers, "Submit. You can climb no higher. This is the last height. Submit." Drabble writes, "But it is not the last height. And she cannot submit" (247). Like the sibyl, Candida realizes, "I must learn to grow old before I die. She asks, "Who is that waiting on the far shore? Is it her lover or her God?" (247). The other question is: Can Candida rise to the heroic or to the tragic mode? Can Drabble make sense of an ending?

Drabble, lover of narrative interruptions, master of metafictionality, and past-mistress of plot reversals, has surprises in store for the reader in parts three and four"Ellen's Version" and "A Dying Fall." But let me not spoil the surprise for you, prospective reader, except to warn that Candida is anything but candid. You'll just have to read it for yourself.