Drabble’s seven “sisters” are Candida, a pallid fifty-something abandoned by her hypocrite husband and cold daughters; Julia a wicked, diamond-dripping novelist; Ida – a bohemian, somewhat reptilian classics scholar; Sally – an obese and nosy social worker; Anaïas – exotic and energetic, who may or may not work in television; Cynthia Barclay – matronly with a hint of something else, a housekeeper who married her employer, and Valeria, a striking and noble tour guide. Or so Candida tells us.
Candida’s marriage has ended and she has left her position as a rural headmaster’s wife for a flat in a “colourful” district of London. She keeps a diary which is surprisingly vivid for a person who is self described as neither very intelligent, nor well-educated. She is also rather more bitter than she would have us believe:-
“I eventually diverted Sally from the subject of phallic symbols by leading her on to Suffolk gossip. She was by now well through the wine, and although it was only a light white cheap Italian table wine (not from PriceCutter, but cheap enough nonetheless) it was turning her large face red and making her shout and spit. First she told me about Henrietta Parks and her new-born granddaughter, who, to Sally’s ill-concealed satisfaction, seems to have a serious problem connected with her digestive system and is noticeably failing to thrive.”
“That woman doesn’t nibble. She eats like a pig. She shovels it in. And she messes it around on her plate, too. We were always told not to play with our food at St Anne’s. She mushes and mashes hers with a fork, and makes little piles of it, and then eats it very noisily. I think she has dentures. Maybe that’s why she mashes it all up so much. But it’s no excuse.”
And that’s about a good friend from school days.
Candida is well-aware of her cutting and self-pitying tone. In the first part of her diary she describes her early, listless days in London, wandering through a dirty, dangerous underworld. She looks at the view from her third floor flat (through a flaw in the glass, rather heavy-handedly), walks to the shops and swims at the Health Club. She takes a vague interest in the tramps of her Thames-side limbo and waits for oblivion. But the Health Club used to be the adult education centre in which Candida, Anais and Cynthia read Virgil with Ida Jerrold (in English, with reference to a Latin text). Candida comes into some money, and the four Virgilians with Candida’s school friends, poor fat Sally and elegant feted Julia, go to Northern Africa and Italy to trace the latter part of the voyage of Aeneas. The seventh sister is their guide the Italian/Ethiopean Valeria. Candida ruminates wearily on the pointlessness of it all and by now we hope she falls down an ancient hole. This middle section flags, despite the locations and literary allusions.
After the (for the reader) welcome return to London – there is a kind of turn, not exactly a twist, and then another turn in the story.
Her self-serving omissions, her false modesty and her adamantine self-righteousness gradually erode our trust in Candida, which is the point of this meditation on memory, self- awareness and friendship.