Thursday, April 18, 2013

Peking Picnic - Ann Bridge

'Peking Picnic' was written at much the same time as 'Heat Lightning' and both are in some way concerned with finding a code for living and loving by (both have also had glowing reviews from Book Snob)  but otherwise I found them very different books - 'Peking Picnic' troubles me which is not what I expected at all.

I've been part of a postal book group for the last four years - it's a nice old fashioned idea whereby a circle of readers send books to one another with a notebook - when the circle is complete you get both back with a whole lot of comments. 'Peking Picnic' is the last book for me in this round so I can see from the notebook that plenty of others like it very much indeed. I however have two issues with it, one is pacing - very little happens for 180 pages and then all of a sudden there is hostage episode with some murderous brigands, some surprising gymnastic feats, love affairs are started, and an unexpected death - it made the book feel very unbalanced to me and raised questions about how genuine some of the characters emotions could be.

The second issue is the heroine and her philosophy. Laura Leroy is the wife of a British diplomat and at the centre of the diplomatic community in Peking. She reminds me of Vita Sackville-West as a young woman, but is more likely a version of Ann Bridge herself. She's cool and wise, physically active, capable in a crisis, attractive and intelligent, but all this is mixed with a streak of self indulgence that I find problematical. Laura loves China (the description of Peking and it's surrounding countryside is a wonderful snapshot of life there in 1931 and the book's worth reading for that alone) seems reasonably happy with her life and husband, although she misses her children back at school in England, and yet there's something amiss.

I've long cherished a theory that in a society where divorce is a major scandal, adultery is likely to be tacitly accepted as long as it's discreet (it's probably not a theory that bears much examination but this book seems to bear it out). Laura's theory is that love is never a waste, she has had 3 loves in her life and by the end of the book is contemplating a 4th. Not for the sex - that's something she considers agreeable but only a small part of loving - but for the whole spectrum of emotions that go with love. Her husband is 1 of the 3 loves, she won't leave him, won't do anything that jeopardises access to her children, but won't be faithful to him either which sits at odds with her apparent integrity. When another character asks if her husband knows about the infidelity she's just confessed too she explains how cruel that would be - she doesn't mention that it might be inconvenient as well - and that's my problem. I feel that when you prod Laura's philosophy it doesn't hold together, my overall impression is of someone who has her cake and eats it too.

After finishing the book I read a bit more about Bridge who was apparently annoyed by her own diplomat husbands philandering which has made me wonder if this - her first novel - was partly meant to let him know it could work both ways, or maybe just a hint not to take his wife for granted (either way it made me warm to Laura Leroy a little). It's a book I found more interesting than enjoyable, and though I wouldn't rule out reading more Bridge if it comes my way I'm not sure I'll go looking for her. 


  1. My mother has just purchased a copy of this and promised me second reading, so I read your review with interest.

    I don't think I'd mind if the character were faulty and self-indulgent, if that's what you're saying, so that wouldn't put me off. Or is it that you feel Bridge is trying to lecture you? I think, from the books of hers that I've read, that she has that tendency sometimes and I find it extraordinarily irritating when she does it. Although I find her work enjoyable otherwise.

    That said, I loved 'Illyrian Spring' and would say that IS worth looking for.

  2. It's a first book and I think it shows - certainly in the pacing, it felt like a long time before anything very much happened (which I didn't mind to much) but then such a lot of quite sensational things happen all at once in the last third of the book that it all felt a bit much. I don't object to self indulgence but this time I just didn't find the character sympathetic. The other readers seem to have been fairly evenly split between those who loved it and those who didn't though so it's well worth a read to see what you think, and it does at least have something interesting to say about relationships and marriage.

    Reading a book to a deadline and which I haven't personally chosen always makes me more critical, I'll be interested to see what you think of this when you get round to it.

  3. Everyone seems to rave about Illyrian Spring, which I have on my TBR. I would actually be quite keen to read about Peking in this era, having visited China at Xmas time and having read very little about it beforehand.

  4. There's a lot about China, the Chinese, and the social life in diplomatic circles - all worth reading and this one's quite easy to get hold of. I didn't love it but plenty of others have and I can see why it would work for someone else.