I bought The Private Lives of Pippa Lee back in May, intrigued by the pretty cover and the promise of reading about a “thoroughly modern heroine”. Not long later the book was listed as part of Richard and Judy’s Summer Read and suddenly I went off the whole idea. I know, I know, sometimes I can be a complete book snob.
I then discovered that the book had been optioned and the author, who is better known as an actress and film director, was going to be directing it. Hmmm, did this mean I’d paid good money to read a screen play rather than a fully worked up piece of literature?
Things were not boding well. Still, needs must. And so on Sunday evening I cracked open the pristine cover of my large format paperback and began to read… with an open mind.
The story is about a woman, Pippa, who marries a successful book publisher 30 years her senior. The pair, who have a set of adult twins, have just moved to a retirement village so that they no longer have to worry about the upkeep of their Manhattan apartment and their Long Island beach house. But the move unsettles 50-year-old Pippa, who begins to realise her husband’s life is drawing to a close and that it won’t be long before she is left all alone.
Her well-ordered life is further shaken when she discovers that ‘intruders’ are continually making a mess of her kitchen — peanut butter spread on slices of chocolate cake one morning, eggs everywhere the next — while they sleep. I know, it’s not exactly Gorky Park, is it?
But I was intrigued enough to keep reading to see how the story would unfold. However, by page 30, I was bored witless by the dull prose, one-dimensional characters and the choppy dialogue. This example is fairly typical:
Pippa came to a bedroom door. They were in there. She could hear them. She knocked tentatively. The voices went silent.
‘Dot?’ she said.
‘Who is it?’ It was a man’s voice.
‘It’s Pippa Lee… I was looking for Dot.’
I mean, could I take another 200 pages of this clunky, go-nowhere prose? I very seriously considered giving up on the book completely. In fact, I wanted to throw it against the wall in anger and frustration. But a little voice in my head kept telling me it might just get better…
And you know what? It did.
Part two is written in the first person (as opposed to the third-person narrative of the opening section) and suddenly the reader gets to find out what it is really like being Pippa Lee. She takes you right back to her haphazard life as a 16-year-old and the traumatic, strained relationship she shared with her overbearing, too clingy, drug-dependent mother. We find out about her illicit affair with a school teacher (although the details are perhaps a little too sketchy) and her new exotic life living in New York with her lesbian aunt.
Slowly but surely, and in a style reminiscent of MJ Hyland’s wonderful How the Light Gets In, Miller builds up a portrait of a slightly disturbed young woman trying to find her way in the world. Her wild, on-the-edge lifestyle as a twenty-something is in stark contrast to the strait-laced, domestic life she leads now, and I wanted to keep reading to find out how the two would reconcile with each other.
Of course, when Miller returns to the third-person narrative in part 3 some of the momentum is lost, but I felt that the narrative was much stronger now that I knew some of Pippa’s secret past.
As a whole though, I’m not sure Pippa’s private life is actually that private or that much different from a large majority of the population who have experimented with drugs and sex in their youth. Perhaps this book is merely about one woman coming to terms with the prospect of growing older, learning from her mistakes and trying to make the best of her present circumstances.
This isn’t a novel that will rock your world, literary or otherwise, but I’m sure it will make a damn fine movie. And it’s also proof-positive that sometimes it’s worth persevering with a book even when you’re convinced it’s not worth the effort.