14. ‘Heat Wave’ by Penelope Lively.

What an intriguing book this turned out to be – a slim volume packed full of punch. First published in 1996, Mum read it the following year, and kept it, which is an indication of how much she enjoyed it, and I did too. Particularly of interest to me were two things; firstly, that in 1997 Mum was about the same age as I am now, the same age as Pauline, the books central character, and secondly, that Mum had written a short shopping list inside the front cover, obviously gardening related, (Growmore, gravel, small fork…) but including ‘plastic plant’. Mum was a keen gardener, and although her garden was not large, it had a great deal packed into it, and any spots where she couldn’t get a thing to grow, or odd containers, were promptly filled with a plastic bundle of foliage! Like me, she would rail against Monty Don on Gardeners World exhorting you to plant ‘a drift of daffodils’….and just where exactly would one expect to fit a drift of daffodils in a tiny London garden?! After she had retired from teaching, on a warm day Mum could often be found perched out by her little blue shed reading a book with a cup of tea beside her, and that lovely garden hosted many a family gathering. When she moved to her flat, she dug up huge roses and shrubs and potted them up to take with her, and as I write this I can see her lovely old red rosebush shooting out lots of new growth outside my kitchen window…I have her pot plants here as well as her books. A delightful presence in my little house.

In Heat Wave, Ms Lively is exploring relationships, and most particularly, infidelity within relationships, in a perceptive and compassionate manner. Pauline, our heroine, is comfortable with herself at last in her mid fifties, and is spending a long hot summer at her country cottage with her daughter Teresa and her husband and small son in the cottage next door. Pauline is editing a book about romantic love, and this draws her mind back to the past, the years with Teresa’s father, his infidelities, and her crippling jealousy and unhappiness. As the heat of the summer builds, the wheat field outside her window is alluded to frequently; we see the passage of the summer through the changes in the landscape. “Pauline knows this field intimately–its range of mood and colour, its seasonal changes. It is growing wheat–winter wheat, which at this May moment is a rich green pelt.” And as the landscape becomes, instead of a sea of waving, lush, green growth, a field where the wheat has been harvested, and the straw baled into monolithic, vaguely threatening shapes, at last a storm breaks in more ways than one and the book reaches its surprising but very satisfying conclusion.

I loved the way Ms Lively managed so skilfully and successfully to link the weather and the landscape to what was happening to the characters in the book. All is calm and green and lovely to begin with, but as the heat starts to scorch the land, so Pauline realises with anguish that her daughters husband is betraying her, that Teresa is going through the same pain she did with Teresa’s father. There are some wonderfully written conversations, or almost wordless exchanges, between mother and daughter as Pauline attempts to reach out to Teresa while Teresa tries to deny what is happening. And alongside this we see the baby, Luke, just being a toddler, oblivious to the emotional storm crashing around him, something that Pauline marvels at.

It’s a beautifully written story, a very English book, with good manners, attention paid to detail, and some wonderful characters, both the central ones and the peripherals. I thoroughly recommend it as a summer read, and hope we might see a heat wave summer again soon! As always, if you would like to add this book to your collection, please let me know either here or on the Facebook page, and I will send it to you gratis and with love. It’s smashing!