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The Pure Gold Baby
Margaret Drabble, grande dame of British fiction, author of many novels, staunch anti-Americanist. She is the sister of writer A.S. Byatt, but the two do not communicate after a disagreement over the portrayal of a family tea set in one of Drabble’s books.
A group of middle-class London families muddle through various crises, with, at the center of their stories, single mother and anthropology student Jessica and her ‘pure gold baby,’ Anna.
(With apologies to Margaret Mead) Coming of Age in North London
Anything by Iris Murdoch, Margaret Atwood and (although Drabble will hate me for comparing her to a Yank) Anne Tyler.
The main character in this book is a relationship: between tempestuously independent single mother Jessica and Anna, the intellectually arrested daughter who anchors her.
Laura Linney (if she can nail the Brit accent) has the intensity and tender craziness required for Jessica. Anna Paquin would excel at playing the otherworldly Anna as an adult. And although Linney does not look anything like old enough to play Paquin’s mother, the age gap between the two actresses reflects that of the fictional characters.
London in the 1960s? I would sell my kids to get a chance to live there.
[Anna] would be what she would be — a millstone, an everlasting burden, a pure gold baby, a precious cargo to carry all the slow way through life to its distant and as yet unimaginable bourne on the shores of the shining lake.
In 1965, Drabble published the book for which she will probably be remembered. The Millstone concerns a young academic, unenthusiastic about sex and marriage, who falls pregnant after a one night stand, has a baby girl and – eventually and reluctantly – forms a kind of peace with the fact that she is now a mother.
"A bad investment, I knew, this affection and one that would leave me in the dark and the cold in years to come; but then what warmer passion ever lasted longer than six months?" says Rosamund in the closing paragraphs of the book, and with those word Drabble so neatly sewed up the contradiction of motherhood – our passionate commitment to people we know can only ultimately thrive without us – that it seemed The Millstone had to be her defining statement on the subject.
Yet The Pure Gold Baby returns to the whole business of the purpose of children and the nature of parenting, as though Drabble couldn’t bear not to have just one last go at getting to the heart of this particular matter. This time she allows herself a bigger canvas – several middle-class London families instead of just Rosamund and her tight little group of fashionable friends, and she also gives herself a wider theme, using Jessica’s aborted career as an anthropologist to turn the whole comfortable wine-swigging, habitat frequenting, social milieu into an anthropological study in its own right. ‘We’re not so different from the natives’ is what Drabble seems to be trying to say, with her references to Livingstone and his trips through Africa and to the children of remote tribes, who Jessica once studied.
Against this, we have the pure gold baby of the title: Anna, whose sunny nature turns out not to be a blessing but rather a symptom. Gold is not only pure and lustrous, it’s heavy and Anna ends up weighting her mother Jess, almost as a literary continuation of Rosamund’s thought at the end of The Millstone.
There is nothing wrong with either of these elements: Drabble is quietly funny about the rituals and taboos of the North London natives, and Jessica’s dilemma as she tries to cope with a seemingly perfect and yet disabled child is drawn with sympathy and precision. The problem lies in bringing the two together, which Drabble never quite manages to achieve. Is Jess a modern-day Livingstone – hacking her way through the jungle of single parenthood? How does Anna relate to the lobster-footed children from a remote Scottish village, or the stories of saints? By not answering these questions, The Pure Gold Baby although skillful, isn’t so much a sequel to The Millstone as a footnote.
Review for LitReactor.com by Cath Murphy