Love lives of three generations
Carol Birch

by Penelope Lively. Fig Tree. Pages 305. 16.99

ConsequencesPenelope Lively's latest novel begins in 1935, with an unhappy rich girl sitting weeping on a bench in St James's Park. Nearby, a young man sketches the ducks. Their accidental meeting will later be described as the opening of a game of consequences, from which flows a long, rich narrative. Lively's chronicling of the experience of love in the lives of three generations of women in one family enables her to explore the changing tides of English society and the role of women throughout.

Desperate to escape her snobbish upper-class family, Lorna marries Matt and goes to live in a primitive but beautiful cottage in Somerset. Matt's work as a wood engraver with a growing reputation supports a rural idyll, and their happiness is deepened by the birth of a daughter, Molly. War puts an end to all this. Matt is killed in Crete, and Lorna moves back to London with her daughter to work in the small press of Matt's best friend, sweet stuttering Lucas, who has always had a crush on her.

The story, like an Olympic torch, is handed on to Molly. Lively segues easily from viewpoint to viewpoint, decade to decade. Molly's rebellion at the stuffy library where she works mirrors her own mother's against her family, and serves to fix us in time. Molly scandalises the trustees by suggesting they discuss Lady Chatterley's Lover, thus losing a job but gaining the romantic attentions of one of the library's patrons, the fabulously wealthy James Portland.

She will have a child by him but refuse to marry him, wealthy or no. Once more, wealth and respectability is measured against arty bohemianism and found wanting. This is, however, a well-heeled bohemia. Molly becomes an arts administrator before meeting her soul-mate and passing on the torch to daughter Ruth, at first sight the most conventional of the three women.

A harassed wife and mother in the 1980s, Ruth is married to Peter, a staggeringly tedious man. Like her mother and grandmother before her, she rebels. Divorce is followed by a brief career in journalism, affording her the opportunity to go to Crete in search of her grandfather's grave. By this time Matt's work has become highly valued, and through his modest fame she is led back to the cottage in Somerset where her grandparents lived before the war, and we are brought neatly full-circle.

This is not a long novel but it has a certain richness and covers such a swathe of time that it feels as if you have absorbed a great deal. The prose is elegant, the plotting meticulous but unobtrusive. Some of the male characters are sketchy but the three women in many ways, one woman seen at different times are sensitively portrayed. A very modern book, Consequences is also deeply traditional. True love is the ultimate fulfilment for all these women.

By arrangement with The Independent