I was greatly impressed with Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater when I read it a couple of years ago – a novel about a woman on the verge of a breakdown feeling trapped by motherhood and having to contend with an insensitive husband. Despite the subject matter, it didn’t come across as bleak and credit goes to Mortimer’s wonderful writing style and her penchant for wit. A lot of these themes are also prevalent in Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, her short stories offering, which I thought was brilliant.
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly pitched tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life.
The collection opens with a bang – the first story “The Skylight” is a masterclass in suspense and tension highlighting the interplay between the burden of motherhood and a mother’s protective instinct towards her child. Our unnamed woman narrator is travelling in a taxi with her five-year old son Johnny to a farmhouse in the French countryside. Right from the beginning, her discomfort is apparent to us – the blazing heat is too much to bear inducing a state of torpor in both her and Johnny, and she is filled with forebodings on the house she has rented for their stay. Her husband and daughters are to join them later on.
Now it was real. She was inadequate. She was in pain from the heat, and not a little afraid. The child depended on her. I can’t face it, she thought, anticipating the arrival at the strange house, the couple, the necessity of speaking French, the task of getting the child bathed and fed and asleep. Will there be hot water, mosquitoes, do they know how to boil an egg? Her head beat with worry. She looked wildly from side to side of the taxi, searching for some sign of life. The woods had ended, and there was no relief from the sun.
Her worst fears are confirmed when they reach their destination – the house is locked, the owners are nowhere in sight, and she does not have the keys. Amid a creeping sense of dread, the woman struggles to find a way into the house and chances upon the skylight. The problem is that the opening is too narrow for her to wiggle through it, but she surmises Johnny can slide down without a hitch. She lowers Johnny down the skylight into the attic with precise set of instructions of what he has to do once he is inside the house. But as the minutes begin ticking, Johnny fails to appear. This is a brilliant story where Mortimer toys with the reader’s emotions with the result that we end up being as much as a nervous wreck as the mother.
The title story “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings” is another first rate tale that depicts a seemingly innocuous family ritual where tensions simmer beneath an outwardly calm surface. Madge Browning and her husband William find themselves arguing continuously about their children – William’s real daughter Bessie from a previous marriage, and his step-daughters Melissa and Rachel (Madge’s children). Madge wants the Saturday meal to go off smoothly, aiming for the lofty ideal of a perfect family enjoying a meal together, but William is constantly undermining her efforts until it all culminates in a dramatic confrontation.
If we can get through lunch, Madge thought, we shall be all right. She beamed at him (William) encouragingly as he picked up the carving knife and fork. It was at times like this, when they were all together and relatively peaceful, that she almost felt they might make a success of it. She had given William roots, set him at the head of a family table, given him something to work for; she had given her own children a home and a father. The picture was as clear, as static and lifeless as a Victorian bliss of domestic bliss. It was her ideal, doggedly worked for…This is Saturday Lunch with the Brownings.
In “Little Mrs Perkins”, Mortimer once again deftly manages the reader’s perceptions lulling them into a false sense of security only to later pull the rug from beneath their feet. The story takes place in a maternity ward where the narrator has just delivered a baby. She observes the young Mrs Perkins being wheeled into the same room onto an adjacent bed. Mrs Perkins is in a delicate condition, on the brink of a likely miscarriage, and has been advised absolute rest. In the hands of the doctor and her caring husband, Mrs Perkins is put to ease and the narrator (as well as the reader) is led to believe that all is well, until the story takes a nifty turn to reveal Mrs Perkins true intentions or priorities.
“Such A Super Evening” is another stunning piece with a clever viewpoint on the nuances of married life, while children feature prominently in many of her stories with their unique perspectives on the complex world of adults. In both “The King of Kissingdom” and “The White Rabbit”, Mortimer displays an expert grasp on the interior world of children, ridden with guilt and insecurity, who are grappling with the fractured relationship of their parents.
Some of the essential themes running through these stories are – infidelity, marital discord, family life which more often than not becomes a fraught battleground, unwanted pregnancies, a sense of entrapment in motherhood, using children as means to gain an upper hand in arguments with spouses and so on.
Mortimer’s vision is singular and her sharp, shrewd portraits of the minutiae of family life that can unexpectedly erupt into volatile drama make each of these stories utterly compelling. For a lot of the material on display in these rich layered tales, Mortimer drew from her own life experiences. She once quipped, “I mined my life for incidents with a beginning, a middle and an end, finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce, unpredictable behaviour.”
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, then, is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.