Bookmarks Issue: 

A-The Sea LadyAs two former lovers travel separately to the seaside village of Ornemouth to accept honorary degrees at the local university, they also travel back in time. They recall the summer they spent together as children in the 1950s, their brief, disastrous marriage a decade later, and the years that followed—all of them played out against the vibrant scenery of the late 20th century. Now in their 60s, Ailsa Kelman, a flamboyant feminist scholar, and Humphrey Clark, a retired marine biologist, anticipate the unexpected reunion with curiosity and trepidation. Joining Ailsa and Humphrey on their journey through the past is the Public Orator, a shadowy figure who guides their story and gives it meaning.
Harcourt. 345 pages. $24. ISBN: 0151012636

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel as a whole expresses itself in extended scientific metaphors, but where at times the narrative of The Peppered Moth seemed in danger of becoming a mere mannerism by this technique, here Drabble uses the imagery in a more fruitful manner. The result is a book that is diverting, even funny, while at the same time profoundly serious and meaningful." Martin Rubin

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Drabble’s grasp comfortably exceeds her ambitious reach in this bravura work, which is neither shy about nor off-putting in its intellectualism. Moving easily among a wealth of reference, from Shakespeare to Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen to Delacroix, from antiquity to the birth of the brie-and-baguette, the book is a splendid showcase of scope and sagacity." Elsbeth Lindner

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Drabble] brilliantly captures both the austerity of life in post-war Britain and a childhood that feels real without being either overly precocious or nostalgic. … If The Sea Lady doesn’t rank among Drabble’s best, such as The Needle’s Eye, it’s still a quality work by a fine writer." Yvonne Zipp

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The story, dripping with marine metaphors, is told in a witty, knowing voice that seems part Jane Austen and part Arnold Bennett, the late-Victorian novelist whose life Drabble has chronicled in a fine biography. If the ending is a tad too pat for two such messy lives as Ailsa’s and Humphrey’s, getting there is a richly rewarding experience for the reader." Whitney Gould

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a thoroughly enchanting blend of scientific erudition, social satire and domestic comedy from a novelist who continues to surprise us. … [The Public Orator] doesn’t add much, except a touch of rather dated postmodernism, innovative in, say, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but a weary intrusion now." Ron Charles

Washington Times 3 of 5 Stars
"While The Sea Lady is never less than alluring, and is often thought provoking as a reverie about the recent past and about ideas that have changed or may change our way of looking at the world, it is not always convincing as a novel. … This makes The Sea Lady a book to read in pieces, savoring its meditations and evocations and enjoying its characters without any expectation of being gripped by a vestigial plot." Claire Hopley

Observer (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"It is unclear why Humphrey and Ailsa should be attracted to each other when they meet again, nor why they were in the first place—he is a relatively weak yet principled man, and she is brash, self-absorbed and unlikable. … The other nonsensical part of the book is the so-called Public Orator, who serves as a sort of secondary (and mostly anonymous) narrator, a device that adds little to the narrative and comes across as exceedingly arch." Rebecca Seal

Critical Summary

In her 17th novel, Margaret Drabble takes the reader on a tour of the last 50 years of the 20th century as she examines questions of character, aging, and memory. Though critics generally praised her evocative prose, vivid descriptions of post-war Europe, and well-developed, eccentric characters, some considered the plot uneven and the romance between Ailsa and Humphrey unlikely. The constant marine symbolism and sea-related metaphors irritated some but amused others. The Public Orator was also a point of contention for critics, who found the contrivance unnecessary. Fans of Drabble will most likely be pleased with this literary novel, but readers looking for a straight story about relationships and the route to intimacy may be annoyed by the many detours.

Also by the Author

The Seven Sisters (2003): Candida Wilton, a mousy, middle-aged divorcée struggling to turn her life around, receives an unexpected inheritance and treats her friends to a holiday in Naples.