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The Peppered Moth by Margaret Drabble
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The Peppered Moth (2000)

by Margaret Drabble

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I enjoyed the beginning of this novel, it reminded me of my own northern upbringing, my hometown is very like Breaseborough; Bessie and Christine's relationship was all too familiar. But Faro I just found annoying, and it felt like the ending of the novel had been rushed through. Drabble's afterword was very moving. ( )
  mlfhlibrarian | Jun 19, 2014 |
Reading this book, I realized it had been too long since I had read Margaret Drabble. I was quite a fan at one point. The inquisitive narrator takes readers through the implications of genetic connections between family members, particularly those rooted in a place: Yorkshire's mining country. ( )
  robinamelia | Jun 29, 2012 |
'The Peppered Moth' might be an unusual introduction to Margaret Drabble's writing, but even based on this part-family saga, part-scientific study, her style and skill have inspired me to seek out more of her books.

The heart of this story is the female line of a family from the coal mining communities of South Yorkshire. Bessie Bawtry, and her frustrated attempts to rise above and escape the polluted, smalltown life of her parents and sister; daughter Chrissie, whose rebellion against her mother's confined lifestyle and depression leads to a Bronte-esque first marriage; and granddaughter Faro (named after the Faroe Islands where she was conceived), who writes about science and wants to find out who she is. I loved them all! Margaret Drabble, in writing about her own mother and collecting anecdotes from family history, has perfectly captured the love and the repression, the innocence and the anger, of each generation. Bessie is a young girl in the 1920s, feeling unloved by her parents and suffocated by the smoky air of a pit town, has the brains and the dedication to win a place at Cambridge, but lacks the confidence to leave the safety of home behind. Chrissie, tortured by her mother's fears and prejudices, also leaves for Cambridge, while waiting for life to happen to her - which it does, in the form of a whirlwind romance and a baby. Faro, a beautiful free spirit troubled by her parents' lives, is drawn to the history of her family and her ancestors in South Yorkshire. The intertwining of all three generations is captured with honesty, and the comfort and contempt of close family ties is both reassuring and painful to read in places.

The narrative device of an investigation into mitochondrial DNA, and the discovery of an ancient skeleton in the spoil heaps of local mine, is interesting to begin with, but the background scientific theory and the omniscient narrator linking the individual histories seems to mock the characters and their lives. In fact, the final part of the novel, entirely fictitious and no longer based on the author's own family, becomes overly contrived (Faro finding her mother's brooch by the side of the motorway), and feels both rushed and far too neat. There is too much imagery - the fire and the results from the DNA survey - and not enough substance. After Bessie's death, which is achingly poignant with the sense of the author's own regret and relief, Faro's return to her roots seems tacked on, as if there needs to be a happy ending. But then, Faro was the least real character throughout for me, serving as another device to link past and present. Bessie was far too real!

The genealogical element of the story, about how where we come from shapes who we are, and the question of why our ancestors chose to move on or stay put (and if they flourished or faded, like the peppered moth of the title), also holds a rather sad professional fascination to a local/family history library assistant. Drabble's comments on the hobby/addiction of researching the family tree ring true. 'Handwritten records illegibly transferred to microfilm', 'inspecting census returns', and 'snaking spools of slippery sepia' are my current stock in trade, but I dread the day when such a laborious and time-consuming investigation might be reduced to 'plunging a needle into bone to extract some DNA' - family historians do not need any encouragement! They already seem to think that all their personal information is neatly catalogued on computer.

A well written, funny, touching, insightful and depressing story about three generations of women when 'the world was all before them'. ( )
  AdonisGuilfoyle | Aug 30, 2010 |
Well – the Daily Mail described this book as “Wonderfully fluent and engrossing…dazzling” – they lied is all I have to say. I found the tone patronising and positively nasal in some parts of the tale…
“Now let us return to….” Or “We will hear about that later” The Narrator (which on the last page we discover was in fact the author talking through her psychotherapist, or some sort of excuse vaguely familiar… The author should have been renamed Margaret Dribble. She does though explain her difficulties with sorting out who should tell the story and how she had a difficult relationship with her Mother, on whom the book is based. There were some lovely phrases - very poetic snippets running through the tale... but that was the only thing to its credit I warn you. ( )
  Phethean | Sep 25, 2006 |
Showing 5 of 5
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Epigraph
On Remembering Getting into Bed with Grandparents

It's amazing we got that far, loveless'
As you were supposed to be, yet suddenly
I have a longing for your tripeish thigh;
Swallows, thronging to the eaves; a teasmade
Playing boring Sunday news and all sorts of
Rites and rituals which seemed notable but
Were really just trips in and out of the
Bathroom, the neurotic pulling back of
Curtains, stained-glass window at the top of
Hall stairs; dark chocolate like the secret
Meaning of the world in a corner cupboard:
Three-quarter circle smooth as a child's
Dreams and as far above reach ...
'Loveless', the daughters said, years later when
The slow-lack peppered their brains like a dust,
And life had grown as troublesome as thought.
Yet just tonight, I am dreaming of your thigh,
And of the unconscious swallows thronging the eaves.

Rebecca Swift, 1993
Dedication
For Kathleen Marie Bloor
First words
It is a hot summer afternoon, in the hall of a Wesleyan Methodist chapel in South Yorkshire.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0156007193, Paperback)

In The Peppered Moth, Margaret Drabble chronicles four generations in the life of a family, homing in on the female line and attempting to explain how genes, DNA, and environment can change or challenge an individual. The tale begins with Bessie Bawtry, a gifted young woman from a South Yorkshire mining town who fails to live up to her promise. It ends with her granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, "a bobby dazzler" radiant with opportunities and ideas, who nonetheless can't quite make the most of what she has. All of this would produce a fairly straightforward and enjoyable tale of family life--and inherited characteristics--but for Drabble's tone, which is, frankly, uneasy. It wavers from the clinical voice-over ("We must try to rediscover the long-ago infant in her vanished world") to the mawkish elegy ("O poor young girls in flower, you poor frail darlings, who will watch over you, who will guide and protect you?").

What happened? Drabble's afterword, in fact, explains a great deal of this waywardness. Bessie Bawtry, with her hard-won education, her relinquishing lapses into illness, and her life of deferred pleasures, is based on the author's mother. Consequently, there is the sense of filling in biographical gaps with fictional plots and characters, and then carefully plastering everything into place with a thin layer of scientific metaphor. Drabble, alas, is too personally involved with this material, and her prose suffers. It juts and jars at awkward angles, reducing The Peppered Moth to a gawky adolescent of a book instead of a mature, measured reflection on family history. --Eithne Farry

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:35:48 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A portrait of four generations of one family, this story explores themes of inheritance, DNA, the individual's place in history and fate. It spans from Bessie Bawtry, a small child living in a Yorkshire mining town in 1905, to her granddaughter, listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance.… (more)

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