For as long as Eleanor can remember, she has snuck a look at the end of a book before
reading it. In her head, it was rather like when you go swimming and you want to know
exactly how deep the water is before you get in. She was embarrassed by her need to do
this – and it was unquestionably a need – realising that other people might find it an odd
thing to do, foolish even. When she was little and her father was reading to her at bedtime, even then she would reach out and peep at the last page to see. She could still recall his saying, ‘Well, it’s your book, little thing, so you can read it any way you choose.’
She wanted to know that the terminus would definitely be there before embarking on
the journey. When she read a novel, which was only rarely nowadays, she liked to turn to
the final page at once, read the very last sentence, then the whole of the last paragraph,
then the final page and perhaps a paragraph or two of the penultimate page. If dissatisfied – the ending seemed ambiguous or inconclusive – she abandoned it; if intrigued, she felt it was safe to commit to it. She was sure that this peccadillo must reveal something deep and meaningful about her warped psyche but she didn’t care. Why shouldn’t she read a book back to front, upside down, or perched on the branch of a tree if she so chose? It didn’t harm anyone else, after all.
Before she married Roger, he used to tease her about this habit, often mentioning it
to other guests at parties or dinners if ever the conversation turned to books. Eleanor
flushed and tried to redirect the subject away from herself and back onto what people liked to read, which was surely much more interesting anyway.
But his remarks were limited to teasing at that point, even if at times she thought
the teasing had a note of something else that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. The first occasion he went further was while they were on their honeymoon, over twenty years ago now.
* * *
Roger has booked a fortnight for them in southern Italy. It is July and Eleanor is looking
forward to it, of course, but with some reservations, chiefly about the fact that it would be so very hot. She does not function well in heat and feels like a wilted flower unless she can skulk in the shade, while Roger basks and stretches in the baking sun like a freshly sated lion.
Anticipating that she might spend a fair amount of time sitting beneath a tree, she has
packed eight books, all novels she had been saving up for their trip. Roger is clearly taken aback when she unpacks their suitcases and sets out her book stash on top of the bedroom chest of drawers.
‘You do know we’re not relocating, just here for a fortnight?’ he teases, and she
He has brought just two books: a thick thriller and a political biography.
‘Darling,’ he says, pulling her to him, ‘I do hope you won’t spend the entire time
‘Of course not.’ She smiles invitingly and stretches up to kiss him.
‘And you’re not going to be a naughty little wifey and read the ending first, I hope?’
His tone is still teasing and she assumes he is joking.
‘No, I’m planning to read it upside down.’
They go off on long excursions the first two days and return exhausted, so in fact it
isn’t until the afternoon of the third day that she opens one of the novels to begin it. Roger has gone to lie by the pool while Eleanor has opted to rest in their room for a little while, desperate for time out of the heat. As usual, she turns to the end. Odd. The last sentence seems… not final. Intermediate, not conclusive. She reads the last paragraph. Disappointing.
It doesn’t even seem like a proper ending at all. She really dislikes books where the story
simply peters out or stops. And the reviews were so glowing, too. She sets it to one side and selects another. This one she picked up at the airport, read the last paragraph right there in the bookshop and found it irresistible. But still she wants to refresh her memory.
She jolts back as if she had been slapped. That isn’t the right ending. How can that be?
Besides, now it breaks off mid-sentence. It makes no sense at all.
A horrible thought strikes her but she pushes it away and drops the book with a bang
as if it has burned her. Thinks for a minute, recalling her husband’s expression, that
strangely knowing smile this morning when she came out of her lovely long shower. No. No.
Slowly then she picks up the book and turns to the final page again; cracks the spine to open it as wide as she can. It couldn’t be true surely? And yet it is: the last page has been excised from the book. Now fully spread, the remaining tell-tale stub is visible. It has been cut with something very sharp: a razor blade or – her mind racing now, breath catching in her throat, imagining – a knife. A penknife, to be precise. She thinks of the ever-present bulge in Roger’s left-hand pocket: his red Swiss Army knife, with its useful corkscrew, nail file, scissors, pliers, and blades. She swallows and blinks, a rabbit noticing the yellow glint of the fox’s eyes suddenly very nearby.
One often imagines that by a certain age, one should have mastered being a ‘grown up’ … that it somehow miraculously happens, perhaps overnight? Maybe you look at others and feel that they seem to have grasped the concept of being ‘adult’ whereas you’re not quite sure you’re there yet. But what is being a grown up, really? When does one move from being a child into being an adult, and when do we change roles between being parents to our children to becoming their confidantes and companions; do we ever?
The story here revolves around Eleanor (and as we learned in the extract above, her awful husband Roger), her father Conrad, his former colleague, turned friend Andrew, and Cecelia who lives in the house behind Andrew’s parents. Four rather different individuals who find themselves at differing stages of their lives but due to circumstances are suddenly drawn together.
Long-kept secrets are divulged and lives that have been lived, often in a state of mindless plodding and aimless day-to-day drudgery purely for the sake of keeping the peace, rather than for one’s own happiness begin to unravel as it becomes clear that it’s impossible to live indefinitely for the sake of others. There has to come a time when you start living and doing for yourself.
In a story told from varying points of view, through a variety of characters, the plight that is brought about through sacrifices that parents make for their children and partners, becomes apparent in so many different ways. How far should we go? When should we stop … how do we know when to stop? Must we wait for tragedy to strike?
I did find it difficult to keep up with all the different characters here, and the way the story jumped between past and present. And I found the story ultimately to be rather a sad one, which left me feeling less uplifted than I would have liked. But then, does every story have to have a happy ending? I’m not sure it does really … life isn’t like that, so I’d say that this is more realistic than I realised.
Thank you so much to Boldwood Books and Rachel’s Random Resources for inviting me on the Blog Tour. Take a look at what other bloggers are saying about Growing up for Beginners …
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