Saturday, April 21, 2012
The Hireling by L.P. Hartley
Who loves being drawn in by a splendid cover and then experiencing an absolutely fantastic read? My Penguin edition featuring the Cecil Beaton photo on the front was just too enticing too resist. Having never read anything by L. P. Hartley before I simply took a chance and plunked down my money. Both the book and the author have been wonderful discoveries so in this case chance paid off in spades.
While a particular year is not detailed in the book it is set some time after The Great War. Lady Franklin is still in her twenties but the sudden death of her older husband has left her feeling depressed, isolated and extremely guilty. Like you do when your husband dies while you're out dancing the night away at a cocktail party. She is advised by a doctor to seek out conversation, with strangers if need be, to prevent herself from withdrawing further from society. Hiring a car to drive her out to Canterbury so that she can admire the Cathedral as a way of paying tribute to her husband's love of architecture she meets Stephen Leadbitter.
Initially the driver is not an easy fellow to warm up to. Being a hardened ex-army officer he is adept at keeping his emotions carefully in check while Lady Franklin's endless chatter about love and loss grates on his nerves. While the driver's ego is fed by women finding him attractive, Leadbitter has a disdain for women that reaches back to childhood. When Lady Franklin begins to ask him about his home life, Leadbitter selfishly thinks the tips will be more generous if he spins a somewhat spiteful yarn to placate his client. And so the lies begin.
If only this were one of those charming stories resulting in a coming together of the class divide but the plot does thicken. There is another layer of deceit against Lady Franklin by two of her acquaintances, Hughie and Constance, which Leadbitter overhears while on duty. To a man whose loyalty has always been to himself this raises a measure of inner conflict.
There were times while reading this story that I read at a frantic rate to find out what would happen next. I love those moments with books when not even the house crumbling around you could separate you from the plot at hand. Hartley expertly pushed all the right buttons and then delivered a coup de grace ending that left me feeling completely wrung out but not to worry, the residual feeling is one of hope. I have to say the feeling was reminiscent of another excellent read, To the North by Elizabeth Bowen.
Do not let this book languish on your shelf if you own it and if you don't then buy it, borrow it, or sign out a copy from the library. You can thank me later.