Review: The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer

NYRB Classics
New Introduction by
Daphne Merkin
Penelope Mortimer, or should I say the character of Mrs. Armitage, is an illustration of a woman in chaos, the smudged pencil sketch or what the sound of "din" looks like. She's going through a breakdown and "The Pumpkin Eater" is her therapy, Mortimer's therapy. There can be no doubting that this brutally honest and amusing tale is, in a great part, autobiographical. And yet, Mortimer wields each word like a nocked arrow, making it touching, but without an ounce of sentimentality.

The mother (but not the caretaker) of countless children, the narrator seems lost in a world of " squash, blackcurrant syrup, tins of soup or beans or salmon, disinfectant or instant coffee...", trapped in her mind like she's trapped in the glass tower her husband built for her. This dream-castle serves as both physical barrier (not to mention the Freudian implications of a large, fragile phallus in the middle of the countryside)  and delusional whimsy. Her husband's transgressions are unhidden, transparent, testimony for his wife's mental trials.

In all the chaos, you might think it would be difficult to find a thru-line, a string tied to a life preserver, tossed into an unforgiving sea. But it's there, in the form of the Armitages' daughter, Dinah. Insignificant at first, indistinguishable from the circus of little ones, Dinah's importance grows, and it is in her mother's awareness of this growth that the chaos finally subsides.

This tide-like narrative is somewhat reminiscent of another woman's chaotic semi-autobiographical novel: Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz. If Zelda had been a little less delusional, a little more honest, a little less oppressed, a little more depressed, a little less vivacious, and a little more prolific (okay maybe a lot more prolific), she might have been Penelope Mortimer or her literary twin, Mrs. Armitage.

But compared to Save Me the Waltz, Armitage's break is more present. The writer is more aware of herself, and there's an element of the story actually being composed, rather than lived--you really notice this in her treatment of Ireen, and in the way the character seems to ironically haunt the rest of the story. It's the kind of thing where you can hear the writer, amidst the depression and the victimizing) and pick out her victorious laughter in the midst of the din.                                                      


  1. Another book I'd like to read!

    also, I would like to one day read Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz.


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