Back in 2001, I was very taken with a novel called Pages for You. It was a love story, telling of the intense almost visceral affair between seventeen-year-old Flannery and her teacher Anne, ten years her lover’s senior. Since then I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed Sylvia Brownrigg’s The Delivery Room, a very different novel. When I spotted Pages for Her on Twitter I immediately wanted to read it despite a niggling sequel worry. It’s a brave author who revisits her characters sixteen years after they emerged into the world but in this case, it’s a risk that’s paid off.
Flannery is now thirty-eight and married to a bombastic, self-centred yet affable sculptor, renowned enough to have an installation at the Venice Biennale. She’s the mother of six-year-old Willa whose conception prompted her marriage to Charles. Much to Flannery’s amazement, she loves being a mother if a little resentful of the hands-off Charles and bored by the circle of mothers she finds herself in. She has a bestselling memoir under her belt, a lightly fictionalised account of her search for the father she never knew accompanied by her lover Adele, best known for its raunchy sex scenes. Her more literary second book sank leaving little trace and now she’s blocked. She’s surprised to be invited to a conference on women’s writing but as soon as she sees Anne’s name on the schedule, she’s determined to accept. Meanwhile Anne has taken a lecturing gig on a cruise, hoping to lose herself in something different and turn her mind away from the rawness of her lover’s departure. A brilliant graduate student when Flannery knew her, she’s now a highly respected academic with a seminal work to her name and resolutely childless. When she’s asked to suggest a younger writer to invite to the conference, Anne thinks of Flannery. What will happen when these two women meet after so many years?
Brownrigg structures her novel into three parts. The first from Flannery’s perspective, full of domestic difficulties, love for her daughter and fantasies about Anne’s life. The second from Anne’s point of view, reflective on her long relationship with Jasper, her experiences on the cruise and her short stay with her sister in Venice with just a few thoughts about Flannery. The third section brings these two together for a reunion that one has longed for and the other has idly considered. It’s a very effective structure, neatly contrasting the two women’s lives, showing their affair from both sides and building a little suspense as we wonder how these once besotted lovers will find each other. Flannery’s character is particularly well drawn as she struggles with her egotistical husband while idealising the relationship she believes Anne shares with Jasper. It’s a pleasingly literary book, from the naming of Flannery and her daughter to the allusions scattered throughout, particularly in its final section. Brownrigg leaves the novel’s ending nicely open, possibly even enough to allow for a third instalment. That would probably be a step too far, although I’d be tempted to find out how Flannery and Anne get on in later life.