by Rosamunde Pilcher
Published by St. Martin's Press
454 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Comfort Food for the Intellect
Reviewed by Monica Stark
One of the most amazing things I've ever eaten was lobster in a lobster sauce. The flavors were sophisticated, subtle yet complicated, challenging the diner to identify the source of this flavor or that one.
A current favorite of mine is served at a Provençal restaurant in my city. Scallops served on wilted greens and with a balsamic vinaigrette, the combined flavors practically cause me to topple off my chair in sheer pleasure every time I try this particular dish.
All of the foods I really like are complicated combinations of textures and flavors that demand my attention and participation. And while I enjoy that type of eating very much, I can't imagine doing it every day. There are times when demanding food is simply not what's needed. Times when, quite frankly, a simple mac and cheese or a peaceful bowl of soup that began its life in a can are exactly what is required. Neither of these things demands anything more of me than the ability to boil water. And as for sussing delicate flavors: forget it. The flavors are pleasantly processed to the point where the only participation demanded of me is lifting my eating utensil to my mouth. And yet, that simple eating experience -- while certainly different -- is no less rewarding. It's different, sure. But at the end the result is precisely the same: I'm no longer hungry when the last bite is consumed.
Winter Solstice is mac and cheese or tinned soup for the intellect. It demands nothing more of the reader than following the story and turning the pages. The characters are warm and uncomplicated, the plot turns on the most simple of premises and, at the end, the reader is left feeling satisfied and even warmed. Comfort food, then, for the intellect. There are much worse things.
Although Winter Solstice enjoys a bit of an ensemble cast, if we must choose a single character to be our main one, it would be Elfrida Phipps, a 60-something former actress whose penchant for the flamboyant doesn't mar her solid and sensible personality. Though she's occasionally slightly irresponsible and pleasantly eccentric, she's warm, whole, filled with laughter and is a very nice character to burden with a lot of the screen time in Rosamunde Pilcher's latest book.
As the book opens, Elfrida has left London for a cottage in a small English town: a place, she contends, suitable for spending her twilight years. When she meets the Blundells -- husband, wife and daughter -- the family take to her instantly and promptly gather her under their collective wing. Welcomed into her new community, Elfrida feels content with the choices she's made in selecting her "geriatric bolt-hole." She makes cushions that are carted off to London to be sold to designers at high prices. That supplements the money she receives from her pension check. The pension is something she relishes: the first time in her life, she figures, that she's gotten money for nothing.
Just as she really feels like she's growing some happy roots in her new community, disaster strikes: the Blundells -- Mrs. and Miss -- are killed in a tragic accident. Oscar Blundell reels under the grief of his loss and barely notices when his grown stepsons evict him from the house Oscar shared with their mother. Elfrida feels she has no choice but to look after the grief-stricken man and when he asks her to accompany him to the house he half-owns in Scotland, she ultimately says yes. After all, she reasons, "She had been impulsive all her life, made decisions without thought for the future, and regretted none of them, however dotty. Looking back, all she regretted were the opportunities missed, either because they had come along at the wrong time or because she had been too timid to grasp them."
The romance that springs up between these two 60-plus characters is inevitable, but also very sweet and absolutely warm. The comfort and love they have for each other provides the foundation for much of the action in the balance of the book. Action. The word here is used loosely. The truth is, nothing very much actually happens in Winter Solstice, yet it doesn't happen so charmingly that the book is a pleasure from first page to last.
This is a world where there is no problem that can't be solved by a strong cup of tea, a nice fire and a good meal. A place where the biggest villains are ex-wives and lovers -- and even these aren't terribly bad and mostly end up having redeeming qualities. Elfrida's cousin, 30-year-old Carrie, comes to spend Christmas with Oscar and Elfrida at the Scottish house. Recently removed from a long-term affair with a married man, Carrie has some healing to do. She brings along her niece, Lucy, 14, whose own mother -- Carrie's sister -- has gone off to America to spend Christmas with her new boyfriend. Into this mix -- and fortunately it's a large house -- drives Sam. Brought into the area from New York via London, Sam has been sent here to rebuild the local mill, destroyed recently by flood and the modern world in general. Not surprisingly in a Pilcher novel, Sam is handsome, of good character and has recently been discarded by his own wife.
All of these characters have some healing to do and find that a wonderful old house plus the combined magic of five loving personalities can do more than anyone imagined. In a way, Winter Solstice is a startling book. There was a tremendous potential here to create a cloyingly sweet book. Yet Pilcher hasn't. This is partly, I think, due the fact that she seems to feel absolutely no compulsion to follow any type of formula. Despite some of the setup, Winter Solstice is not a romance. There are a couple of passionate kisses, but even these are pretty tame. Any sexual shenanigans that Oscar and Elfrida might get up to are left behind closed doors. We know, after a time, that they share a bed and are lovers, because Elfrida tells her cousin Carrie, but beyond that, we're left in the dark.
This is Pilcher's 23rd book under her own name. Her earliest books -- 10 in all -- were published in the late 1940s and early 1950s and credited to Jane Fraser. All of her work under both names carries her signature: Pilcher's voice is strong and clear, her humor deep and her optimism seemingly unshakable. Winter Solstice demands nothing of the reader besides showing up. And somehow, for the work of this author at any rate, that's enough. | August 2000
Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.