The Pure Gold Baby

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The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret DrabbleAnna seemed like a normal baby when she was born to her unwed mother Jess. As she grew, she seemed ultimately happy. She was the type of child who glowed from within. So when Jess realized that Anna wasn’t normal, that she’d never learn to read or do math, she decided to do everything she could to protect and care for her. But her mostly abandoned career in anthropology continued to hover in her periphery. This is The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble.

Drabble’s style is elegantly simple with a contemplative quality to it, which weaves between being squarely based in reality and the more esoteric and philosophical passages. Told from the perspective of Jess’s friend and neighbor Eleanor (or Nellie), the point of view is a mixture of first person singular and plural, as she accounts her own observances, things she’s been told by Jess herself, and the memories and gossip from the other people of the neighborhood. This is slightly confusing, especially since we only understand who the narrator is after about a third of the book. It also lends the story a slightly arrogant feel to it, but this is mixed with enough humility that we never feel that Nellie is being condescending. Rather, she feels lucky that she’s been spared the troubles of some of the other mothers we encounter, including not having a special needs child herself. And while she isn’t wholly judgmental, there were times when we feel she might have advised Jess to act differently. This makes the relationship between these two characters somewhat tentative, despite the obvious closeness they exhibit.

This is the type of story about which some critics might say “nothing happens,” which is often another way of saying it is boring. In some respects they would be right. We get no major conflict here that will bring us to a huge climax. Instead we get to see a life – one that is filled with minor conflicts that bring about minor climaxes. This is reality; real life and it is far from boring. To write such a character-centric story in this manner that keeps the reader turning pages to the end is a testament to Drabble’s writing talent.

However, about half way through this novel, it occurred to me that I was having difficulty reading this story. On the one hand, I was enjoying the writing. However, there were several things that disturbed me. To begin with, perhaps I was misled by the title. From this, I believed I was going to be reading mostly about Anna – this person of wonder and simplicity that, due to her disabilities (which are never absolutely labeled), floats through the world in an agreeably content haze. Anna, despite her aging over the decades from birth to into her 40s, she always remains child-like. Being mildly dyslexic myself, I looked forward to hearing her story. However, in reality, what I got was a portrait of Jess, with Anna being the catalyst for how Jess lived her life. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but perhaps the book should have been called “The Pure Gold Baby’s Mother”.

Another problem I had with this book were the many tangents the narrator took while telling the story. Thankfully, they were nowhere near as wildly off the beaten track as John Irving’s stories travel down. In this case, most of these side-steps delved into the world of anthropology. While this makes perfect sense considering Jess’s chosen field, some of the information imparted here seemed to take for granted that the reader had some background on this topic. It felt like she was bandying about names of people who are probably very well known to those in that sphere. Rather than be condescending with lengthy (and usually annoying) explanations, she just let their names lay there. Unfortunately, this method made me feel out of touch with what was going on, and sometimes I just felt stupid.

This puts me in two minds about this book. On the one hand, I have to commend Drabble and her ability to make a compelling and lovingly presented read from the mundane lives of people that are just different enough from the ordinary to make them interesting. Fans of Drabble may even find this to be a masterful piece. On the other hand, I felt I was missing something here, which left me dissatisfied with the book as a whole. It may be that my unfamiliarity with Drabble and her previous books has worked against me here. For this reason, despite my newly found interest in reading other of her works, I can’t fully recommend this one and can only give it two and a half stars out of five.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
Published by Canongate, November 2013
My thanks to the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Pure Gold Baby, The
by Margaret Drabble

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Written by Davida Chazan