The Shell Seekers

by Rosamunde Pilcher

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Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Copyright: 1987
Printing: May 2015
ISBN: 1-250-06378-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 632

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In science fiction and fantasy, I try to follow the genre closely enough that I try out new books, discover less-well-known writers I enjoy, and can follow discussions about best-of lists, award nominees, and current trends in the genre. The occasional downside of following a genre this closely is that I read a lot of "just okay" books, and occasionally some bad books. (I love y'all, but some of the things you nominate for awards are... not good.)

In other genres, such as multi-generational family drama, I read selectively and rely heavily on recommendations. This tends to make the ratio of hits to misses much better. The Shell Seekers was one of those recommendations (in this case from my mother), and it's definitely a hit.

The story opens with Penelope Keeling returning home (despite the wishes of the doctors) to her comfortable house after a heart attack. Her three children react to that with varying degrees of usefulness: Nancy, her eldest, generates an endless series of worries and problems that she feels obligated to deal with, such as ensuring that her mother doesn't live alone. Olivia, the far more sensible middle child (and a high-profile magazine editor), defends her mother, not that her mother needs all that much defending, and otherwise stays out of her business beyond the occasional visit. Noel, her youngest, does care about her mother's health, but is not the sort of person to worry much about other people's problems. He's far more interested in whether his mother has kept any of her father's rough sketches for his paintings, work that is soaring in value due to a renewal of interest in Victorian painters.

That's the starting point of the present-time story arc, but The Shell Seekers broadens from there to adroitly mix in scenes from the past: Olivia's (truly beautiful) romance in Spain with a man named Cosmo, Penelope's young adulthood at the seacoast with her much-older father and her young French mother who treated her more like a beloved sister, and eventually the shape of her disappointing and ill-advised wartime marriage.

One theme of this book is Bohemians. Penelope's parents were both part of that culture and Penelope was raised in it, traveling between France and the English coast. Penelope carries on the tradition in her own way in her house in the city where she raised her children, always full of guests and food and life lived largely in the kitchen. Olivia and Cosmo's relationship reprises that life with a more modern feel, a much-needed vacation for Olivia from her intense world of publishing deadlines and careful orchestration. And Antonia, Cosmo's daughter, is the next generation of that same mix of an open heart and a pragmatic attitude towards life. I found it impossible not to love those characters and feel soothed by their joy in life, particularly in their sharp contrast with Nancy's constant worrying and Noel's avarice.

The other theme I picked up, somewhat more subtle, is learning how to live for yourself and find happiness in the things that matter to you. The reader slowly discovers that behind Penelope's confident and grounded old age was a life with substantial hardship and a secret (and alternate life course not followed) that none of them knew about. Watching her struggle and find a path through her life events provides foundation and depth to her decisions later in the book to handle her affairs in exactly the way that is the most meaningful and satisfying to her, regardless of the opinions of her children.

I liked Olivia a lot, but Penelope made this book. Olivia has a reserve, a determined insistence to be her own person and thrive in her world. I respected her, but it was Penelope and her pragmatism and her refusal to care what anyone thinks of her that I connected with. The book sets up a potential conflict with Nancy and Noel, potentially even an exploitative one, but Pilcher reassures the reader at just the right points that Penelope knows perfectly well what's going on and how to deal with it.

This isn't a book with villains, exactly, but it's hard not to dislike Nancy and Noel, both of whom are different object lessons in not being satisfied with the life that one has. Nancy is the most frustrating. She's the sort of person who would claim to have sacrificed everything for her family, and yet doesn't seem to understand or care about the family that she is supposedly sacrificing for. She is a bit of a cliché, but the contrast she makes with Penelope, Olivia, and Antonia is very effective within the story. Noel is more insidious: occasionally charming on the surface, but self-centered, greedy, and deceptive.

The Shell Seekers is a long and sprawling book, but except for a few of the World War II chapters in which Penelope is making a series of bad decisions and the reader has to endure them and their consequences, it never dragged for me. Pilcher moves lightly over the least likable characters or injects a bit of perspective into their viewpoint chapters so that the reader doesn't bog down, and some of the chapters in which her best characters are enjoying themselves are beautiful, slow celebrations of life and love that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

I do have some quibbles: The ending was sadder than I would have liked (although the other closing events of the story were perfect), Penelope's marriage was depressing to read about, and Danus (the gardener who Penelope hires near the start of the book) has an oddly melodramatic background that rang false at several points to me. But they're just quibbles. This was a great book and a perfect thing to read during a lazy, relaxing vacation. Recommended.

One warning: The Publishers Weekly review leads off with significant spoilers for something only revealed halfway through the book, and is of course quoted on places where you might buy this book. I recommend trying not to read that bit.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-12-24

Last modified and spun 2019-12-25