Drumveyn is an oddly muted novel about the rebirth of a woman after the death of her husband, and about the rebirth of her two grown children. The author juxtaposes very extreme circumstances for the three characters against a distance in the writing style. The result is that rather than feeling fully engaged in the goings-on, the reader will feel as though they are watching events unfold in a sort of fugue. And, given the often lurid events, that’s rather remarkable.
When Madeleine Napier’s husband, Sir Charles, dies, she is left on their remote Scottish estate – middle-aged, well-mannered, and alone. Her two grown children have lives of their own, not that she ever really mothered them. Not that she really ever did much of anything except act the part of a remote Lady. The servants treat her with disdain, the estate and its tenants have been neglected, and Madeleine is beginning to realize how isolated and useless she has become with the passing years.
It is against this vacuum that the messiness of life intrudes. Her daughter Lisa is thrown a one-two punch by her calculating husband, who leaves her suddenly, and then sends his previously unknown nine-year-old Brazilian daughter as some sort of consolation prize. Although Lisa has never felt comfortable at Drumveyn, she takes the child, Cristi, there, and encounters for the girl a mother she herself never had – warm, caring, there.
At the same time, Madeleine’s son Archie and his wife Cecil come to visit and make changes at Drumveyn. Chic, fashionable, and cold, Cecil has been impregnated via IVF and Madeleine is horrified that her grandchild will be born from a test-tube. The pregnancy is not going well and Cecil is becoming physically weak and emotionally distant. Cecil does not “fit” at Drumveyn, not at the old Drumveyn. Will she fit into a new Drumveyn?
Into this chaos, Archie brings Tom Ferguson to help remake Drumveyn. Tom is the catalyst for the novel, slowly transforming not only the estate, but the entire Napier family. The changes that Madeleine had begun to make with the arrival of Lisa and Cristi become more dramatic after Tom’s arrival. His strength, common sense, and self-assuredness allows each family member to become stronger and more confident. Madeleine especially blossoms, and she and Tom fall in love slowly and deeply.
While Archie and Cecil’s story-line spins out dramatically, Lisa’s seems vague and bizarre. A young woman who felt unloved and angry growing up, she had married a man who had turned her into a perfect corporate wife. Now deserted, and with a youngster she is ill-equipped to care for, she fits nowhere in the world, not in her posh city home, nor on the country estate she had rebelled against.
Lisa’s ultimate path in the book seemed incomplete, inconclusive, and ill-considered. While Madeleine accepts it, I didn’t. That bothered me. Archie was able to find a path, which he well-deserved. He and Tom, the two men in the story, really are the anchors here, which seemed somewhat politically incorrect, as if men are the only ones with enough strength and vision to turn bad situations around. But since each of these two characters is so sympathetic and good, I was able to get past that.
There is such an aura of sadness surrounding the stories of Madeleine, Lisa, and Archie, that the reader will feel it descend like a fog when they begin the book. While the author creates for Madeleine and Archie endings which they deserve, Lisa’s arc is left unfinished and unsettling. More problematical is the lack of color, the reserved style of writing that never really allows the saddening fog to lift. Readers will get the feeling that although the work at Drumveyn has been finished, they’ve been left behind somewhere in the renovation.