The author of 16 previous works of fiction, Penelope Lively almost invariably lives up to her name. She knows, in other words, how to animate a comedy of manners--how to bring its participants to eccentric and intriguing life. Take Stella Brentwood, the 65-year-old anthropologist at the center of Spiderweb. This lifelong student of human behavior is the sort of mouthpiece most authors would die for: who better to record our foibles and self-destructive follies? Yet Stella is also a career outsider who's never stood still long enough to get her bearings: "In her trade, you travelled most fruitfully if you travelled alone. And it helped if you were footloose and singularly unfettered by personal possessions."
Now, however, Stella is ready for retirement. And once she takes the plunge, buying a cottage in rural Somerset, her detachment receives a few superficial dents. For one thing, her friendships--with a neighboring widower and a retired female archaeologist--come to at least a low boil (perhaps a mild simmer would be a better phrase). For another, the English countryside does exercise its intermittent charms: "A small ancient-looking chapel of perfect simplicity perched above a hedgebank that sparkled with flowers. Sometimes it was difficult to take this landscape seriously--to remember that it had evolved from centuries of agricultural endeavour and blithe environmental disregard." But by arresting her habit of perpetual motion, Stella also has time to review her past--both her professional excursions to Egypt and Malta and the Orkney Islands, and her accident-prone personal life.
There isn't, please note, a warm-and-fuzzy denouement, in which the protagonist learns to reach out and touch: she's English, for God's sake. Yet her story has the power to move us. For Stella is not only independent but self-aware, which can be a very mixed blessing. "I am no longer in business," she muses toward the end of Spiderweb. "I am a part of the landscape like everyone else. And some of us are more tenuously placed within that landscape than others." In the end, even this meticulous transient is headed in the same direction as her fellows. --Bob Brandeis