‘Rhododendron Pie’ by Margery Sharp

‘Rhododendron Pie’ is the story of young Ann Laventie, the youngest child in the artistic and well to do Laventie family, who does not fit the artistic mould of the rest of the family. The book addresses her internal struggles of whether or not to break off from the family ideal or to embrace a life and attitude, more fitting with her disposition. 

The Laventie family are outsiders in the small and sleepy village on the Sussex Downs, where the family and is predecessors have lived for many years. There is a touch of snobbery in this dissociation, in that the family choose to separate themselves from the village folk and see themselves as a class apart from everyone else. Hence, friendly fellow feeling with neighbours has never really been advocated – rather artistic people from London circles and beyond inhabit ‘Whitenights’ – the Laventie home – and provide intellectual succour to its inhabitants.

There are three Laventie children. Elizabeth, the eldest (25 at the beginning of the story) is a literary critic, Dick the middle child, a sculptor, and Ann – the youngest Laventie child (aged 20 in the story) has no evident talent – except for a deep appreciation of life and what makes life more interesting.

When the children were young, they struck upon a tradition of having a pie filled with flowers for their respective birthdays. The idea was Elizabeth’s but it soon spread to Dick and in turn to Ann. Dick’s Pie had heliotropes and it fell to Ann’s lot to have rhododendron pie for her birthday.

Although the other two children thrilled at the sensation and whimsy of having inedible flowers in their birthday pies, Ann fought hard to suppress her feeling of disappointment in the contents of her pie – she wanted nothing more than cloves and the sweetness of apples to savour and enjoy. 

When the story starts in earnest, the children are all grown up and are ready to spread their wings into the world. Elizabeth flourishes as a literary critic and takes up a flat in London to mix with the literary set. Dick is a sculptor having many female admirers and Ann befriends Gilbert Croy, a up and coming film maker who stays at Whitenights for months on end – ‘for inspiration’. 

One should mention the children’s mother. She is a quiet industrious woman who is sadly disabled. Unknowingly to the family and the whole world, she is the one who looks into the smooth running of the Laventie household, the hundred and one tedious domestic details that create such an appealing atmosphere at Whitenights. Without her ministrations the Laventie’s would not enjoy the comforts of the home and feel inspired to be so creative. 

Ann is the only member of the Laventie family who has a close friendship with other people in the village. Since childhood she has a close friendship with the members of the Gayford clan. Elizabeth and Dick turn down their noses at their company but Ann rather enjoys spending time with the friendly and homely family, particularly John Gayford who is clearly besotted with Ann.

Things come to a head when Ann must decide whether or not she must embrace a bohemian, artistic attitude to life or follow her heart and enjoy life in the style she see’s fit. 

I really enjoyed this novel and I thought it was a remarkably well constructed debut novel for Margery Sharp. Apart from the writing, and touches of whimsy that we expect from Margery Sharp, I thought Sharp developed quite a succinct theme for her book. I particularly enjoyed how we saw the beauty of the world and the simple enjoyment Ann gleaned from everyday life – be that in the appreciation of nature, the home, simple pastimes or time spent with friends and family. Ann didn’t have the quirky charm of Cluny Brown or the whimsical appeal of Martha – but she was a finely created Sharp protagonist.

There’s an incident in the book where Ann disappears into a secret spot of hers on a window seat in the attic with a large puzzle and two bananas. This is the way that Ann likes to spend time by herself. There’s a description of how Ann likes to approach doing a puzzle that for some reason just really appealed to me – perhaps because I like doing puzzles in the same way. Sometimes the smallest of cozy ordinary details about living – really add enjoyment to the book. Similarly, Ann spends time on the Sussex Downs with John, or an afternoon at a seaside town or in a London with friends – ans I found all these descriptions very enjoyable.

I look forward to reading the other Furrowed Middlebrow- Margery Sharp releases soon. 

I received an e book Press copy of ‘Rhododendron Pie’ from Dean Street Press but all opinions about the book are my own.