Man Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Lively’s latest masterpiece opens with a snapshot: Kath, before her death, at an unknown gathering, holding hands with a man who is not her husband. The photograph is in an envelope marked “DON’T OPEN—DESTROY.” But Kath’s husband does not heed the warning, embarking on a journey of discovery that reveals a tight web of secrets—within marriages, between sisters, and at the heart of an affair. Kath, with her mesmerizing looks and casual ways, moves like a ghost through the memories of everyone who knew her—and a portrait emerges of a woman whose life cannot be understood without plumbing the emotional depths of the people she touched.
Propelled by the author’s signature mastery of narrative and psychology, The Photograph is Lively at her very best, the dazzling climax to all she has written before.
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About the Author
DANIEL GERROLL has many Broadway productions to his credit and has been honored with a Village Voice OBIE award for "sustained excellence of performance."
Acclaimed British writer PENELOPE LIVELY has written many prize-winning novels and collections of short stories for both adults and children. Moon Tiger won the 1987 Booker Prize.
Date of Birth:March 17, 1933
Place of Birth:Cairo, Egypt
Education:Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955
Read an Excerpt
The landing cupboard is stacked high with what Glyn calls low-use material: conference papers and student references and offprints, including he hopes an offprint that he needs right now for the article on which he is working. The strata in here go back to his postgraduate days, in no convenient sequential order but all jumbled up and juxtaposed. A crisp column of Past and Present is wedged against a heap of tattered files spewing forth their contents. Forgotten students drift to his feet as he rummages, and lie reproachful on the floor: 'Susan Cochrane's contributions to my seminar have been perfunctory …;’ Labelled boxes of photographs - Aerial, Bishops Munby 1979, Leeds 1985 -are squeezed against a further row of files. To remove one will bring the lot crashing down, like an ill-judged move in that game involving a tower of balanced blocks. But he has glimpsed behind them a further cache which may well include offprints.
On the shelf above he spots the gold-lettered spine of his own doctoral thesis, its green cloth blotched brown with age; on top of it sits a 1980s run of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. Come to think of it, the contents of the landing cupboard are a nice reflection of his own trade - it is a landscape in which everything co-exists, requiring expert deconstruction. But he does not dwell on that, intent instead upon this, increasingly irritating, search.
A brown foolscap-size wallet file, with her loopy scrawl across the flap: Keep!
She smiles at him; he sees her skimpy dark fringe, her eyes, that smile.
What is she doing here, in the middle of all this stuff that has nothing to do with her? He picks up the file, stares. He cannot think how it got here. Everything of hers was cleared out. Back then. When she. When.
Hang on, though. Here underneath it are a couple of folders, also with her handwriting: Recipes. Since when did Kath go in for serious cooking, for heaven's sake? He opens the folder, flicks through the contents. Indeed, yes - cuttings from newspapers and magazines in the late 1980s, but petering out fairly rapidly, which signifies. He investigates the second folder, which contains receipted bills, many of them red-flagged second demands, which signifies also, and an incomplete series of bank statements, indicating a mounting overdraft.
It would seem that this assortment of her things got pushed in with his papers by mistake during the big clearing-out operation. The hurried, distracted clearing-out operation. Elaine had volunteered to sort out and dispose of Kath's possessions. She missed this lot. And here they have lain ever since, festering.
Well no, not exactly festering, but turning a little brown at the edges, doggedly degrading away as is everything else in here, doing what inanimate objects do as time passes, preparing to give pause for thought to those whose business is the interpretation of vanished landscapes.
He opens it.
Not much inside. Various documents, and a sealed brown envelope containing something stiff. Glyn sets this aside and goes through the rest.
Her medical card. And her birth certificate. Aha! So this is where that was, the absence of which caused considerable nuisance back then, necessitating a visit to Somerset House. No marriage certificate, one notes. That too had gone missing, making difficulties. And is still lost, it would seem. Not that that is, now, a problem.
Her 0-level certificate. Seven subjects. A grades in all but one. Glyn scans this with some surprise. Well, well. Who'd have thought it?
The injunction on the file's flap was presumably to herself. This was the repository for items she knew that she must hang on to, but - knowing herself - that she knew she was only too likely to lose. He experiences a stir of fondness, which disconcerts him. And he has been entirely diverted from the hunt for that offprint, which is a matter of some urgency. Fondness is overtaken by annoyance; Kath is getting in the way of his work, which was not allowed, as she well understood.
There is also a National Savings Certificate for £5, bearing a date in the mid 1950s. When she was about eight, for heaven's sake. And some chequebook stubs and a Post Office savings book showing a balance of £14.58, and a clutch of letters, at which he glances. The letters are from Kath's mother, the mother who died when she was sixteen. Glyn sees no reason to be interested in these and pushes them back into the file unread.
He is left with a semi-opaque folder, which turns out to hold a sequence of studio portraits of Kath. She is looking at him in glossy black and white, now made entirely manifest. Young Kath. A backlit Kath with bare shoulders, head turned this way or that, eyes to camera or demurely lowered, provocative smile, contemplative sideways gaze. These would date from the aspiring actress days, long before he knew her. Very young Kath.
Glyn studies these photos for quite a while.
He returns everything to the file. There is now just this brown envelope. He notices for the first time that something is written on it. In her hand. Lightly pencilled.
And for whom is this second instruction intended?
He opens the envelope. Within are a photograph and a folded sheet of paper. He looks first at the photograph. A group of five people; grass beneath their feet, a backdrop of trees. Two members of the group, a man and a woman, have their backs to the photographer. Of the other three, Elaine can be identified at once, visible between the two whose faces cannot be seen. Near to her stand another man and woman, whom Glyn does not recognize.
One of the back-turned pair is Kath - he would know that outline anywhere, that stance. The someone else, the man, is at first a bit of a teaser. Familiar, surely - the rather long dark hair, the height, a good head taller than Kath. A slightly hunched way of standing.
Glyn brings the photo closer to his face for more minute inspection. And then he sees. He sees the hands. He sees that Kath and this someone, this man, have their hands closely entwined, locked together, pushed behind them so that as they stand side by side in this moment of private intimacy, this interlocking of hands would be invisible to the rest of the group.
Except to the photographer, who may or may not have been aware of what had been immortalized - the freeze-frame revelation.
And now Glyn recognizes the someone, the man. It is Nick.
He turns to the folded piece of paper that accompanied the photograph. He feels as though gripped by the onset of some incapacitating disease, but this paper requires attention.
Handwriting. A brief message. ‘I can't resist sending you this. Negative destroyed, I'm told. Blessings, my love.'
No signature. None needed. Neither for Kath then, nor, now, for Glyn. Though confirmation is needed. Somewhere he will have an instance of Nick's handwriting. A signature. A letter from way back when he was a consultant, or some such nonsense, on that landscape history series Nick published and of which he endlessly and ignorantly enthused, as Nick always did.
The disease now has him by the throat. The throat, the gut, the balls. What he feels is ... well, what he experiences is the most appalling stomach-churning, head-spinning cauldron of emotion. Rage is the top-note - beneath that a seethe of jealousy and humiliation, the whole primed with some kind of furious drive and energy. Where? When? Who? Who took this photograph? Who presumably passed it on to Nick and destroyed the negative?
The telephone rings, down in his study. Such is Glyn's powered state, his consuming purpose, that he is at once on his feet and halfway down the stairs to pick it up and snap: 'I am not available. Sorry.'
I cannot be doing with you right now because I have just learned that the woman who was once my wife had an affair with her sister's husband apparently - at some time yet to be identified. I am evidently a dupe, a cuckold. My understanding of the past has been savagely undermined. You will appreciate that for the foreseeable future this requires all my attention.
The phone stops. Of course. The answerphone is on.
Excerpted from "The Photograph"
Copyright © 2004 Penelope Lively.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"One of Lively’s most satisfying novels: cleverly conceived, artfully constructed and executed with high intelligence and sensitivity." —Los Angeles Times
"An ingenious premise for a novel and Penelope Lively... spins it out with expert skill." —The Washington Post
"Engrossing... engaging." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Lively’s [novel] maintains the high standard her fans have come to expect. It’s another shining winner." —The Boston Globe
"Original... bracingly intelligent. Rarely has a subject as elusive as life’s messiness been pursued with such unflagging rigor." —The Atlantic Monthly
"In her delicate, spot-on prose, Penelope Lively ruthlessly takes her microscope below the surface of two middle-class marriages and magnifies whatever it is that is left behind when passion is gone, when couples become immune to one another." —The Times (London)
"To read Penelope Lively's book is like slipping into the finest cashmere: beautifully wonven, fluid and expensive. Once experienced, it is impossible to enjoy inferior materials." —The Evening Standard (London)
"The Photograph is Penelope Lively's 14th novel, but she shows no sign of running out of inventiveness or of failing to write books that are hugely pleasurable to read. This one is deftly edged with humour." —Independent on Sunday (UK)
Reading Group Guide
Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Lively has been praised for creating characters whom readers are reluctant to part with and for a Jamesian complexity that is at once intellectually compelling and emotionally riveting. In The Photograph, her thirteenth work of fiction, she takes her narrative mastery and psychological insight to new, and seldom achieved, heights.
The Photograph is an unflinching and unforgettable story of the many ways the past intrudes upon the present and the present alters the past. When Glyn, a landscape historian, stumbles upon a photograph of his deceased wife, Kath, holding hands with another man, his understanding of the past is "savagely undermined." Reading the past, uncovering and deciphering its strata, is his stock in trade, but now it is his own personal landscape, and the history of his marriage, that he must reinterpret. He veers from emotional vertigo to an obsessive need to know what kind of woman his wife really was. Why did she have an affair? Did she have other lovers? Was their whole life together a lie? His search takes him back into his life with Kath, and her absence becomes the most powerful presence in his life, rising up before him, speaking to him, leading him to discoveries that reveal much more—and much more disturbing truths—about himself than about his wife. Though dead, she is the novel's most eloquent character, the still center around which the lives of all the other characters begin to swirl. Who was she, this beautiful woman who seemed to draw and hold the gaze of everyone who saw her, who seemed carefree and clearly happy, a burst of color and uncontainable energy?
And why did she have to die so young?
A taut and suspenseful psychological narrative, written with Lively's unmistakable nuance and insight, The Photograph is above all a profoundly moving meditation on the mysteries of time, memory, and the instability of the past.
ABOUT PENELOPE LIVELY
Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt but settled in England after the war and took a degree in history at St Anne's College, Oxford. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. She was married to the late Professor Jack Lively, has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren, and lives in Oxfordshire and London.
Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short story collections for both adults and children. She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger. Her novels include Passing On, shortlisted for the 1989 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, City of the Mind,Cleopatra's Sister and Heat Wave. Penelope Lively has also written radio and television scripts and has acted as presenter for a BBC Radio 4 program on children's literature. She is a popular writer for children and has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Award.
A CONVERSATION WITH PENELOPE LIVELY
Could you describe the genesis of The Photograph? How did the story and characters come to you?
I have had to empty two family homes during the last few years—first, the house that had been my grandmother's since 1923, and then my own country home, which we had lived in for over twenty years. Both were large houses, so that nobody felt constrained to throw things away. As a consequence there were cupboards and drawers and shelves piled high with papers. Going through these, I kept coming across some letter or document that surprised me or conjured up the past in some way. I can't say that I ever came across any revealing photograph, or indeed anything else of that order, but I kept thinking how betraying such detritus can be—potential time bombs in a file or at the back of a drawer.
So that was the initial prompt for The Photograph. After that, it was a question of hunting for the narrative and the characters. I know that I wanted a central figure who was the key to the whole story, but who was not there anymore, and who would be seen entirely through the eyes of others. A woman, definitely—someone compelling. I'm intrigued by the way in which physical appearance can often direct a person's life; things happen differently for a beautiful woman than for a plain one. So Kath arose—an exceptionally attractive woman for whom perhaps her looks were a disabling factor.
Do the themes of time and memory, the changing relationship between past and present, have an especially deep hold on your imagination?
Yes, indeed. I've always been fascinated by the operation of memory—the way in which it is not linear but fragmented, and its ambivalence. We cannot do without it, but it can also be a liability. In different ways, this has been the theme of several of my novels—Moon Tiger, Treasures of Time, Passing On—but I keep seeing new ways of exploring it. The Photograph is concerned with the power that the past has to interfere with the present: the time bomb in the cupboard.
When Glyn finds the envelope containing the photograph of Kath and Nick, he wonders if Kath had planned this moment. Is it purely chance that he discovers the photo, or are we meant to feel that he was fated to do so?
It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency. We make choices but are constantly foiled by happenstance. It is indeed by chance that Glyn comes across the photograph; he might not have done so then, and perhaps not at all. A fateful accident—both that he found it, and that it survived for him to find.
A landscape historian seems the perfect profession for Glyn. Is this an area you've always been interested in, or did you research the subject specifically for the novel?
I think that Glyn is a character who has been waiting to happen to me. I have long been interested in landscape history, and when younger and more robust I used to do much tramping of the English landscape in search of ancient field systems, drove roads, indications of prehistoric settlement. Towns and cities, too, which always retain the ghost of their earlier incarnations beneath today's concrete and glass. So I do know a fair amount about landscape history, and therefore what Glyn's career pattern might have been and how he might see the world and think about it. I do like to embed a fictional character firmly in an occupation. After all, we are all of us driven by work—it occupies our days and directs our lives. But if you are writing about a character's working life you must do so convincingly. Research. Background work. Libraries—plus a great deal of asking around. I have written of historians more than once, an archaeologist, a paleontologist, an anthropologist—as well as an editor, the proprietor of a plant nursery, a librarian, a schoolteacher, and various others—all of which has involved fascinating and enlightening inquiry into how other people's lives are run. You learn a lot, writing fiction.
Why did you choose to write Polly's chapters in the form of dramatic monologues?
I wanted Polly to stand apart from everyone else—a sharp, distinctive voice. She is younger—another generation—and her vision of events is significantly different. The natural thing therefore seemed to be to let her speak for herself, very directly. That kind of monologue is something of a challenge—finding the right note, the right language, but also exhilarating. I enjoyed Polly.
How do you see The Photograph in relation to your other novels?
Every novel generates its own climate, when you get going. In The Photograph, I was trying to write a book that would be multifaceted, in a way that I have not really done before. Conventional forms of narrative allow for different points of view, but for this book I wanted a structure whereby each of the main characters contributed a distinctive version of the story. I have experimented before with contrasting evidence—the sense in which different people experience or interpret an event in completely different ways (in Moon Tiger, for instance) —but this method is a new take on that. The pleasure of writing fiction is that you are always spotting some new approach, an alternative way of telling a story and manipulating characters; the novel is such a wonderfully flexible form. When I was planning The Photograph—always a lengthy process for me, with a year or two of making copious notes—I knew that this book needed several voices, quite possibly contradicting one another, so that it would reflect the way in which there is never any single truth about any person, or about any sequence of events, but as many as there are observers or participants.
The Photograph says much about the shifting nature of past and present. Do you find it to be true that the present and the past are continually influencing and changing each other?
We all need a past—that's where our sense of identity comes from. Even quite small children build up a picture of their origins. Getting to know someone else involves curiosity about where they have come from, who they are. Equally, we require a collective past—hence the endless reinterpretations of history, frequently to suit the perceptions of the present. The present hardly exists, after all-it becomes the past even as it happens. A tricky medium, time—and central to the concerns of fiction.
What writers have been most important to your own work?
I'm tempted to say, everyone I have ever read, because it is only through reading that you discover your aversions and affinities. When I was young, the favored writers—on my side of the Atlantic—were those who never used one word when ten would do, practitioners of a florid, verbose, expansive style such as the Sitwells (all three), Norman Douglas, Christopher Fry. I read dutifully but uneasily. And then I discovered writers like Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, and others, and realized that what I admired was accuracy—the use of the perfect word, the exact phrase. Accuracy and economy.
Since then, I have just read and read—but, that said, I suppose there is a raft of writers to whom I return again and again, not so much because I want to write like them, even if I were capable of it, but simply for a sort of stylistic shot in the arm. Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Patrick White, Alison Lurie, Carol Shields, Barry Unsworth, Evelyn Waugh, Anne Tyler, William Trevor . . . and others. Affinities and addictions change over time, too—you can fall out with a particular writer, and fall in with a new discovery. All I know for certain is that reading is of the most intense importance to me; if I were not able to read, to revisit old favorites and experiment with names new to me, I would be starved—probably too starved to go on writing myself.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thought the story was intriguing, enough to keep you interested and turning the pages. I dont think her literary style is for everyone though - in some parts with more than one character the narrative would change without any hint, leaving the reader slightly confused as to whose point of view they are in; also the flashbacks to past events were done in the present tense and blended with the rest of text, so in some passages it was difficult to distinguish between past and present events. Other than that it was fairly good, a quick and interesting read.
I found it incredibly difficult to get through this book. I found myself skimming most of it to try to get to the interesting parts. I had no feelings for any of the characters.
I started to read this book to help my son with a paper and ended up buying my own copy to read. I can picture the charecters in my mind. I would love to see a movie made of this but would hate if they interpret it differently than I imagined it while reading.
With this new book, Lively comes close to matching Moon Tiger, which still stands at the top of my list of contemporary novels. Lively catches so well here that universal human emotion that begins, 'if only I had known . . . ', an emotion that holds within it the tragic beauty of life, and love. A moving novel, as few are.
More character-driven than plot-driven, this is the sad story of a widower (Glyn) who finds a photograph of his late wife (Kath) surreptitiously holding hands with her sister's (Elaine) husband (Nick), taken by the latter's former business partner (Oliver). Kath's friend Mary is also in the photo, and Glyn proceeds to interrogate all of them to find out if there had been other affairs. The story is told from all these multiple viewpoints, including that of Nick and Elaine's daughter Polly, a favorite of Kath's. We learn a lot about all the narrators (including some of the minutiae of their daily lives - Glyn is a landscape archaeologist and Elaine is a garden designer), but Kath remains an enigma. How she died isn't revealed until near the end, but there are indications all along. The story is set in England, with British vocabulary, so it's only fitting that the audiobook narrators be British. Actor Daniel Gerroll is, but his wife, actress Patricia Kalember (of Thirtysomething and Sisters TV fame), is American. Both do a fine job creating distinct personalities for the various narrators.The book's title intrigued me, although the audiobook cover art is misleading (an attempt to portray the photo that's so central to the story seems like the better choice to me). All in all, though, I was disappointed. Very little happens in the story, and the characters are so self-absorbed, it's hard to empathize with any of them. It's no wonder they knew so little about Kath.
Well played out story of alienation within close relationships, particularly of the main character who was somehow unable to ever establish a meaningful relationship with anyone, her sibling, her many admirers, and even her husband. There's an underlying theme throughout the book of self-absorption.
Re-evaluating your life in the choices you made and how those choices affected others is a prevailing theme in this story. An old photograph is found, and with it questions arise as to its meaning and the story behind it. As it is being investigated, memories and lives are reviewed and while some look back contented, others are not as happy with their decisions. Penelope Lively does a great job in analyzing these people's lives and is able to evoke empathy for these seemingly lost people. I also think that Liveley having kept the story short gave it a bigger impact because she revealed just enough about these characters to make the reader satisfied. The Photograph is an enjoyable somber read.
Penelope Lively's The Photograph strikes me as not up to her usual standard. For one thing, the style and pacing are uneven-- at the beginning, the style is inappropriately brittle, as if this were a Fay Weldon social satire. (The first third of the book does not match the the second and last thirds.) But in fact it's not a satire, but rather a sad story about how the people closest to a woman who has committed suicide never knew her (because they could not be bothered to get past the static images of her filtering their perceptions of her, in ways that suited their own lives. Although I began to suspect that Kath, the dead woman, had been a suicide, this point is needlessly withheld from the reader until nearly the end of the book. Granted, the author probably wanted to convey the fact that Kath's surviving sister & husband had repressed the fact of the suicide, but since they are not the only viewpoint characters, delaying the revelation really was not necessary-- & in fact would have enriched the read.
Intriguing, but predictable. I picked it up thinking it would be a quick read, but found it to seem much longer than its thickness would suggest.
Glyn finds a photograph of his dead wife and it changes everything for him. As he slowly investigates the implications of the photo, a picture of his wife gradually develops and grows. A thoughtful book about relationships, death, and more. Recommended.
Excellent book, I really enjoyed it.
I liked this book very much. I found it to be a very readable story with interesting characters living believable lives and dealing with issues to which I could relate. Yet at the same time there was a deeper level. The book also explored, in a realistic way, the question of what people look for in a "marriage" type relationship and whether such a relationship enhances your life or not. I guess there is more of a focus on female lives than male, but the men were by no means neglected. It suited me, but I'm not a deep thinker, and maybe the more intelligent reader might find it a little too light??
A widower finds an old photograph of his dead wife on a picnic with friends and becomes obsessively interested in her in a way he never was when she was alive. Through his search to learn about his wife, we learn about the two of them, as well as her family and circle of friends. As with every Penelope Lively book I've read, I was really wrapped up in this story. The characters were fully formed, with interesting lives and complicated relationships. In contrast, the dead woman at the center of the tale is indistinct, defined neither by occupation nor personality. Cath is most remembered for being pretty in a purely decorative way -- more than one character describes her as being like a vase of flowers. Cath's vague character is a useful literary device for developing the other characters and their stories. She is a foil for the others. But this leads (for me anyway) to an unsatisfactorily pat ending, as one by one the characters learn Cath's secret and begin to cope with her death. Looking back from the end, it just didn't seem likely that no one in her life understood her enough to realize the one thing that was the most important to her.
Widowed for many years, an academic historian looks through a jumble of papers in a drawer and discovers a picture of his wife looking into the eyes of her sister's husband. With it is a "remember this day?" note from the man. Both are in an envelope with the note "throw away" written on it in his wife's hand.Wanting to understand this new information, he begins to contact people from his wife's past, discovering a woman he didn't know. Thinking he would find many affairs, he discovered only this one, of very short duration. Instead, he found a woman who led a very full life in the arts while he worked, traveled, researched, did not notice her. A lonely woman who touched many but befriended few. A beautiful woman, worthy of being painted, her portrait commending a high price and revered by a man who never spoke to her.She was beautiful. Everyone thought so. Her parents, long dead. Her sister, brother-in-law, husband, niece, artist friends, strangers. How could anyone so beautiful be lacking for anything? But she was. She lacked love. She lacked talent. She lacked children. She was lonely, unbearably so. And finally, at the end of his investigation into that photograph, he understood, at long last, who she was and why she killed herself.A wonderful, but sad, tale that examines what it can be like to be beautiful, but unloved.
Penelope Lively's books should be read for their prose alone. Her writing is elegant and the story flows. This is a quick read but a satisfying one.
I'm not much for novels about marriage and domestic issues, but Lively creates interesting characters that kept me reading. An old photograph is found and so starts an investigation from alternating points of view. First person narrative changes so you get everyone's perspective, and that is how the full breadth of the story comes together in the end.
Revealing study of the difference between perceived and actual relationships . .. among family members and friends. What do people see in one another and what lies hidden ?
It wasn't exactly a page turner, but instead, an interesting series of character studies set in a unique premise.