Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 27, 2011

Someone At a Distance

whippleby Dorothy Whipple

True to all reports, this book proved to be a lovely, subtle depiction of the disastrous end to a very happy marriage. The plot, in all its agonizing detail, is far less compelling than the characters who populate it. Unlike anything I’ve read recently, this story relies on the deft construction of its realistic characters, and if this book is anything to go on it seems that such characters are Whipple’s strength.

Borrowing from the back of the pretty Persephone Classic edition I have (eager as I am to get back to reading Flush!):
Avery North has been contentedly married to Ellen for twenty years, they have two children and live in the rural commuter belt outside London; when his mother advertises for a companion, the French girl who arrives sets her sights on Avery and callously threatens the happy marriage.

You can’t help but feel extremely bad for these people – even the horrible Louise. Whipple goes about her tale in a fairly straightforward way, and you know how it’s all going to go down long before poor cheerful, energetic Ellen even suspects she’s in danger. It’s awful and not the type of story I would normally enjoy, but Whipple’s characters hook you with as much skill as Lousie snared Avery, and I wasn’t able to put the book down. The writing is really something out of the ordinary. I feel almost compelled to thank Whipple for stabbing me in the heart…!

No one who has read this book will be too surprised by my reaction, since from its resurrection through Persephone in 1999, the story has been one of the most popular in the collection. I understand why now, and I will very likely be seeking out more Whipple in the future. And now, back to Flush by Virginia Woolf as Persephone Reading Weekend continues. Happy grey reading!


  1. Whipple’s characterisation is deft, with the people that appear from the pages of her novels (and short stories) fully-realised, emotive and realistic. She writes domestic dramas that are gritty.

    Happy further grey reading!

    • Yes, her skill at making domestic troubles riveting is another of Whipple’s strengths.

  2. I have not read this yet, but having read my first Whipple this weekend, I really want to read more by her. Like you, I found her characterisation to be spot on.

    • Oh, I’ll have to buzz over to see what Whipple you read! She’s been a quite satisfying partner for my weekend. 🙂

  3. “Thank Whipple for stabbing me in the heart” — I love this! It’s so true. It amazes me how much I can love such a tragic story. Edith Wharton does the same thing for me. I don’t know if you are a fan but her works are beautiful and sad.

    My first Whipple was The Priory which I just loved. I have three more waiting but I’m forcing myself to wait so I don’t finish them too quickly.

    • I’ve only read a tiny but of Wharton, but she’s high on my list to investigate further. I had the feeling that she could pull off stories like this with a similar grace to what Whipple displayed here.

  4. Yes I too, loved this book. All the characters and their thoughts were so true to life. I loved how Ellen’s old friend summed up how Ellen could have handled things and possibly changed the outcome.

    Just a great read. I think Dorothy Whipple’s best book that I have read so far. And one of her post WWII books.

    Lil Bit Brit
    Lil Bit Brit Lit

    • And I loved how Ellen wasn’t made out to be purely the victim – she definitely made choices that effected the outcome, for better or for worse.

  5. Thanks for the review – I’m adding it to my list (which has grooown this weekend). I agree there’s something odd about a book that is sad but drags you in and along with it, and you’re right it wouldn’t happen without decent characters and brilliant writing.

    • Glad you found another one for the list – and while I can’t paint a cheery picture of this book, I can definitely say “the writing is brilliant”.

  6. I thought I might read SAAD this weekend, too, but it must not have been the right reading time for it for me; I’ve enjoyed her work in the past, though, so I’ll definitely try again.

    • It’s taken me a long time to feel in the mood to read this – the plot really didn’t appeal to me, but I knew if I just got into it the writing would make up for it. Hopefully this will be true for you, once you pick it up again.

  7. I was smitten with this one. The first half was ok, but that second half really pulled me in. You’re right, you sort of feel sorry for everyone. What a mess a little lack of judgment creates.

    • Funny that Whipple can make such a mess a readable and even enjoyable one!

  8. Everyone raves about this book but I feel like it would devastate me! I find marital infidelity pretty hard to read about. I might start with a different Whipple and work up to this one, since she is certainly one of the Persephone superstars. 🙂

    • Yeah, I hesitated over reading this for a very long time for that reason – the story is a little too close for comfort in some aspects… It is a bit devastating – but like I said, Whipple pulls it off in a startlingly good fashion. It boggles my mind, really.

  9. […] Woolf’s Flush (odds and ended here), and participated in the Persephone Reading Weekend with Someone At a Distance by Dorothy Whipple. As for December – heck, December needs its own post as the 7 books I read […]

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