Penelope Fitzgerald's nine novels are thin enough that if you were so inclined, you could take her entire literary output down from the shelf with a single stretched hand. You'd be holding an eclectic bunch. There's the murder mystery set in a museum of ancient artifacts. There's the one about an 18th century German poet and his love for a not-very-bright-15-year-old. And then there's the one I find myself going back to again and again, the one that taught me that it's possible to get sadness and humor into the same book and even the same sentence: At Freddie's.
At Freddie's takes place in 1960s London, at the Temple Stage School for child actors. It's got a plot that makes you feel sorry for the people who have to write summaries on the backs of books. Reading it feels like wandering through an actual school: now into the back office where the headmistress, Freddie, is wheedling a caller into donating a set of old carpets; now into a classroom where Pierce Carroll, a first-year teacher, is failing spectacularly at managing his room of precocious preadolescents.
The tour is so lively — the characters you encounter so vivid and funny — that it can take almost half the book for you to notice that your pleasure contains the germ of another feeling: heartbreak. Because remember Pierce Carroll? It turns out that he's only sticking around, despite knowing he's no good as a teacher, because he's fallen in love with the other new hire, Hannah Graves. And those histrionic brats trading impersonations in the back row? One of them, Gianni, is too poor to stay at the school; another, Mattie, is so jealous of his more talented friend that he may be losing his mind. And as for Freddie herself, whose every speech is such hilarious, bullying fun: it turns out that the Temple School is in serious danger of being shut.
Love, fear, class, ambition, even death — it's all in here, but so elegantly presented that you've finished your plate before you even think to ask about the ingredients.
When I first read At Freddie's I was struggling with my own writing, particularly with how to write about a sad subject — the death of a parent — without writing an entirely sad book.
At Freddie's gave me hope that such a maneuver was possible. "Yes, terrible things do happen," her book seemed to say. "Hearts break, people die, happiness withers. But since there's nothing you can do about it, you may as well laugh at the Grim Reaper's dress in the meantime."
The events in her books are enough to make you weep, but the manner in which she presents them — the warm brilliance of her descriptions, the fond exactitude of her dialog — sends you out of the Temple School feeling oddly hopeful. I closed the book thinking I might have found a solution to a problem in my writing. In the months and years since I've continued to pick it up, and I've become convinced that its wisdom — its method for both facing and resisting despair — could be applied to a great deal more.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.