Message in a Bottle
A Dance to the Music of Time: The Acceptance World

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Book three of the Dance takes place in the early 1930s, a few years after the events of the preceding novel. Narrator Nicholas Jenkins, while visiting his Uncle Giles, meets the dramatic Mrs. Erdleigh and has his fortune told, with a special emphasis on his so-far unfulfilling romantic life. Later, Jenkins attempts to solicit an introduction for a book through Quiggins, a collegiate acquaintance. At that appointment, Jenkins bumps into another old friend, Peter Templer, and meets Templer’s wife Mona for the first time.This leads to a reconnection with Templer’s sister Jean; the torch Jenkins has carried for her on and off since his teen years is rekindled and he embarks on a secretive relationship with her. Meanwhile, Mona leaves Templer, seduced by Quiggins’ literary prospects and exciting radical politics. Mrs. Erdleigh makes a surprising appearance on the arm of the obnoxious Jimmy Stripling, and Jean reveals an old affair with him to Jenkins. Pondering these various domestic complications, Jenkins attends a reunion dinner honoring his former headmaster Le Bas, along with Templer, the now-divorced Charles Stringham, and others. Widmerpool, once an object of scorn but fast becoming a force in business and politics, there launches into a tedious speech that concludes only when Le Bas collapses of a stroke.

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Once again, business first. The winner of our latest giveaway is Karen, who made some of our most astute comments yet on our last post. Congratulations, Karen, and contact us at info@mercerislandbooks.com to claim your prize, a free copy of the Second Movement. We’ll be giving away copies of the subsequent volumes in the series as we go, so let’s hear from the rest of you. All it takes to win is an opinion.

Back to the book at hand, I realize that it’s not very analytical of me to say, but I think this was my favorite section so far. The Acceptance World felt somewhat more concise than books one or two (book three is slightly shorter than the others, so this may not be an illusion), and in it Jenkins shifts closer to being an actor than an observer. He actively seeks a meeting, first with Members, then with Quiggins, about his art book project, and he’s instrumental in the dissolution of the Templers’ marriage, at least inadvertently. There’s a bit of his old vagueness when he describes his initial grappling session with Jean in the back of the car—“All I knew was that I had not thought it all out beforehand”—but he does actually admit to taking her intentionally into his arms. And we learn that he’s published a novel! So he’s not just sitting at home waiting for invitations.

Uncle Giles once again bookends the story. To me, there’s something appropriately familial about his presence in the series. He’s not around often, and he doesn’t figure prominently in the events that concern the narrator day to day, but he always returns as a constant against which the fluctuations of friendship can be measured. If Powell intends this interpretation, then I expect an increasing role for Jenkins’ family as he ages in later books. After spending his twenties (and the roaring 1920s) out of their orbit, it seems natural that he’d spin back their way as he moves into his more somber thirties and beyond.

Not just the narrator’s age suggests a new seriousness. The characters know that the market is slumping and we know even if they don’t that another war is on the horizon. Inklings of it are already here in the background, with much talk about “the situation” in one country or another and how it will or won’t affect economics at home. It’s refreshing to read from this historical perspective, about a time when Communism could be fashionable and Fascism could be comical and neither ism was very consequential.

On the level of the prose itself, Powell once again finds a neat way to sum up what he’s attempting in the series. The second paragraph on page 32 consists of Jenkins’ thoughts, but also Powell’s, I suspect:

I began to brood on the complexity of writing a novel about English life, a subject difficult enough to handle with authenticity even of a crudely naturalistic sort, even more to convey the inner truth of the things observed … Intricacies of social life make English habits unyielding to simplification.

Thus we have a complex sequence of a dozen books instead of one brief novel.

My vote for funniest line in this book goes to one from page 108. Jenkins is conversing with Gavin Walpole about the present habits of his aristocratic daughter:

"I expect she finds plenty to do," I offered.

"Her breeding keeps her quiet," said Sir Gavin.

He spoke almost with distaste. However, perceiving that I felt uncertain as to the precise meaning of this explanation of Eleanor’s existing state, he added curtly:

"Labradors."

What highlights were there for you? Don’t be afraid to mention lowlights, either. Positive or negative, comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

Next up: At Lady Molly’s on April 25th. Available as part of Second Movement or separately as an a ebook.

—James

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