The backward glances at the careers of the young Delaneys reveal vistas of a vanishing Europe rich in colour and throbbing with old gaiety. The clash of the impulsive, artistic family with the calculating, aristocratic one is extremely well worked out. Above all, the three young Delaneys are characters one accepts as authentic.
One of the few books – if the only book – by du Maurier that is set at roughly the time it was written (it was published in 1949 and set in the 1930s and 1940s) and is a study purely of a trio of siblings.
Pappy and Mama Delaney get married, each bringing a child to the marriage – Pappy (a famous singer) brings Maria who becomes a famous actress and Mama (a famous dancer) brings Niall, who becomes a famous composer of popular ditties. Together Pappy and Mama have Celia, who is an artist that never achieves the fame of her siblings.
In later years Maria marries Charles, one of the landed gentry, and it is here that the book starts – Charles has reached his limits of his wife and her siblings, and within the first few pages has called them “the parasites” of the title and walked out. It is this confrontation that leads the reader through the story of the three siblings, and how things came to this point and where things go from here. It’s not quite clear who the narrator is, especially at the beginning, where it’s as if there is an additional unnamed person in the room telling the story.
Maria has grown up to be “on the stage” like her parents, and has had various inappropriate relationships during the years, all safely alluded to – one with Michel, who has a thing for underage girls, one with an unnamed married actor from one of her initial plays. Niall has an unhealthy fixation with Maria, getting stage fright for her performances (to the point where he cant watch them), and a difficulty following through with finishing his own work. This latter difficulty is briefly sorted out by escaping to Paris to “live in sin” with Freada, a friend of his parents and old enough to be his mother. Niall and Maria have a borderline incestuous relationship – possibly acted upon sexually and only mitigated in their heads in that they were not, technically, related by blood.
Celia is the one who never quite reaches her artistic fame – she spends enough of her time looking after her father as he gets older and retires, then (so she believes) Maria, then the war, then looks forward to looking after Maria’s children. She is always being compared to either one of them (usually Maria) and is constantly reminded “Oh you’re not really alike” “We’re only half sisters after all”. There are the occasional reference to how “fat” she is – in other words she can be anything from one size bigger than Maria to absolutely huge – but she is always made to feel inferior to Maria. Even when Maria borrows Celia’s earrings without asking, Celia feels it necessary to think that Maria looks better in them.
It did drag on a *little* bit – I must admit I didn’t stay up all night to complete it. However, it is a great study in people and personal/familial dynamics that I’m not sure anyone else could have pulled off as well. Casual fans of Du Maurier, who have a passing knowledge of her work beyond Rebecca and Jamaica Inn may be a little disappointed with this as it’s not in the same genre and doesnt have the same level of atmospheric intimidation. However, as I’ve come to realise with reading her other works (reviews published recently elsewhere on this site), there is much more to Du Maurier’s stable of works than I think people give her credit for.