The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (first published in Great Britain by Collins, 1988).
“I met her in Muir and Merrilees, at the handkerchief counter. Yes, she is in charge of the gentleman’s handkerchiefs. I told you that she could manage a responsible position.”
The Beginning of Spring tells the tale of Frank Reid, an English printer living in Moscow. In March 1913, Frank’s wife Nellie ups and leaves him and their three children for her native England without a word of explanation.
In spite of being set against the fascinating backdrop of politically turbulent, frozen Russia, the private story and the private worlds of Frank and the characters by whom he is surrounded as they adjust to life without Nellie form the real story.
Character, humour and quite an astonishing level of detail are conveyed in such a compact, exact manner, you almost don’t notice they’re there. Until you do, and then you are left somewhat awestruck at how it was done. It’s a bit like going to dinner with a truly gracious and sensitive host, you don’t notice that you are being fussed over, but you never have to look around for the gravy.
This is a gentle, funny, low-key story which made me not only care for and want to know even more about the characters, but also about the author who managed to create them so beautifully.