It seems as if many American readers are not familiar with the British writer Barbara Trapido. She is one of my favorites and yet I sometimes find her books hard to come by. I think she is absolutely delightful. Brother of the More Famous Jack is her first book, but I have not run across it until now, when I explicitly searched for it.
Katherine Browne is a naive but stylish eighteen in the early 1970’s when she meets the family of her philosophy teacher, Jacob Goldman. She immediately falls in love with their untidy, chaotic household and their witty brilliance, but particularly with their oldest son, Roger. Jane is the dowdy, schoolmarmish, upper-crust wife and mother, who plays gorgeous duets with Roger and tends cabbages. Jacob is witty, sometimes vulgar, and subversive. He flagrantly fondles his wife over the kitchen sink. The beautiful Roger is studying to be a mathematician. Jonathan has large feet, loves to fish, and is somewhat gauche. Katherine finds him a bit alarming. And there are the littler ones, bright and noisy. Everyone speaks his or her mind without fear. To Katherine, brought up quietly by a middle-class, widowed mother, this is a heady environment.
After a summer in Kenya, Roger returns to begin at Oxford and immediately starts seeing Katherine. Their affair does not end well, however, for Roger has embraced the snobbery that the rest of his family disdains. When he drops her, he catalogues all her “faults,” including her lack of interest in math and science and her middle-class background. Katherine’s self-esteem plummets and she flees to take a position teaching English in Rome.
She does not return to England until, after ten years, a tragedy brings her home to her mother. Eventually she begins a renewed acquaintance with the Goldmans.
Written in a humorous, breezy style, the novel is still touching and affecting. The dialogue is the best part of it, vivid, witty, and literate. (The title of the novel is Jacob’s appellation for W. B. Yeats.) Katherine is an engaging heroine as she learns to find her own way through life. Full of high spirits and eminently readable, this novel is a gem.