Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier #DDMreadingweek

Title: The Parasites
Author: Daphne du Maurier
Publication: Doubleday & Co., hardcover, 1950 (originally published in 1949)
Genre: Fiction
Setting: 20th century England and a little Paris
Today is Daphne’s 114th birthday! Please visit Heaven-Ali to read about Daphne du Maurier Reading Week. Happy Birthday also to Ali – I hope there are new books and dinner prepared by someone else.

Description: The Delaneys were an eccentric theatrical family – Pappy, a world-class singer, with a daughter, Maria; Mama, an unforgettable and indescribable dancer, with a son, Niall; and Celia, the only joint child from their marriage. The children were close in age and remained close as they grow up, particularly after the death of their mother when Celia was just ten. Maria and Niall, stepsiblings, develop a symbiotic relationship that is resented by Maria’s eventual husband. As adults, Maria becomes a successful actress, enjoying her London flat during the week and bored by the country where her husband and children live; Niall surprises everyone with great success as a composer of songs everyone likes to hum until the next one comes along; while Celia, talented in a quieter way, keeps the peace and cares for their father in his declining years, more comfortable being needed than in her own accomplishments. In this book, they are looking back at their youth from the perspective of their late 30s or early 40s.
My Impression: This book captures a little of what it was like for Daphne and her sisters to grow up in a bohemian theatrical household and in the shadow of a man who was larger than life, like their father, Gerald du Maurier. All three of his daughters were talented but Daphne was the only one who surpassed her father in charisma and achievement. Last night, I started to read a biography called Daphne and Her Sisters, but it did not hold my interest because it seemed too derivative of Myself When Young, Daphne’s memoir (there was one amusing comment that none of Daphne’s family understood all the fuss about Menabilly, the home that inspired several of her books). One of the reviews commented that the premise of the book was weakened by the fact that Daphne’s sisters simply didn’t have her talent so were not as interesting. 

That is not really the case of the Delaneys: Maria has Daphne’s singlemindedness about being an actor when she could easily have retired gracefully to country life with servants and an attentive husband, and Niall is a gifted musician, although he is only interested in creating not in performing. It is surprising to learn that Celia, less attractive than her half-siblings and accustomed to being overlooked, has real artistic talent but is afraid to commit to developing it. It is also noticeable that her siblings are too self-absorbed to notice or insist she make the most of her chances.

The book is set before and after World War II. As the story opens, the siblings are weekending at Maria’s country home and her husband, tired of being an afterthought and (although he doesn’t say so) resentful of the sexual tension that exists between Maria and Niall, accuses the three of being parasites. Celia who comes every weekend but cooks and darns socks helpfully when she is there feels guilty, Maria usually charms her husband out of his bad moods but has stopped making the effort, and Niall has not done a good job of hiding contempt for his brother-in-law. The Parasites is surprisingly funny, and humor is not often a big commodity in du Maurier’s fiction because she is usually too busy scaring us. My favorite part is when Pappy is ranting about Niall having been seduced by a family friend:
When Freada rang at half past twelve Pappy was still abusive, but not quite so abusive as he had been at half-past ten. He would never forgive her, of course, but it was perfectly true that the boy was wasting his time at school, and if he really had this flair for composing tunes, as Freada insisted, then he had better go to Paris and learn how to write them down. But a boy of eighteen . . . “He may have been a boy last night,” said Freada, “but I assure you he’s a man this morning.”

Monstrous. Disgraceful. But what a story for the Garrick. He went off to lunch at his club in a happy state of indignation.
Sadly, that chapter ends with Celia hoping the telephone will ring and it will be the medical student she encountered the previous evening when her father was too drunk to operate a car. At the time, she was afraid he would be recognized and bad publicity would result; when the young man does not call, she realizes he did not recognize Pappy so cannot contact her even if he wants to. It is another wasted opportunity for Celia, a deserving character who infuriates the reader by throwing away her chances. In a world where servants are plentiful, it seems as if it should be easier to have it all! However, as always, Daphne has the final word and ends this book chillingly.
I wonder whether I would have recognized this book as Daphne's work if I hadn't known.  It reminded me of Dodie Smith's The Town in Bloom, which I read in March and (less specifically) of Rumer Godden's adult fiction.

: Library


Helen said...

I enjoyed this one and agree that it doesn't feel like a typical du Maurier novel. I have just finished reading Myself When Young and I can see how Daphne's own childhood inspired this book.

LyzzyBee said...

Ooh, the comparison with The Town in Bloom cheers me. I think I'll be reading this one for next year's DDM week.

CLM said...

It was a lot more fun than I expected! If the title didn't sound so unpleasant, I would have read it years ago!

I enjoyed The Town in Bloom, and found it both funny and sometimes melancholy like this book.

Ruthiella said...

Great review! I have a copy and it will definitely be the next du Maurier title I read.