Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher

Title: The Shell Seekers
Author: Rosamunde Pilcher (1924-2019)
Narrator: Hayley Atwell
Publication: Audio, originally published in 1987
Genre: Fiction
Setting: Cornwall, London, Gloucestershire
Description: Returning home after a mild heart attack, Penelope Keeling starts reflecting on her life: her carefree childhood with her artist father and youthful French mother in London and Cornwall, her decision to become a Wren during World War II, her return to Cornwall during the war, bringing up a family in London on little money, and her downsizing to a cottage in the country where she has created an idyllic garden. However, none of her adult children is willing to accompany her on a visit to Cornwall, and two have heard there is a market for the paintings of their grandfather, Lawrence Stern. They begin pestering Penelope to sell the magnificent painting her father gave her as a wedding present, The Shell Seekers, and it is clear they think the profits should subsidize their chosen lifestyles. Will she choose the painting or her children?

My Impression: I read this book for the first time when it was new and I remember how it burst on the scene with an appealing William Morris-type cover. Pilcher had been writing for years, slim contemporary romances or short stories which had made little impression in the US. Legendary St. Martin’s editor Thomas Dunne saw something in her writing and helped her develop the concept of The Shell Seekers, both a multi-generational saga and also a bigger book, literally and figuratively, than any she had written before at 530 pages. It was a huge success, resulting in her backlist being republished with similar floral covers, and subsequent books were also big bestsellers.
"It is a measure of this story's strength and success that a reader can be carried for more than 500 pages in total involvement with Penelope, her children, her past and the painting that hangs in her country cottage," novelist Maeve Binchy wrote in reviewing the book in the New York Times Book Review in 1988. "The Shell Seekers is a deeply satisfying story, written with love and confidence."
My memory of the book was that it was set in Cornwall (which turned out to be only one of its settings) and that Penelope’s children were selfish and grasping. The elder daughter Nancy and the son Noel were just as dreadful as I remembered but the middle child, Olivia, was as self-centered as her siblings but closer to her mother. One of the most amusing parts of the book is when Noel offers to clear out his mother’s attic, pretending he is worried about fire hazards, but really hoping he will find some of his grandfather’s sketches which he would liquidate. Fortunately, two young people come into Penelope’s life and bring her joy, Antonia, whose father was Olivia’s lover at one time, and Danus, a young gardener, who comes to help Penelope after her heart attack.

There is a lot of disappointment and struggle in Penelope’s life but the reader learns about the happy times as well:
Amused, he smiled. The smile did something extraordinary to his face and caused her to look at, and really see him, for the first time. “Unremarkable” had been her own private verdict, that day he had ambled in on them at the Gallery, but now she saw that, on the contrary, he was not unremarkable in the very least, for his well-ordered features, his strangely brilliant blue eyes, and that unexpected smile assembled themselves into a pattern of quite extraordinary charm.
Pale blue eyes are often the sign of a villain but brilliant blue eyes, especially cornflower blue, are just the opposite!

I really enjoyed listening to this on the way to work, even when it made me tearful. It was full of larger-than-life, yet believable characters, of whom Penelope is the most appealing and resilient. I liked Penelope’s candor that she loved but did not always like her (condescending) children, and I hoped she would not succumb to their emotional blackmail for what they considered their inheritance. Incidentally, Penelope is just 64 in this book. If Pilcher were writing this today, would she still depict Penelope as an old lady or simply make her older?

Penelope and her parents spent their summers, as well as WWII, in the fictional town of Porthkerris, Cornwall, which is as vividly described as if it were real. The Shell Seekers has been turned into a movie and a miniseries, filmed on location in places I visited, so I need to hunt these down. Because it is partially set in the 1940s, I am counting it as my nineteenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
Source: Library. Highly recommended!


Ms. Yingling said...

I probably read this shortly after it came out as well. Loved her work, as well as Binchy's. Even owned a few of them at one time, and I rarely buy books!

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

I also read it when it was first published. Sounds like it stood the test of time!

CLM said...

I seem to remember piles of beautiful books that spring and then everyone bought it for their mother or grandmother for Mother's Day. It definitely stood the test of time and I got so caught up that a few times I found myself saying, "No, don't take him there!" or "He's going to swipe your painting if you don't keep an eye on him!" Also, the narrator of this audiobook was excellent.

Elaine in Toronto said...

If you haven't read Rosamunde Pilcher's "Winter Solstice" it's a must-read. It's my favourite of all her books. I re-read it every year. Lovely cast of characters.

Lark said...

I love this book! It's what made me a fan of Rosamunde Pilcher. :)

Katrina said...

I think I've read most of her books over the years. I enjoyed Winter Solstice more than this one which seems to be a favourite with many. She lived quite near me and some of her descriptions of the countryside in her Scottish books were so recognisable.

Nan said...

I'm with you. Honestly, I could hardly bear it because of those children. But I thought Antonia and Danus were so excellent, her "real" children in a way because they saw the world more as Penelope did. Terrific review!
I like the ending of the movie, with Angela Lansbury better but I won't say why in case someone reads this who doesn't know how the book ends. The Vanessa Redgrave version is on my list to watch at Acorn. I expect it will be more faithful to the book. And I think she more as I think of Penelope.

Nan said...

That last sentence was messed up! I think Vanessa is more the way I think of Penelope!

Karen K. said...

I read this a couple of years ago, it was a perfect summer read. I haaated the children and loved some of the other characters, though I liked Antonia better than Danus. And I'd forgotten that she's only 64, that seems so young, especially as I am getting nearer to that age! I still have a copy of Winter Solstice that I found at the Little Free Library, I really should get to it this summer -- or maybe I should save it for the winter?

CLM said...

It really is a delightful book; one of the best novels told partly in flashbacks that I can think of. Nan, I remember there was a movie but I am sure I did not see it. Will have to look for it. Karen, now that I too am closer to 64, I was horrified that she was portrayed as an old lady!

I do like Winter Solstice too. I own a copy but I think it would be better if I read some of the books in piles on the floor before I do any more rereads.

Katrina, it really is fun when one recognizes a place being described in a book. Somewhat different but funny, in Two Are Better Than One, a favorite book, the two heroines are writing a novel together that is full of extravagantly described imaginary places. When they take a big exam at school, they are asked to describe a place they know well and each immediately writes about her chosen place (one is a desert island). They almost don't pass because the examiners think they cannot follow directions!

JaneGS said...

This is definitely a wonderful book to revisit years after first reading it. I think I enjoyed it more on the reread, which I did last year. I'm glad you mentioned Penelope's age. Being 63 myself, I was more than annoyed to have a 64-year old constantly being referred to as elderly! Are you going to reread September as well? It's very different, but I find, equally satisfying.