Monday, November 17, 2008

Absent In The Spring by Mary Westmacott (a.k.a Agatha Christie)

Absent In The Spring is the third of six novels written by Agatha Christie under the nom-de-plume, Mary Westmacott. At some point I read that the novels published under this name were stories of romance, but apparently that is false, they are actually tragedies. A fact I found out too late when reading this book. I expected a romance and found something else instead. (Please note this review contains a spoiler, so read with caution, the spoiler is marked so it can be avoided easily.)

A short novel (161 pages), the story is set in the Middle East and England. The protagonist, Joan Scudamore, is a middle-aged mother of three and wife of a successful county solicitor. As the story opens, Joan is traveling back home from Baghdad, Iraq after visiting her youngest daughter who has been gravely ill. En route to England Joan becomes stranded for several days at a Rest House in the middle of nowhere when heavy rain storms prevent her next mode of transportation (a train) from arriving. At first, Joan views this unexpected delay as a respite, a time to rest and of self-discovery. Unfortunately her reflections soon bring to the surface some uncomfortable truths about herself and her loved ones. This isn't the tragedy, it's how Joan deals with these truths that becomes the tragedy.

Absent In The Spring is a very well written novel. Westmacott/Christie does a wonderful job writing a story that is told mostly in retrospect without losing the interest of the reader, a difficult task. But that is all I can give in praise of this book. I did not like Absent In The Spring. I found Joan to be selfish, shallow, and a complete snob. (If I were to name another fictional character that she closely resembled, I'd have to say Mrs. Bennett in Pride And Prejudice. While she wasn't as silly as Mrs. Bennett, Joan's attention to other people was just as shallow and her ability to deal with difficult situations, just as self-centered and lazy.)

Towards the end of the novel Joan comes to grips with some very difficult truths and is resolved to return home and set things right; to start afresh... But I was annoyed to find her returning to the same-ol'-same-old almost as soon as she arrives home.

In a nutshell, Absent In The Spring is a sad, bleak, almost depressing tale of a middle-age woman who faces the ugliness in her true self, resolves to change, but sinks back into the same life without even making a sincere effort.


Absent In The Spring was published in 1944. As you may recall if you read my review of The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie had undergone a very painful period in her life during the late 1920s when her husband announced he wanted a divorce. I can't help but wonder if some of Christie's personal emotions and observations of people in her life (including herself) played into Joan's story.

On a scale of 1-5 (one being horrible and five being excellent), I would rate Absent In The Spring a 2. I didn't like it; I don't care for tragedies. However, it was well written. Westmacott/Christie's writing captures the characteristics of her protagonist very well. Anyone who loves a good tragedy would find this novel a quick and perhaps enjoyable read. (Can a tragedy ever be enjoyable?)

I am glad I borrowed my copy from the library rather than buying it. In the future if I ever find myself in a mood for a tragedy, I might consider reading another Westmacott novel, but for now... I am quite happy reading one Christie's crime novels. At least the tragedy in those is kept to a "who-dun-it" murder mystery.

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