From her earliest days, Bessie Bawtry knows she does not belong in the dreary, polluted coal mining town of Breaseborough. She is better than her dour, unemotional mother Ellen, her distant father Burt, her ploddingly dull sister Dora. She is destined for something great. South Yorkshire is a prison which she is determined to escape.
As the protegée of a teacher with “modern” ideas, Bessie studies hard and wins a scholarship to Cambridge. She marries a man of means and makes a home in lovely Derbyshire. Freeing oneself from the past is more difficult than it would appear, though. Even with beauty, brains and ambition, Bessie finds it difficult to build a satisfying life.
Nearly a century later, Bessie’s scientist granddaughter Faro returns to Breaseborough for a seminar on her family’s genetic roots. She tries to solve the puzzle of why some people stay put and simply adapt to their environment, no matter how difficult or dark, while others manage to relocate and thrive.
I picked up this novel at a used book sale because I’d never read anything by this respected literary author. It’s an intriguing story, mixing a multi-generational family saga with some serious meditations on love, biology, luck and fate. The narrative voice is mostly third party omniscient, a stylistic decision I found annoying at times. In particular, the author has a tendency to ask sly rhetorical questions when of course she knows the answers.
Still, I enjoyed The Peppered Moth, partly because of its vivid descriptions and elegant prose but mostly due to its memorable characters. Bessie’s self-centeredness and her tendency to sabotage her own happiness make her pretty unappealing, but Faro and her mother Chrissie are both strong, complex women with whom I could identify. I particularly loved the description of the intense, ultimately tragic love between Chrissie and Nick Gaulden, Faro’s father. Somehow the author descends from her omniscience down to the earth when describing their youthful passion.
Faro is intriguing and complex, at least partially because she is a descendant of all these varied individuals—Bessie, brilliant and perpetually dissatisfied; Aunt Dora, patient and nurturing; Chrissie, practical and (after her betrayal by her first love) unromantic; and the rakish and irresistible Nick.
Although The Peppered Moth is a dark story at times, it ends on a note of hope. Faro is the future; you want her to escape from the negative forces in her genetic background and to flourish. By the time you close the book, you are fairly convinced that she will.