Books

book review

Portrait of the artists as young women

Francesca Killian for the Boston Globe

The British journalist and author Anthony Quinn’s expansive fifth novel, “Freya,’’ begins amid the jubilant festivities of VE Day, 1945. The weather is warm for early May, and crowds fill the streets of London to drink, dance, and hear Churchill speak. In the crush of people Freya Wylie, a 20-year-old member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, and Nancy Holdaway, an 18-year-old student, lose sight of their friends and, although they have only just met, end up spending the evening together. “What should we do?” Nancy asks. “My own inclination,” Freya says, “would be to find a pub somewhere and get blind, roaring stinko.” The two pursue this plan with vigor.

The rest of the novel, more than 500 pages, follows Freya and Nancy’s relationship for nearly two decades. The two attend Oxford, later share a flat in London, succeed in their respective careers — Freya as a journalist, Nancy as a novelist — and endure various quarrels, estrangements, and crises. Having opened with the excitement of VE Day, Quinn goes on to touch on the Nuremberg trials and later involves his characters in a political sex scandal that seems inspired by the Profumo affair, which rocked the British government in 1961 and involved a British official, a 19-year-old woman, and a Soviet official. Once again, as in his previous novel, the delightful “Curtain Call,’’ Quinn demonstrates his grasp of period detail.

Readers of that earlier book will recognize the character of Freya’s father, the painter Stephen Wylie, but “Freya’’ is not a sequel. Stephen plays a minor role here while Freya, who was then a mysterious 12-year-old, is in her own novel far less mysterious: She is outspoken, thoughtless, opinionated, and, although she claims, repeatedly, to prize honesty in others, frequently dishonest. Nancy, at first glance, is much less worldly, much less confident. She seems set to worship Freya and follow her anywhere, but she has a core of self-belief and self-knowledge that makes her fully her friend’s equal.

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We glimpse her strength the morning after VE Day, when Stephen invites her and his daughter to have lunch and brings his mistress, Diana. Freya sulks throughout the meal, finally tells Diana to shut her “bloody cakehole,” and storms out of the restaurant. Nancy follows, but when Freya asks her opinion of Diana, she says, “Don’t bite my head off but . . . I thought she was nice.” This sequence — Freya acting on her temper, Nancy sympathizing but standing up for herself — typifies their relationship over the next few years.

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At Oxford, their friendship suffers the first of many estrangements. Freya begins a comically obtuse critique of Nancy’s novel with the pronouncement, “the book, in its present state, is unpublishable.” They get past this terrible moment, and soon Freya too is discovering herself as a writer, doing interviews for the student newspaper. Through a series of lucky coincidences she manages to go to Nuremberg, determined to secure an interview with Jessica Vaux, a journalist she has long admired who is covering the trials. Against all odds — there is a romp-like quality to some of Freya’s adventures — she gets the interview but misses her exams and is sent down. The months in Oxford, however, serve to cement her friendship with Nancy and to introduce two male undergraduates, one of whom, Alex, will become a touching demonstration of how vulnerable civil servants were during those years when male homosexuality was still illegal in England.

Part II of the novel jumps forward eight years. The two women are working in London — Nancy at a publisher, Freya at a magazine, The Envoy — and sharing a chilly flat. Freya’s career is flourishing; Nancy’s most recent novel has been rejected. While I was interested in these developments, happy to see Freya’s star rising and to meet the many vivid minor characters who throng these pages, I did begin to wonder what was driving the novel. From their first meeting it is clear that Freya finds Nancy attractive, but it is also clear that she is not going to acknowledge her attraction. She regards herself as almost unquestioningly heterosexual — in fact, a major rift in their friendship occurs over a fellow undergraduate. Freya, knowing that her friend likes Robert, sleeps with him behind Nancy’s back and encourages her to look elsewhere. While Freya’s lack of self awareness leads to many funny and suspenseful moments — when will she realize that Nancy is the love of her life? — that suspense begins to wear thin after a couple of hundred pages of determined myopia.

Fear not, dear reader — a plot is coming, and it makes wonderful use of the various elements already in play: Freya’s impulsiveness and hot temper, her job as a journalist, Nancy’s integrity and talent, and various scandals in, and around, parliament. Quinn’s devotion to his central character and his gift for bringing myriad scenes and situations to life make these pages a pleasure. “Freya’’ is as vivid as a beloved, and often irritating, friend.

FREYA

By Anthony Quinn

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Europa, 560 pp., $19

Margot Livesey is the author most recently of “Mercury,’’ a novel, and “The Hidden Machinery: Essays about Writing.’’ She teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.