— the 59th in my series of “forgotten” books —
The Shell Seekers
by Rosamunde Pilcher, © 1987, St. Martin’s Press 1987 hardcover – general fiction
My parents’ house in Laguna Beach, CA which she and my father bought in 1961, as a weekend house and to which they retired when my father retired four years later. The house, like every house my parents lived in, was full of books. In the living room they flanked the fireplace, climbing high towards the open beam ceiling and my mother’s favorite books were in these bookshelves, some I read – The White Tower was a favorite – others I only remember as residing on those shelves. This is one she said several times she very much enjoyed, and once or twice encouraged me to read.
When mother moved east it fell to me to pack the books and either ship, keep or dispose of them. I kept this one, deciding I would read it one day. It was put on a high shelf where, occasionally, it would catch my eye. I’d think I really should try that and then my eye, and thoughts, would move on. In February 2010 I took it from the shelf and read it.
The Shell Seekers is a generational story of Penelope Stern Keeling, an elderly British woman who relives her life in flashbacks, and of her relationships with her father, husband, lover and her adult children.
“Keeling’s life was not extraordinary, but it spans “a time of huge importance and change in the world.” as it describes the everyday details of what life during World War II was like for some of those who lived in Britain. The Shell Seekers sold more than five million copies worldwide.”
Stern grew up in London and then Cornwall with her father, artist Laurence Stern, and during the war briefly joined the WRNS (called wrens). There she met and had an affair with Ambrose Keeling which resulted in her pregnancy and marriage. She never loved Ambrose, and he was gone to the war while she lived in Cornwall Her aging father, no longer able to paint due to arthritis, was a pillar of strength for her and her new daughter Nancy. When Penelope fell in love with a kind, caring young major, her father’s advice was for her to follow her heart. The couple had a week together before he went to battle at Normandy and was killed during that assault.
Penelope and Ambrose had two more children, but he was never much of a father to them nor a husband to her. His gambling debts caused them to sell most of their possessions. Soon after the birth of Noel, the youngest, he ran off with his secretary, not to be heard from again. The oldest child, Nancy, idolized him in absentia and modeled herself on his snobbish, selfish mother her grandmother. The middle child, Olivia, accepted the truth of her father’s character, was loving and caring to her mother, competent, successful in the business world, where she rose to be editor of the woman’s magazine Venus. The youngest child, Noel, was very much like his father: selfish, eager for money and the good things in life but unwilling to work for it.
Collectors and museums have now become very interested in Laurence Stern’s paintings and the Nancy and Noel begin to urge Penelope to sell those few she has. Their motive isn’t to assure their mother’s security, as they say, but to get their hands on their share of the profits. Olivia argues that her mother should keep what she likes, especially The Shell Seekers, a large work her father painted in Cornwall and was his wedding present to Penelope.
When two of the smaller paintings are sold, Nancy and Noel are furious that they did not receive a share of the proceeds. Instead, Penelope takes a trip back to Cornwall, after 40 years, to see her childhood friend Doris. She stays in a luxury hotel, spends time in the town (Porthkerris) talks with Antonia, the daughter of a dear friend who had died the year before, and a young man, Danus, the gardener, because she likes him and he and Antonia have a growing attachment.
Again, Nancy and Noel are angry that their mother would “waste” money on such an extravagance. Upon their mother’s return both of them visit her and again attempt to influence her to sell her art works and share the money with them. Telling them, truthfully, that they are just selfish, she decides to add a codicil to her will, giving 14 oil sketches of her father’s best works, to Danus and Antonia, to help the young couple start a nursery business. The day after she goes to London and completes this business with her laywers, she dies of a heart attack.
I enjoyed this book far more than I expected to, reading straight through 530 pages in a day and a half, staying up until midnight to finish it. I doubt I’ll read another book by Pilcher, though I don’t rule it out, but her mastery of building and portraying fully rounded characters, describing location and weaving a logical and interesting plot are impressive.
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Series organizer Patti Abbott has all the FFB goods on her blog, Pattinase, with a list of this week’s participating blogs and, in a day or two, a summary.