The formerly beautiful, still wealthy and powerful Elizabeth Hunter lies dying in her Sydney mansion. She receives around-the-clock care from three devoted nurses and is doted upon by her cook and her solicitor. As ruthless as she has been in her life, Elizabeth still commands the admiration and respect of those about her. She even has the grudging esteem of her children, both of whom fly in from abroad to share their mother’s final days and, incidentally, her estate. The novel relates the story of Elizabeth’s life by juxtaposing the present to her own memories of the past. Along the way, the narrative also reveals details about each of the other main characters. How these lives connect makes for an intricately textured fiction.
Elizabeth has always had a voracious appetite for life, one she continues to cultivate even as she lies infirm in bed. Her life, as she recalls it, has been filled to the brim with beautiful clothes and jewelry, fine food, and elegant surroundings, yet she has always been greedy for more. Elizabeth craves sensual gratification of every kind: “I shan’t feel happy till I’ve tasted everything there is to taste and l don’t intend to refuse what is unpleasant-that is experience of another kind.” She also has a formidable will to survive, which is what keeps her alive during the course of the novel, and which she uses throughout her career to dominate others.
Elizabeth’s children accuse her of having been selfish and of having withheld love from them; Elizabeth herself recalls with remorse how she hurt her adoring husband by her numerous affairs. Still, Elizabeth has some redeeming qualities: Intuitive and insightful, she often startles people with her un canny perceptions of them and what they are thinking. Toward the end of her days, she generously bestows jewels and money on those who attend her. She becomes more humane, striving to understand others and to detect a pattern to her own life. Such generosity of spirit arises out of the central episode in Elizabeth’s...
(The entire section is 830 words.)