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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 956

The friends who give this novel its title are very different in background. Indeed, as Fay Weldon shows in one of her flashbacks, it was only chance that brought them together during the evacuation of London during World War II. Edwin and Esther Songford, the parents of Grace Songford, have taken their only child to the Ulden station so that they can choose a London refugee to live with them. Much to the relief of the residents of Ulden, a rural village, the train which stops, by mistake, is loaded with children from the West End, rather than the appalling East End slum children whom they had expected. Perhaps from compassion, perhaps from a desire to spite her parents, Grace picks the unappealing Marjorie to take home with them. The third member of the trio, Chloe Evans Rudore, arrives in Ulden with her widowed mother, Gwyneth Evans, who then settles in as a maid-of-all-work at the Rose and Crown, while Chloe spends as much time as possible with Marjorie and Grace. Thus, the lifelong friendship is forged, linking Chloe, the humble, downtrodden servant’s daughter; Grace, the child of an arrogant, cashiered officer and a browbeaten, motherly woman; and Marjorie, whose parents are a Jewish intellectual and a selfish socialite, the first at war, the second too busy adventuring to concern herself about her child.

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The novel follows a psychological rather than chronological order. Beginning with a typical scene between Chloe and her husband, Oliver Rudore, in which he exerts his authority over his wife-even to the extent of justifying his regular nights with the French maid-Weldon then follows Chloe to London meetings with her friends, to recollections of their past experiences and past conversations, and back to her present home with Oliver and various children. Sometimes, the omniscient author reports a scene, often in dialogue, and occasionally she penetrates the consciousness of Marjorie or Grace; since the friends impart their feelings so fully to one another, however, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the thoughts which Weldon details represent only an internal reflection or an observation by one friend remembered by others. In any case, past events and past causes of present behavior are gradually revealed to the reader, so that at the end of the novel, no motivation is unclear; the three female friends are fully realized.

The lives of the friends have differed as greatly as their backgrounds. Chloe, like her mother, is docile and obedient. The man she has chosen to marry and to obey, Oliver, is a mediocre writer, who vents his frustrations on Chloe. Maternal by nature, Chloe has a household of five children, her own eighteen-year-old son by Oliver, her eight-year-old daughter, Grace’s illegitimate son, and two children of the painter Patrick Bates and his deceased wife, Midge Bates. Since Chloe’s daughter and Grace’s son were both fathered by Patrick Bates, he is actually responsible for the existence of most of the household, although he believes that fathering the children, not supporting them, was his role in life. Perhaps because he so admires Patrick’s genius, Oliver is willing to support the household, although Chloe’s daughter, while delightful, is a constant reminder of her own infidelity, as well as an excuse for tormenting Chloe.

While Chloe has been functioning as a wife and mother, Grace has found it impossible to devote herself to husband or to children. After abandoning her orphaned baby brother in order to lead her own life, Grace married the bachelor of the season, her ideal husband. Unfortunately, he proved to be unscrupulous and irresponsible. When she criticized him for negligence in the collapse of one of his buildings, he could not forgive her. She lost his love and her two children. Later, she could only pursue him and his wives with hatred. After his death, for which she blamed herself, she has abandoned herself to making the most of men, without permitting herself to care for them. She guards her heart, as well, against feeling for her son, whom Chloe rescues and rears.

Marjorie, too, has denied her feelings in order to survive. As her life is reconstructed through flashbacks and dialogue, it becomes clear that for many years the motivating force was her desire to win the love of her selfish mother, who not only spurned her but also neglected to pass along news of her father, who was in combat and eventually a prisoner. Bereft of parents, Marjorie tried to please the Songfords, who were fond of her but who were, after all, not her own parents. When her mother claimed Marjorie, her intent was to use her as caretaker of the neglected family home, at which her father suddenly appeared, only to die within the week. Still hopeful, Marjorie moved in with a young student, who died in a freak accident; the shock caused Marjorie to lose the baby she was carrying. It is not surprising that even the accommodating Patrick Bates refuses to sleep with her, saying that she is tainted with death. The aggressive woman whom Chloe meets in London is understandable, once her past has been pieced together during the course of the novel.

Some critics have believed that the end of the novel is too easy. After Marjorie has once more tried to gain the love of her mother, now dying of cancer, there is a lapse in time. In the final chapter, Chloe reports that each of the friends has moved forward into a more satisfying life-Grace into a loving relationship and motherhood, Marjorie to life in Israel, with her father’s people, and, perhaps most surprising, Chloe to a break with the insufferable Oliver and the establishment of her own household.

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