Isabel’s new life is an absolute transformation from the one in which her father and her father’s bed had served as her center. She emerges as if from a cocoon after her years of all-consuming caregiving. She lived on the perimeter of a decade, and her marginality makes her feel like a blundering outsider. Always defining herself as her father’s devoted daughter, it is impossible for her to be an adult as long as he is alive. With his death, Isabel no longer has his authoritarian certitude of right and wrong, nor does she know how to define herself. She therefore continues to look to others for self-definition and self-confirmation, a dependency that leaves her especially vulnerable.
Although Liz tries to persuade Isabel that her past has nothing to do with her new life, she knows that it has a great deal to do with it. Even though it may seem that she is starting fresh, Isabel brings demons with her, especially her ineradicable feelings of guilt and self-condemnation. Her sexuality, on hold for eleven years, once again proves unsettling. She long believed that her father’s first stroke was caused by his discovery of David Lowe and her having sex. Although her sexual encounters with John are unsatisfactory, her body wants to be satisfied. Caught in a web of desire and of guilt, she luxuriates in her passionate affair with Hugh but believes his wife Cynthia’s accusation that Isabel is selfish and sick. Isabel sees her sexual desire as a disease, and the only way she can protect herself against it is to bury herself in Margaret’s house and overeat until she hides her beauty.
Isabel’s inability to keep a clean, orderly house is another source of irrational guilt. When at thirteen she fires Margaret, she is completely unequipped to take on the responsibilities of housekeeping, and she never truly learns. When Hugh cruelly insists that he could never live with a woman “who could live in such filth,” Isabel accepts his criticism as confirmation of her unwomanliness. She feels so much shame that she compares it to discovering the beginnings of a beard on her face. Overwhelmed, she is unable to control either the demands of her body or those of her home and to find order beneath the chaotic surface of everyday life.
Through her work and sifting through her past, Isabel comes to the conclusion that what everybody wants is “to be loved alone” but that most do not get that. When Hugh tells her that he loves her, she becomes aware not only of the impoverishment of her previous life but also of the danger of loss that love brings with it. As she waits for him to leave his wife, she realizes she again makes herself subject to a man’s power: Her happiness depends on Hugh, just as it once depended on her father.
When confronted with Cynthia’s condemnation, Isabel is powerless to offer an alternative interpretation. Instead, she is wrenched from the sanctuary that being the “good daughter” had offered. When Cynthia suggests Isabel could not wait for her father to die, she agrees and even goes so far as to hold herself accountable for his death. After that, it is only by devoting herself to Margaret that she can return to the safety offered her in the self-sacrificing role of caretaker, believing she will “get more, far more, by giving up life than by embracing it.”
Nevertheless, in her despair and in the isolation of Margaret’s home, Isabel begins to heal and to think that by giving reasonably of herself she might be...
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able to enjoy love, work, and friends. When she can accept that the greatest love also carries with it the greatest danger, she is no longer defeated; instead, she sees ways she might be able to flourish despite the danger of loss. She sees that Margaret, an exhausted and frightened old woman, can be helped by Isabel’s money. With self-understanding, a newfound courage and faith in human beings, and the nurturing and unselfish loyalty of Liz and Eleanor, Isabel can enter the miraculous though risky world of real life.