The Radiant Way

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If posterity were to show interest in what people in England during the 1980’s were thinking about, THE RADIANT WAY would serve as an informative guide. Margaret Drabble’s tenth novel is large in scope, full of deep understanding, sane, honest, and uncompromising, but with a quiet compassion never far beneath the surface. With a skillful and varied narrative technique, and in dialogue which rarely strikes a false note, she anatomizes both the earthquakes and the trivia in people’s lives--from the traumas of death and divorce to the day-to-day tittle-tattle.

The title is ironic. Although the characters make their way in life, adapting, compromising, making the best of things, there is no radiance. Nor is there a “way,” in the sense of a path toward a goal clearly discerned. These characters do not bravely shape their destinies; they are too busy simply reacting to the daily hodgepodge of events.

Yet the end of the novel hints at transcendence; it half discloses a radiance that up to that point has been hidden. After some dark and incomprehensible events, the setting switches to open countryside as the three protagonists make their way home along a footpath. Momentarily still and rapt with silent attention, they feel themselves surrounded by the eternal presences of nature. The setting sun, which stains the earth the color of blood, seems to suggest a sympathy with the struggle of human life and at the same time to point the way beyond it. The scene almost has the force of an epiphany, and leaves the reader wondering whether, in a final ironic twist, the way may be radiant after all.

Bibliography

Duguid, Lindsay. Review of The Radiant Way. The Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1987, 458-459. Praises the honesty and social consciousness of The Radiant Way but says that the “highly wrought prose” renders the political concerns “strained and unconvincing.”

Gray, Paul. Review of The Radiant Way. Time 130 (November 16, 1987): 87. Stresses the depiction of Thatcher-era England in this “odd hybrid, soap opera grafted onto newsreel,” that “engrosses” and actually “works.”

Hulbert, Ann. “Maggiemarch.” The New Republic 197 (December 14, 1987): 38-42. Sneers at Drabble’s “version of the emerging Social Democratic sensibility” and her “portentously detached and cliquish” style. The novel reveals no empathy, only smugness, and it revels in a “hackneyed symbolism.”

Stuewe, Paul. Review of The Radiant Way. Quill & Quire 53 (April, 1987): 33. A sour judgment on The Radiant Way as a feminist’s delight but “a pretty dismal trip” for other readers.

Updike, John. Review of The Radiant Way. The New Yorker 63 (November 16, 1987): 153-154. Rousing applause from another master novelist. Notes Drabble’s “chummy” way with her readers and praises “her lively mind showing its incidental erudition, its epigrammatic flair, its quick-witted impatience and impudence.” Mostly, however, Updike praises “her earthiness—her love of our species and its habitat—and her ability to focus on the small, sweaty intersections of mind and body, past and present.” These qualities make The Radiant Way “a rare thing—a novel we would wish longer.”

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