The Peppered Moth

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9780140297164: The Peppered Moth

It is 1905, and Bessie is a small child living in a South Yorkshire mining town. Unusually gifted, she sits quietly and studies hard, waiting for the day when she can sit the Cambridge entrance exam and escape the way of life her ancestors have never even thought to question. At the other end of the century her granddaughter, Faro, is listening to a lecture on genetic inheritance. She has returned to the town where her grandmother grew up and sees the families who have lived there for longer than anyone can remember. But for all her exotic ancestry and glamour, has she really travelled any further than them?

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Review:

In The Peppered Moth, Margaret Drabble chronicles four generations in the life of a family, homing in on the female line and attempting to explain how genes, DNA, and environment can change or challenge an individual. The tale begins with Bessie Bawtry, a gifted young woman from a South Yorkshire mining town who fails to live up to her promise. It ends with her granddaughter, Faro Gaulden, "a bobby dazzler" radiant with opportunities and ideas, who nonetheless can't quite make the most of what she has. All of this would produce a fairly straightforward and enjoyable tale of family life--and inherited characteristics--but for Drabble's tone, which is, frankly, uneasy. It wavers from the clinical voice-over ("We must try to rediscover the long-ago infant in her vanished world") to the mawkish elegy ("O poor young girls in flower, you poor frail darlings, who will watch over you, who will guide and protect you?").

What happened? Drabble's afterword, in fact, explains a great deal of this waywardness. Bessie Bawtry, with her hard-won education, her relinquishing lapses into illness, and her life of deferred pleasures, is based on the author's mother. Consequently, there is the sense of filling in biographical gaps with fictional plots and characters, and then carefully plastering everything into place with a thin layer of scientific metaphor. Drabble, alas, is too personally involved with this material, and her prose suffers. It juts and jars at awkward angles, reducing The Peppered Moth to a gawky adolescent of a book instead of a mature, measured reflection on family history. --Eithne Farry

Book Description:

Published in hardcover by Harcourt, 2001, 0-15-100521-4

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