Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

September 1, 2009

palfrey claremont Plot summary (with spoilers): Mrs. Palfrey is an elderly widow who has no place in the lives of her daughter Elizabeth or grandson Desmond. As a result, she decides to take up residence in the Claremont Hotel, an affordable place in the South Kensington district of London. The hotel is nothing special, and might even appear shabby to some people. But Mrs. Palfrey doesn’t have expensive tastes, nor does she have enough money to get anything substantially better.

There are a handful of other elderly retirees also living at the Claremont, and they immediately try sizing Mrs. Palfrey up. The biggest area of competition among them is how many visitors they get, so Mrs. Palfrey can’t help but brag about Desmond and his work at the British Museum. She claims that he’ll be around to visit her soon, which temporarily elevates her status at the Claremont. So when Desmond doesn’t show, Mrs. Palfrey is devastated.

Things change when Mrs. Palfrey is returning to the Claremont one night after a short shopping trip. She slips on the rain-slicked pavement, cutting her knee and twisting her ankle. No one is around to help her — until a young man bounds out of a basement apartment to offer assistance. This is Ludovic, an impoverished aspiring writer in his early twenties. Ludo bandages up Mrs. Palfrey’s knee, fixes her some tea, and then calls a cab to take her back to the Claremont. As thanks, Mrs. Palfrey invites Ludo to dinner the following Saturday. He accepts.

The proud Mrs. Palfrey is still dealing with Desmond’s virtual abandonment and the stinging comments from other pensioners about her “mythical grandson”. As a result, she impulsively decides to tell them that Desmond is finally coming on Saturday. She means Ludo, of course, and fills him in on the ploy. He readily agrees, thinking it would be great fun to pose as Desmond.

What starts out as a lark turns into a complicated relationship between Mrs. Palfrey and Ludo. She takes an intense liking to the young man, and thinks about him almost in terms that a lover would. Meanwhile, he continues leading his own life, mostly forgetting about the old woman, but occasionally feeling obligated to see her again. In the end, Ludo turns out to be more of a grandson than Desmond ever was, and Mrs. Palfrey takes great joy and comfort from his presence.

Liked:

  • I had seen the movie version a couple years prior to reading the book. Though I liked the film well enough, I thought the novel was infinitely better since it explored Mrs. Palfrey’s feelings about Ludo in greater detail. In the film, there were just a couple of hints that Mrs. Palfrey felt more than a maternal sort of love for Ludo, and the book confirms this for me.
  • Ludo’s feelings towards Mrs. Palfrey were much more realistic in the book than in the movie. Here he was understandably ambivalent about Mrs. Palfrey. He saw her out of a sense of duty instead of true friendship, which is precisely how one would expect a 20-something to act towards an old woman who’s not even a relative. Ludo viewed Mrs. Palfrey as little more than a case study for his book; and she, in her more penetrating moments, realized this to a certain extent.
  • I liked the details Taylor included about the residents of the Claremont, how the biggest delight of the day was something as banal as reading the dinner menu to see what they would be having that night. These images provided some stark insight into what life was like for these incredibly lonely folks.
  • The ending was sad, yet perfect. Mrs. Palfrey’s family didn’t think that anyone was left who would care enough to read her obituary, yet the residents at the Claremont kept checking and checking every day. Again, this seemed like exactly the thing that old folks would do.

Disliked:

  • The only thing I really disliked about this book was how Taylor sometimes shifted the point-of-view to show what some of the minor characters were thinking. They weren’t nearly as interesting as Mrs. Palfrey or Ludo, so most of the time these departures just took me out of the story.

Rating:
I’ve been reading a few titles off the Observer’s list of the top 100 novels of all time for several years now, but have truly enjoyed only a handful of what I’ve read. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor is definitely one of them. This is a strangely mesmerizing novel that paints a rather bleak, realistic picture of what it’s like to be alone in old age. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply