‘A Writer Writes’: Penelope Lively’s Fiction Defies the Test of Time

On the spectrum of elderly female novelists, Brit division — with twinkly old dears at one end, as Lively has suggested, and formidable cranks and grandes dames at the other — she is somewhere in the middle, friendly and polite with just a hint of steeliness. She is unusually tall, which gives her a kind of instant authority, and dresses in matronly camouflage: scarves and twin sets. Her friend and neighbor Jane Seaton, a professor at the University of Westminster, says she’s “beady,” someone who sees everything but doesn’t give away a whole lot. Another friend, the poet Lawrence Sail, said recently: “She’s shrewd and wise, which is so rare in the age of clever, and she’s keenly observant. It’s telling, for example, the way her books keep up with all the latest language.”

A lot of writers peak early, and not many are still flourishing in their 80s. Lively’s productivity has been so steady and reliable that she is sometimes taken a little for granted. In this country she is not nearly as well-known as she ought to be, and even in her own — although she has won both the Booker Prize and the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature, the equivalent of our Newbery award — she is not as big a name as, say, her contemporaries Margaret Drabble or A. S. Byatt. She has a fervent following and regularly sells out at literary festivals, but has remained just on the edge of the radar.

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Books written by the author in her London home.

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Photographs: Left, Tom Jamieson for The New York Times; right, New York Review Books

Lively’s prose is sharp, precise, perfectly pitched, but shrinks from flashiness in a way that has sometimes been mistaken for cozy or middlebrow. The novel that put her on the map, the 1987 Booker-winning “Moon Tiger,” formally quite daring, was even criticized for being a “housewife’s” book. Lively writes…

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