The subject of that sentence, of course, is Anson Pentland, Olivia’s bitter and dried-up husband, seemingly old despite being in his 40s with so much life still ahead of him. But Bromfield’s only using him to reveal aspects of Olivia’s character—to show what matters to her and what doesn’t, to open a window into what her life has been like thus far. The underlying sense is that Anson has not been abusive or cruel to her (with perhaps the exception of a conversation I’ve quoted in a previous post)…it’s hard to see, however, that he’s ever given her a minute of joy or love. How they married is beyond me.
The interest O’Hara felt for Olivia (and had expressed to her sister-in-law, Sabine) has finally come to her attention. At a dreadful dinner party thrown by Sabine, Olivia escaped stultifying after-dinner conversation by slipping out into the yard, where she could see the garden, and the distant dunes, and the white fringe of the ocean surf. She sat there in the twilight and then O’Hara is suddenly next to her, leaning on the tree that overhangs the stone bench she’s seated on. They have a wonderfully breathless conversation—Bromfield paces things beautifully to allow O’Hara to express his interest at the right moment, and for Olivia to respond just as she should (that is, she neither storms off as though Elizabeth Bennett, nor does she leap into the arms of the man as though the star of a Harlequin novel). She is uncertain but flattered; he is pleasant and calm. The conversation continues with a really delightful sense of tension (will she agree to see him? will she finally get up and go?), and then it drifts, almost as though waking out of a dream, until they’re back inside and nothing is settled. He’s very good, honestly—no beautifully quotable lines, but great pacing and character development. In the end, he hasn’t had to reveal much about either character for me to want to see where this goes.
And I haven’t done much to call attention to allusions, but I have to point this out. The whole conversation between Olivia and O’Hara takes place outdoors. Olivia is separated from her husband. She remains seated beneath the tree—an apple tree. He stands/leans against that tree, so that to address him she’s looking up into the apple boughs. Not only are they in the garden, but it’s a brand-new garden (one O’Hara has had planted, a fact he calls attention to). Now, I don’t know what is meant by all this Eden symbolism. O’Hara, in this symbolic conversation, is both God (creator of the Garden) and the Devil (the tempter of the woman)…what can we do with that? Olivia is tempted a little by the offer, but ultimately leaves the garden without having given in (though she does eventually go riding with O’Hara, in the company of Sybil, her daughter; and she does play bridge with him, as his partner, at Sabine’s house later that summer). So I can’t say how to interpret this (if, on the basis of this description, you have a theory, I’d love to hear it!), but I think it is clearly intentional.
There are more things brewing. Olivia’s sickly son, Jack, who was never expected to live to adulthood, has passed in a strangely unemotional way (though there is a nice scene at the deathbed, with Olivia alone). And inexplicable things are happening—the same night that Olivia hears O’Hara profess his love for her, she sees her groom (that is, the servant who cares for the horses) in a secret woodland tryst with a young woman (he runs away when the lights of her motorcar land upon them), and late that night, she sees her mother-in-law, the insane invalid, strangely lucid. Her mother-in-law climbs into the attic in search of something she hid there that will “save them all” but she can’t remember what it is or where she put it. She tells Olivia she trusts her. And then the nurse comes rushing in to drag the invalid back to her room, apologizing and explaining that she’d just run downstairs for some coffee….but Olivia notices later that the nurse’s dressing gown is on over the outfit she would normally wear outdoors for a visit to town. Why would Miss Egan be so dressed up in the wee hours of the morning? I like the way Bromfield’s writing this book, and I think it’s going somewhere interesting–at last, another Pulitzer discovery! (I hope.)