After reading three “page turners” in rapid succession, Ann Lingard’s thoughtful, introspective Seaside Pleasures was a pleasant change of pace. Set in England, the story is told in the first person by several characters, three in the present and one in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The story is held together by the science of malacology, the branch of zoology concerned with mollusks. Elizabeth is a professional now semi-retired from a scientific position at the Natural History Museum in London. She lives in a seaside village in Cornwall.
Hazel is also trained in zoology, although she tells us she received only a “lower second” degree, not quite high enough to continue studies at the graduate level. She seems to be employed as a freelance editor for a London publishing house. Following her mother’s death, she has recently moved into her house in another village near where Elizabeth lives. Hazel’s son Matt, a college student, joins her shortly after the story begins. He has lived with his father since Hazel and her husband separated; the divorce is nearly complete when he arrives.
The fourth voice is Anne, a distant relative of Hazel and Matt, who describes her crush on and lifetime fascination with the Nineteenth Century naturalist, Philip H. Gosse. The latter is a real historical figure, and much of Anne’s narrative is based on Lingard’s research into his life. Anne is also a real person, but Lingard has fictionalized her character along with that of several other people associated with Anne’s life. Gosse published several works on mollusks, including Seaside Pleasures (1853).
The house that belonged to Hazel’s mother, which Matt has come to live in for the summer, is called Shell House because an array of mollusk shells are embedded in the plaster of the front façade of the house. While the subject of snails crisscrosses the story, the real focus is on the intersecting lives of the three contemporary characters, who in the course of unraveling the problems of their personal lives display connections with and parallels to the earlier people.
What brings the contemporary characters together is another who appears only in the first chapter but in death dominates the story that follows. This is Barbara, who is a successful artist. She’s also Hazel’s mother, Matt’s Granny B and Elizabeth’s friend. It is the discovery of the depth of Barbara and Elizabeth’s friendship that threatens to tear apart Hazel and Matt’s perception of the matriarch’s place in their lives but ultimately brings them together. There is a similar but not perfect correspondence to Anne’s relationship with Philip Gosse’s life, and it illuminates another possible outcome.
The characters are well drawn, realistic and sympathetic. From a lab lit point of view, Elizabeth reveals much about the forces, internal and external, that shaped her career and, more important, her personal life. Although there is much going and coming, not a lot happens on the surface. The real story, and it is a fascinating one, is what happens in the character’s heads. And after all, isn’t that why we read fiction – to get inside someone else’s mind and experience the world the way they do?