I discovered Rumer Godden some years ago, and devoured In This House of Brede and Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy; and then I was stuck, because she wasn’t in print. About that time Jane discovered PaperbackSwap.com, so I had her ask for books by Rumer Godden. An Episode of Sparrows came shortly thereafter, and then a number of others which have been sitting on the shelf. Pippa Passes is one of these.
The problem I have with Pippa Passes (as a reviewer, not as a reader) is that it’s simply a novel. In my lexicon, there are novels (in which the main action is internal to the characters) and romances (in which the main action is external to the characters). I’m used to reading and writing about romances. Now, some books are both—in fact, I think the best books are both—but once in a while I get a book that’s only a novel, and then I’m at a standstill. I know how to describe the basic premise and conflict of a romance in a paragraph or two, and then talk about some interesting bits without spoiling it; but with plain novels, it’s hard. Still, I’ll try.
So there’s this girl named Pippa. She’s young, about seventeen, and naive about the world; and she’s a ballet dancer with a rising new company in England. These facts are not unrelated; she’s naive because she’s spent virtually all of her life becoming a dancer. As we meet her, she’s an “artist”, which is the title given to the lowest dancers, those in what used to be called the corps de ballet. Above artists you get senior artists, soloists, and principles.
Pippa’s company is heading to Italy for its first Italian tour; and to her surprise Pippa, though very junior, is asked to come. Their first stop is Venice, which is where most of the action takes place. (And in fact, the book is in part simply Godden’s love letter to Venice.) And once there, of course, she grows up. This is a novel, not a romance, and it has a happy ending, so growing up is pretty much all she can do under the circumstances. She grows into her art; she learns that people who like her have ulterior motives; she learns what’s really important to her, and what isn’t. She makes friends, some of whom are worth keeping, and (this being Rumer Godden) she begins to be attracted to the beauty of Catholicism, though this isn’t a major part of the story.
Oh, and there are gondolas (and gondoliers in nifty costumes) (and one gondolier in particular) and canals and palazzos and churches, and the Tales of Hoffman. (I liked reading about the Tales of Hoffman.) And the details about life in a ballet company were interesting.
Godden’s style seems to me to belong more to the 1950′s than to the 1990′s (when the book was published), and the book has rather a timeless feel to it. Consequently, I found those few details that mark it as taking place in the 1990′s to be rather jarring. It perhaps should have had more of that, or less.
On the whole I was somewhat underwhelmed. The book is pleasant enough, but it never achieves real dramatic tension. Pippa does well, and we know she’s going to do well; ultimately she makes the right decisions, and we know she’s going to make the right decisions; some bad things happen, but she manages to get over them; and all of the problems that arose seemed to get smoothed away a little too easily. I’ll give Godden this, though: once I’d finished, several of the major characters spent a couple of days living in my head, and there were a few moments of beauty that I found genuinely moving.
So…I’d give Pippa Passes three stars, compared to five for In This House of Brede. But I’m not sorry I read it.