In a novel that spans 50 years, from the early 1960s to the present, Margaret Drabble follows the lives of Jess and her daughter Anna, the pure gold baby of the title.
Jess was a budding anthropologist planning on doing field work in Africa when she became pregnant by a married man. Putting her career aside, she becomes instead a free lance writer so she can stay home and support and raise her child. At first Anna is seen as a perfect child; never cranky, never colicky, always cheerful. In a few years, however, it becomes clear that she is developmentally delayed, never to learn to read or do numbers, always to remain a child in mind. A very self possessed child, though; she seems to be ever calm and even unwilling to upset others, especially her mother, with her problems. All the people around her go through turmoil and change, Anna remains the still heart of the storm. The story, in fact, does not seem to be so much about her as about relationships and obligations that swirl around her as she remains her mother’s anchor.
Anna’s preeminence in Jess’s life obvious; she dumps lovers (and she has very few of them) if she feels they interfere with her relationship with Anna. Other people are background filler: Anna’s father who goes nameless until late in the book; the first person narrator about whom we know just as little and who also goes nameless until late in the story; the husband who Jess moves out of her house after just a few months but who stays in her life to help with Anna; a sort of satellite, a body with little gravity and pull.
Drabble explores many things in this novel; motherhood, friendship, commitment, the treatment of the mentally ill, aging, feminism, and more. While there is little action, the book is dense with themes. For such a quiet book, it was gripping to me and I couldn’t put it down.
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