"You can see for miles, out of this window. You can see straight across the river. There's Westminster Abbey, see? Flying the St. George's cross, today. St. Paul's, the single breast. Big Ben, winking its golden eye. Not much else familiar, these days. This is about the time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down. Then they build it up again, like London Bridge in the nursery rhyme, goodbye, hello, but it's never the same. Even the railway stations, changed out of recognition, turned into souks. Waterloo, Victoria. Nowhere you can get a decent cup of tea, all they give you is Harvey Wallbangers, filthy capuccino. Stocking shops and knicker outlets everywhere you look. I said to Nora: 'Remember Brief Encounter, how I cried buckets? Nowhere for them to meet on a station, nowadays, except in a bloody knicker shop. Their hands would have to shyly touch under cover of a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts.'"This is the wary and experienced, but by no means tired, voice of Dora Chance as she describes the events of her seventy-fifth birthday, which also happens to be the one hundredth birthday of her illustrious father, Melchior Hazard. Dora and her twin sister Nora are Melchior's illegitimate daughters by a nameless chambermaid (or was their mother, in fact, the woman they knew as Grandma?), and their father has never acknowledged them even in private. Despite this, the sisters' lives, professional and personal, have been inextricably bound with Melchior's and his family's--his twin brother Peregrine, as generous with his affections as Melchior is stingy with his; his three wives; his twin daughters by his first wife and twin sons by his third.
If this all sounds ridiculously theatrical, it's meant to. Melchior, Dora, and Nora are descended from theatre royalty--the august Ranulph Hazard and his irrepressible child-bride, Estella (they met when she played Cordelia to his Lear, which neatly sets up not only the many Shakespearean parallels in the book, but also the recurring themes of May/December romances and genteel incest). Melchior himself is also a giant of the theatre, whereas his daughters are song-and-dance girls who tread the boards of dance halls in everything from dance reviews to striptease acts. Wise Children is a novel full of such contradictions--legitimate children versus illegitimate ones, respectable theatre versus low burlesque, comedy versus tragedy.
As Dora narrates her life, we follow her and her sister from humble beginnings as chorus girls and hoofers, to the apex of their career in a Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father (in an obvious parallel to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Melchior falls passionately in love with his leading lady, the producer's wife, and they abandon their respective spouses for a tempestuous and short-lived marriage as the film goes to pieces around them), to a quiet life teaching children to dance and occasionally selling off a memento of their show-business past to pay the heating bill. There's nothing sad or wistful about Wise Children, however, nor indeed about Dora and Nora themselves. They have regrets, lost loves, failed ambitions, but as they wake up on the morning of their seventy-fifth birthday, each sister is ready for her life to begin again.
And begin it does. The day starts off with a tragedy, as the sisters discover that their beloved goddaughter has been jilted by her lover, Melchior's son, and may have drowned herself. You can always count on the Chance sisters to turn a frown upside down, however, and on Carter herself--for all the tragedy she throws in her characters' paths, Wise Children is an extraordinarily funny book. Every kind of funny--from acid wit through double entendres to broad farce. As much as I admired Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of retold and reimagined fairy tales, there was a defensiveness to it that was hard to ignore. Yes, these are fairy tales, Carter seemed to be saying, but look! Sex, violence, gore, depravity! The Bloody Chamber exuded the desperate determination of a young person to be accepted as an adult and leave childish things behind them. In Wise Children, Carter's last novel, she seems to have come full circle. Her voice is that of a mature woman who recognizes that nothing is as serious as comedy, or as adult as the heartbreak and tribulations of childhood.
Wise Children's denouement takes place as the sisters attend their father's birthday gala. It's a side-splitting and heartbreaking scene, during the course of which several long-lost and presumed-dead relatives will reappear, the paternity of several children will be brought to light, a wronged woman will publicly condemn her fickle lover, a deserting husband will be made to acknowledge his true wife, ungrateful children will be punished and grateful ones rewarded, and the entire party will be served a poisoned desert.
This is all from Shakespeare, of course--or, perhaps, all of Shakespeare. There is hardly a play in The Bard's repertoire that Carter doesn't riff off, reference, or lampoon, and the book is riddled with references to Shakespeare himself--Dora and Nora's house, for example, is on Bard Road. Discovering these parallels and references--many of which, I'm sure, flew right over my head--is half the fun of reading the book, as are the ways in which Carter manages to put a modern spin on so many of Shakespeare's plots.
Wise Children is a book about the search for identity, and about the ability--and the need--to reinvent yourself. When Dora takes Nora's name for a night, the usually quiet sister finds herself mimicking, and even becoming, her exuberant and vivacious twin. Nora, on the other hand, quickly forgets to behave like Dora, and soon gives her sister a reputation as a flirt. It is a wise child, Carter tells us, who knows its own father, but for Dora and Nora Chance, wisdom is found in knowing themselves, and in being known by others. Surrounded by theatrical people, who see their lives as a series of dramatic climaxes and tragic setbacks, it is the Chance sisters who recognize that real life is simply a sequence of events without plot or resolution. The secret, the sisters know, is to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and always be ready for a new beginning.