If you were starting Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices would not be the place to start.
What are the things we look for when we read Penelope Fitzgerald? She writes very well about witty and precocious children. She's good on romance, particularly, say, between a somewhat clueless male with a mission and a more pragmatic female, though one still confused. She's impressionistic, both sad and funny, and is able to wear a lot of learning quite lightly.
Human Voices has that romance, but sadly not the children. Offshore has the children. The Gate of Angels has the romance. Maybe only The Blue Flower has both.
The events take place in Broadcasting House in 1940, then and now the headquarters of the BBC. Fitzgerald herself worked there during World War II. France has just fallen at the beginning of the novel; the Blitz has started; a Nazi invasion of England seemed a real possibility.
The two male leads are Sam Brooks, the Recorded Programs Director, and Jeff Haggard, the Director of Programme Planning. Sam is the unworldly, clueless one with a mission: to improve sound recording vans during wartime; Jeff Haggard is altogether too worldly. Sam Brooks maintains a Seraglio of assistants, though it's not exactly a seraglio, since he wouldn't think of sleeping with any of them (though every one in the office assumes he does). But then one of them, Annie, decides he should be sleeping with her. Sam will need to be enlightened on this point.
So, other than a lack of clever children, what's wrong with this one? (That's how I'd approach a description of a Fitzgerald novel: it will be easier to say what's wrong.) Well, the humor takes a while to get started. In fact the opening is a bit slow and confusing. I think Fitzgerald is trying to convey the mania at the BBC for initials, but she refers to Brooks frequently as the RPD and Haggard as the DPP and various other characters by initials as well; it's hard to get involved with ABC or XYZ as such. Annie, the romantic object comes in late; Vi, one of the better characters, disappears half way through. This is wartime, I suppose, so it's justified.
But there is humor, there is tragedy, lightly handled, there is romance. A baby gets delivered in Broadcasting House. Sam Brooks gets enlightened. It has the needed elements, even if it takes a while to get to them.
So, read Penelope Fitzgerald. But start with Offshore or The Gate of Angels or, above all, The Blue Flower. Then maybe a couple of others. But then do read this one, too.
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