Summary and book reviews of Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday

A Romance

by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 192 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2017, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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About this Book

Book Summary

A luminous, intensely moving tale that begins with a secret lovers' assignation in the spring of 1924, then unfolds to reveal the whole of a remarkable life.

Twenty-two-year-old Jane Fairchild has worked as a maid at an English country house since she was sixteen. For almost all of those years she has been the clandestine lover to Paul Sheringham, young heir of a neighboring house. The two now meet on an unseasonably warm March day—Mothering Sunday—a day that will change Jane's life forever.

As the narrative moves back and forth from 1924 to the end of the century, what we know and understand about Jane—about the way she loves, thinks, feels, sees, remembers—expands with every vividly captured moment. Her story is one of profound self-discovery, and through her, Graham Swift has created an emotionally soaring, deeply affecting work of fiction.

You shall go to the ball!

Mothering Sunday

Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars, before the male servants disappeared and they made do, at Upleigh and at Beech wood, with just a cook and a maid, the Sheringhams had owned not just four horses in their own stable, but what might be called a "real horse," a racehorse, a thoroughbred. Its name was Fandango. It was stabled near Newbury. It had never won a damn thing. But it was the family's indulgence, their hope for fame and glory on the racecourses of southern England. The deal was that Ma and Pa— otherwise known in his strange language as "the shower"—owned the head and body and he and Dick and Freddy had a leg each.

"What about the fourth leg?"

"Oh the fourth leg. That was always the question."

For most of the time it was just a name, never seen, though an expensively quartered and trained name. It had been sold in 1915—when he'd been fifteen too. "Before you ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What do you think attracts Jane to Paul? What are the needs that each fulfills for the other? Why is it important to see them together in "utter mutual nakedness" at first, and often through the lens of animal metaphors?
  2. The novel focuses exclusively on Jane's point of view, but she is not a first-­person narrator. What is the effect of this slight narrative distance between the reader and narrator, and what might it say about Jane's ultimate profession as a novelist?
  3. What is the significance of Mothering Sunday for each of the characters, and what does the meaning of the day reveal about Jane's sense of self? Is Jane more liberated or saddened by the reminder of her own orphanhood and lack of a mother?
  4. Discuss the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Tucked within the 175 pages of this story are enough ideas hinted at for several seasons of episodic television, perhaps even a century-spanning epic, rooted in the realm of Upstairs-Downstairs-style domestic intrigue. Swift effectively immerses the reader in the life of a relatively powerless chambermaid in the early going, but the rapid unfolding of events in the latter half prevents the arc of Jane's life from being genuinely affecting.   (Reviewed by James Broderick).

Full Review (1032 words).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. His depiction of a fragile caste clinging to traditions that define their sense of noblesse oblige while struggling to bear the era's crushing burden of 'accumulated loss and grief' is poignant and moving—as is his intimation of a brilliant personal destiny that rises from the ashes of a tragically bygone social order.

Booklist

A perfect gem of a novel. With his unmistakable gift for detailed exactitude and emotional subtlety, Swift lightly touches on weighty issues of loss and abandonment, boldness and survival ... Swift's succinct rags-to-riches tale of a young woman's unexpected metamorphosis is a rich and nuanced evocation of an innocent yet titillating time.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Swift has fun with language, with class conventions, and with narrative expectations in a novel where nothing is as simple or obvious as it seems at first.

The Daily Mail (UK)

Love and death and much in between are expertly handled in this short but powerful novella.

The Times (UK)

Mothering Sunday recommends itself as an antidote to the cloying sentimentalities of Downton

The Guardian (UK)

Masterful ... [Swift] performs a complex enough conjuring trick, creating a perfect small tragedy with all the spring and tension of a short story, spinning around it a century of consequences with so light a touch that they only brush against the charmed centre ... Swift's small fiction feels like a masterpiece.

The Observer (UK)

An almost musical quality, like a Bach prelude and fugue reworking and reinventing themes and ideas ... both unsettling and deeply affecting . . .a powerful, philosophical and exquisitely observed novel about the lives we lead, and the parallel lives—the parallel stories—we can never know ... It may just be Swift's best novel yet.

Financial Times (UK)

Swift has written a book that is not just his most moving and intricate but his most engrossing, too.

The Spectator (UK)

It is a lot to pack into such a slim and tidy volume. But for all the detailed examination of character and the bold sweep of time, there is not a word wasted. ... A lesson in poetic brevity ... There is a lulling quality to the movement between sections of the book—rhythms and repetitions, the ebb and flow of a tide, the wearing down of rock to form sand on a beach... This is a rare read indeed.

The Sunday Times (UK)

A dazzling novel... beautiful ... A vanished world is resurrected with superb immediacy. The shires gentry and their servants move around the pages with solid authenticity... Wonderfully accomplished ... an achievement.

The Independent (UK)

This deceptively short, sexy novel reflects on big themes ... Proustian ... reminiscent of Edward Thomas's great poem 'Adlestrop' ... a Conradian homage to a wellspring of inspiration.

The Evening Standard (UK)

From start to finish Swift's is a novel of stylish brilliance and quiet narrative verve. The archly modulated, precise prose (a hybrid of Henry Green and Kazuo Ishiguro) is a glory to read... Swift is a writer at the very top of his game.

The Herald (Scotland)

Mothering Sunday is a dazzling read: sexy, stylish, subversive. You finish it and immediately read it again, because, like War and Peace, it's a marvelous novel of possibilities.

The Australian

A short yet powerful and intricately layered work ... engaging and exquisite ... It may not be Swift's meatiest book, but with every sentence counting, and not a word out of place, it is his most perfectly formed.

Reader Reviews

Sandy

Mothering Sunday
Sexy, pithy and very well written! I loved it.

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Beyond the Book

Mothering Sunday and Mother's Day

In the UK, "Mothering Sunday" – the central event in Graham Swift's novel of the same name – dates back to at least the 16th century when Christians would go "a mothering" to visit their "mother church" once a year, where they had been baptized. For some, this would also be the day of the year when mothers were united with their children — not just adult offspring but even those as young as ten who might be apprenticed or in service.

A Simnel cake Held on the fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday was also known as Refreshment Sunday as the dietary restrictions of Lent were somewhat relaxed on that day (some say in honor of the Feeding of the Five Thousand). Traditionally, a Simnel cake was baked — a fruit cake with a ...

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