Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker through World War II, and throughout the war and the years following, was extraordinarily sensitive to the experiences of everyday, normal people trying to live their lives. She immortalized these experiences through non-fiction (her column Letters from London ran for over forty years) and fiction. My first encounter with Panter-Downes was her novel One Fine Day (1946). After reading the marvelous reviews by Rachel and Claire, I was sold; it became one of the books I gifted to myself over winter break. Their reviews are wonderful, very insightful, and beautifully written. I highly recommend them, and am not sure that I have much to add for myself, other than to add that my reading of One Fine Day was less about Laura, the main character, and more about all of the other people she interacts with.
This novel takes place entirely in the course of a single day, as we readers get to know middle-class couple Laura and Stephen Marshall. It is shortly after WWII is over and Stephen has returned home to a disintegrating house with no servants and a daughter he no longer really recognizes. His wife is older in both body and spirits, and together they must adapt to a world that has changed. Their life is now full of uncomfortable unfamiliarity and has an uncertain future. With the servants all gone to factories, Laura struggles to keep up the house and garden, which in their disrepair represent the passing of an era. But for most of the book, Laura is outside her home, meandering through the town running errands and, finally, taking some time for herself.
To my mind, One Fine Day reads like a series of character sketches. I didn’t even realize until the end that it’s a quest narrative – one with nearly no plot. Laura walks through the town, meeting her friends and acquaintances and reflecting on what their lives have become. She ends up at the top of the Barrow Down, the nearby hill overlooking the town and countryside, and has an epiphany there in which she realizes that England is really at peace, that everything is going to be all right, and how astonishingly unique it is that she and Stephen are still happily married and still living in their family home, when all around her are widows, divorcing couples, and families forced to move because they can’t keep up their houses. All of the people she encounters on this single day’s journey face different challenges, but the ultimate tone of the book is a hopeful one.