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Childhood's end

Former friends and lovers Ailsa and Humphrey, reunited after 30 years, are parallel lines that meet


The Sea Lady
By Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, 345 pp., $24

Full disclosure: I've been a Margaret Drabble fan ever since her first novel , "A Summer Bird-Cage." As a young mother, I was sure no other writer was so attuned to the world both beyond and behind my own kitchen door. I pored over my favorite, "The Needle's Eye," annually through chunks of my early and middle adulthood. Just as Flaubert proclaimed, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," I'd have said the same about Drabble, even though she was a much smarter and more accomplished moi.

In 1981, I discovered David Hellerstein's Harvard magazine essay about a chance encounter with the object of my adoration. A fellow admirer, Hellerstein spies Drabble through a basement window in London. He jots down the address, writes her, and then, checking a book - jacket photo, realizes he contacted the wrong woman. But as fast as you can pronounce humiliation, a note appears from the actual author, whose misidentified neighbor rerouted his letter. She invites him for tea; she invites him for drinks. She signs her note "Maggie." Oh, David Hellerstein, why couldn't you be moi?

Twenty-six years later, I unearthed that essay. It still holds up. And so does Drabble. When other sirens beckoned, I skipped some of her '90s novels. Maybe she had become too political. Perhaps I wasn't worthy. Mea culpa. But I'm back.

In "The Sea Lady," Ailsa Kelman, feminist, scholar, TV celebrity, "media star, media whore," first appears at a museum dinner presenting the Plunkett Prize for a book called "Hermaphrodite: Sea Change and Sex Change ." Wearing a dress that makes her appear, "by happy accident," "as a mermaid, in silver sequinned scales . . . she gleamed and rippled with smooth muscle, like a fish." She circles the room looking, in vain, for the person she both hopes and fears to spot. Does she dare to wear this dress the following week to receive an honorary degree?

There, at a university near the North Sea where she spent a summer, she will find the man she's searching for: her fellow honoree, Professor Humphrey Clark, childhood playmate, marine biologist, and former husband. Now in their 60s, Ailsa and Humphrey "are on a journey backwards in time, towards some form of welcome or unwelcome reunion."

While the reader waits for the will-they-or-won't-they showdown, Drabble returns to that fateful summer at the shore. For boyhood friends Humphrey and Sandy Clegg, "it was a summer without a horizon." They spen t halcyon days swimming, wading, fishing. They "stared at the degenerate sea squirts, and collected buckets full of mermaid's purses, and captured razorfish and cockles." Until brother and sister Tommy and Ailsa Kelman, whose family is staying at the boarding house next door, turn up and ruin Humphrey's life.

Things go downhill on an excursion to the Pool of Brochan, where fish lie trapped at the mouth of the cove. Is Humphrey trapped, too? "Or was his life measureless like the fullness of the ocean?" For the first time, he fears a monster of the deep with "a dark and open mouth, a mouth that sucked like a maelstrom."

The monster is Ailsa, who, with her brother, steals Sandy away. Soon enough "Ailsa Kelman, fair-weather friend . . . would vanish like a summer midge," causing Humphrey to "put away childish things, and [try] hard to grow up."

Like childhood, summer ends. For years Humphrey refuses to think of what he sees as an unforgiv able betrayal. He invents an extended stages-of-grief program to explain his hurt: "Latency, denial, refusal, repression, struggle, combat, maturity, acceptance. The life cycle of the marine biologist." Humphrey moves on to become head boy at school and receive a scholarship to Cambridge; he dives; he studies fish; he starts a promising career. Then, on another coastline, he once again meets the flamboyant Ailsa, now fish-netted to appear in "The Little Mermaid" at an open-air theater. It's the flower-power, make-love-not-war 1960s. Inevitably, Ailsa "suck[s Humphrey] into her whirlpool." She calls him Darwin. They have earth-moving sex in her dusty room. They marry; soon after, they divorce. "It was . . . a sixties platitude. . . . Love, passionate love, obsessive and consuming love had turned to resentment, jealousy, anger, desertion, and the sudden parting of ways."

Humphrey's career stalls. Ailsa assumes one controversial public stance after another: she lectures on the avant-garde models of Delacroix ; she delivers monologues on menstrual blood. In the 30 years following their marriage, their parallel lives never intersect.

For nearly 300 pages of gorgeous writing and extended foreplay, they each travel separately toward their climactic reunion. But the end is not the point; it's the journey that matters. And what a marvelous journey it is. Drabble's rapturous descriptions of Ailsa and Humphrey's summer distill the quintessential magic of childhood, of nature, of discovery.

Everywhere the imagery dazzles: Watery metaphors full of sea lore and evolutionary biology abound. Trawling through the 1950s to the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, Drabble captures the spirit of each decade. Her flawed and oh-so-human characters appall and enthrall; Ailsa, larger than life, impossible, fascinating, jumps off the page.

What doesn't work is the odd device of the Public Orator who, too often, inserts himself into the novel as a Greek chorus, commenting, summing up. Though he adds an experimental flavor with a surprise twist at the end, he's not only intrusive but also unnecessary. On their own, Ailsa and Humphrey do just fine in the divine Margaret Drabble's richly imagined, glorious new book.

Mameve Medwed's "How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life" is now out in paperback. Her fifth novel, "Men and Their Mothers , " will be published next year.