Cecilia Normanton, the 14-year-old protagonist in William Trevor’s “The Women,” can’t outrun the hollowness that isn’t hers. It’s her father’s, a deep cavity left in him by a failed marriage and the subsequent regret and disdain that accompanied his wife fleeing him.
Mr. Normanton wasn’t always this loathsome shell of a man. He was young once, and people said he lived carelessly at times. But after his wife left, he turned inward — not introspective, but guarded. He never told Cecilia the story. “Your mother wasn’t here anymore,” he said to his daughter, and Cecilia didn’t know if this meant her mother had died or was just some other kind of gone.
Cecilia was sent off to Amhurst, a boarding school that had a “headmistress” and pretentious girls. She hated it. She’d write her father burning letters of unhappiness. But she came around. She made a couple friends, found a routine, matured.
Shortly after Cecilia gets to Amhurst, we are introduced to Miss Cotell and Miss Keble. They’ve known each other for more than 30 years, meeting when they worked for the government. They randomly run into Cecilia throughout the story – I almost felt like they were stalking – and have small interactions with her. Cecilia is wary of them, or at least pretends to be.
There’s an odd tension between the two women and Cecilia until Miss Keble, out of nowhere, reveals that Miss Cotell is Cecilia’s mother. Cecilia hurries away from the women, not sure if she should believe this claim. She talks to her father about these women but never tells him what Miss Keble said. Mr. Normanton listens to Cecilia describe the women, questioning their motives but avoiding more probing inquiries.
The piece ends with Cecilia and her father on vacation, and when they are riding back to Paris on a train, they are sitting in seats facing each other. Cecilia has been waiting for her father to confess his secret, to explain everything that has escaped his lips for as long as she has been alive. He never does, and we are left with Cecilia beginning to accept the reality that she may never know the story of her mother. And maybe that’s for the best.
For me, it was an unsettling ending to an unsettling story. I never found myself invested at all with Miss Cotell and Miss Keble. I cared about Cecilia and her relationship with her father. Although there was a family secret that neither father nor daughter ever worked up the courage to address in any transparent fashion, the relationship between Cecilia and Mr. Normanton wasn’t a cold one. It was quite endearing.
Mr. Normanton loved his daughter tremendously and was proud of her. She desired to be an actress, and he supported those desires. He was proud of how she had grown since going off to Amhurst. He used the joy he found in his daughter’s life to numb the despair he found in his own. “During all your life as I have known it,” he said to Cecilia, “you have made up for what went wrong in mine.”
It’s a powerful line that – and I realize this was a conscious decision – could have led us somewhere more intimate between Mr. Normanton and his daughter. But instead, there’s always this detachment between the two. This could be a reflection of my subconscious desires as a reader more than a criticism of the story – me rooting for the more affection story.
But still, it bothered me, as did these questions:
Why didn’t Mr. Normanton ever tell his daughter the truth about his wife? Why didn’t Cecilia ever think that, as a human being, she had a right to know what happened to her mother?
Wouldn’t having this conversation alleviate some of the pain Mr. Normanton had been holding onto for so long? Or did he want to keep this pain, because he had never stopped loving his wife and it was now a part of him?
How come Cecilia never followed up with Miss Cotell after Miss Keble said that she was her mother? Why didn’t Miss Cotell ever try to approach Cecilia alone and have an honest conversation with her?
You could say that Miss Cotell had no desire to have a real relationship with her daughter, and that’s fine, but then how do you explain the borderline stalking?
I’d love to read a sequel story that explores the relationship between Cecilia and Miss Cotell.
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