Tea at Four O’Clock

by Janet McNeill

IMG_0397“George had no words… He’d got away… He knew what freedom meant – of the body, sometimes of the mind, occasionally even of the spirit. But Laura didn’t”

For years Laura has nursed her elder sister and deferred to her wishes. Mildred has just died, but her shadow seems to dominate the house. Laura looks back upon her life, recalling the father she disliked and feared, whose reign gave way to Mildred’s tyranny, and her brother George, who left the house in bitterness twenty years earlier. She remembers too her youth, her one bid for independence and its devastating consequences. But Laura is alone now and George’s reappearance signals the freedom before her. To grasp that, Laura must confront not only her own cowardice and self-sacrifice, but also the behavior of those nearest to her. This poignant novel, first published in 1956, lays bare that difficult process by which Laura reclaims her past and discovers the truth about her family.

I LOVED this book. My first read for 2018. I was pulled into Marathon and the lives of the family living there immediately. You are instantly invested in Laura and have to keep turning pages to find out what had happened to her that only Mildred knew and held over her and to see if she finds the freedom to live her own life.

Laura’s sister Mildred was a monster, there’s no other word for her. She held a tight grip on Laura and beat her down with words and looks. I could have strangled her!

Then the business of helping Mildred to bed. How Mildred hated to be helped, and how much she found to criticize in Laura’s service! It would be half-past nine before the ordeal was over, the light adjusted, the extra sleeping-pill laid beside her -“just in case, Mildred, you know the doctor says it will do you no harm”- the hot bottle that had cooled filled again, the window opened, closed, and opened again, and sometimes the clock in the hall would be striking ten before Laura, limp with nerves and smarting under Mildred’s tongue, wracked with pity for the pain her sister must suffer and yet unable to utter one word of compassion, was at last release to find her own way to bed, consoled that at least another day was over.

But Mildred’s dead now, Laura is free. Or is she?

“…It was not Mildred. Mildred is dead. It was Miss Parks.” This deliberate analysis was a help. The small body surrendered a little to the soft bed and the warmth. With the body’s immediate need met, the mind became more active. I knew Mildred was dead, and yet I thought it was Mildred. The reason I thought it was Mildred was because I had been thinking about Tom, and because I had been to see Tom’s son. Mildred Knew. She was the only other person who knew. No, Mildred cannot have known, for Mildred is dead. Her body is dead and her mind is dead. She could not have known. But if she did not know then why did I feel as I did?

Laura’s brother George comes to Marathon to see Laura the day of Mildred’s funeral. He hadn’t been home for over 20 years as his father, nor Mildred, would let him come. He and Laura had a good relationship as children, but it was marred by the critical father and the tyrannical Mildred. Laura is thrilled to see him. Does he want to re-establish his relationship with Laura or does he want her money? Will the family attorney and Miss Parks, Mildred’s friend, let Laura and George sort it out or force George away? I loved seeing the relationship dynamics and secrets between them unravel for good or for bad. A bittersweet story. Well written. Can’t wait to start on another Janet McNeill!

3 thoughts on “Tea at Four O’Clock

  1. I’ve never heard of this book or the author, and it sounds so, well, filled with anguish. And yet…I’m compelled to go seek it out.

    Oh. Darn. My library has it only in the reference area, so not available. Well, I’ll keep an eye out.


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