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Bedtime reading was great this last month. Falling asleep to other people’s silly growing-up problems can be comforting. It’s probably because with some distance from their problems we can be objective as to what they should do, because it is reasonable, and what they actually do because it is emotionally appealing.

We begin by following Philip through his traumatic childhood when his mother dies, and his father had passed before the narrative begins. He is sent to live with his kindly aunt and her husband, a small-town church vicar who is a decent man but doctrinaire and distant. Philip has a club foot and it ruins his social life at school because whenever anyone is angry with him they always make some nasty remark about his foot. Thus his foot cripples him emotionally as well as physically while he is growing up.

Fortunately his father had been a doctor and left Phillip with a tiny sum of money, and yet that sum called small later carries him through several years of art school, a couple years of business training and then a couple years of medical school, while much of the time supporting a fallen woman and her baby. He could have made it through his medical degree on the money, but he made a risky investment in a South African gold mine, lost it all, and ended up starving and sleeping on park benches in London. Of course there are some other idealistic women along the way that matched his naiveté, and they consumed quite a lot of his inheritance too. Phillip never got over the nasty women, and the only lady friend that ever treated him well, a successful novelist, he rejected because … well for no particular reason, and went back to the floozy mean one. That one started off physically sickly and then turned to prostitution and got even sicker but still Phillip supported her and loved her and her baby in his pathetic way.

He is saved from suicide and starvation by a family man who has a large family and squeezed just one more into his home, and then got Phillip an entry-level job. He works at that for two years and was making some small progress and finally earning a bit more than destitute wages. He was hoping his vicar godfather would die and leave him some money, but the vicar holds tenaciously to his miserable life because he is terrified of dying despite his religion. Eventually the vicar dies, and Philip inherits enough money to finish his medical school degree, and quickly lands a temporary job that turns into a potential permanent one as a partner in a successful medical practice in a beautiful fishing town. But he is still filled with a lust to travel the world so he turns down the offer, and appears to be sliding off again into an inane chase after meaningless phantoms. He finally becomes temporarily involved with a young woman he has known since her childhood, but who now has fully matured. She is robust and taciturn but very practical and loving, and she says the reason she has turned down proposals of marriage from some very respectable prospects, is because she will have no other than Phillip. This is a revelation to him, and of course he rejects her. She is pregnant and so he is going to do the right thing, but then she isn’t and so he is free to flutter off into the world of his fantasy travel around the world as a ship’s doctor. But then he has a moment of future reflection,  and realizes he will be much happier with a warm and loving wife as a respected small-town doctor. They look out of the National Gallery over Trafalgar Square, and walk out of our view betrothed to a happy new life.

It is a slow and often painful book but the characters eventually grow into what we wanted them to become from the beginning.