Monday, April 21, 2014

IN BRIEF: An Easter Egg Hunt - Gillian Freeman

US 1st ed., (Congdon & Lattes, 1981)
Easter Sunday, 1915. The students at Madame Pennington's private school for girls have decided to have a charitable fundraiser for the Red Cross. The students have invited the locals to an Easter egg hunt and for the price of one penny are invited onto the school grounds to find as many eggs as they can within an allotted time. Prizes are offered. During the hunt it is discovered that Madeleine Marshal, the 17 year-old ward of Mme. Pennington has disappeared. A thorough search of the school and its grounds, including the lake, turns up no sign of the missing girl. Madeleine has vanished. Decades pass and she never returns, nor has her body ever been found. What happened to her?

An Easter Egg Hunt (1981) is a pastiche of Edwardian sensation novel told in a unique fashion. The book is presented as a three part manuscript sent to a fictional magazine called An Argosy of Mystery Stories over a period of 25 years. It's presented as a literary detective story on the part of the author who reveals herself to be one of the students at the girls' school. Part one describes in a vignette the day of the egg hunt and Madeleine’s disappearance.

Part two then tells the story of Madeleine -- her arrival at the school and how her gregarious personality and striking beauty affect everyone in the school. Too old to be a student, but too young to be a staff member, Madeleine is caught between adolescence and adulthood. She is allowed to teach French to the students but spends most of her time as a professional chaperon for the younger girls and also assists with housekeeping duties. Her very presence brings about a huge change in the way the girls behave and how the school is run.

Nearby the girl's school is a military training camp, a flight school for young cadets learning to be fighter pilots. Several of the young men are keen on some of the girls. When Madeleine arrives Will Kent falls madly in love with her. The two of them start a secret friendship meeting in a nearby cave for trysts that eventually lead to a sexual relationship. But when a horrible airplane accident ends that relationship Madeleine becomes an emotional wreck. Her changed state then affects the students and staff at the school.

UK 1st ed., (Hamish Hamilton, 1981)
The third part of the story, entitled "The Answer", reveals the true reason for Madeleine's disappearance, why she left the school and what ultimately happened to her. Encapsulated like this the brief novel seems too familiar, like an old-fashioned soap opera. Yet Freeman manages to defy all expectations of the familiar and routine. She tells her story in a compelling manner with an economy of deft prose and artful character portraits. She has an unexpected way of conveying raw emotion and turns up surprisingly poignant moments in this ultimately tragic tale of love, illusion and self-deception in wartime.

Gillian Freeman is best known perhaps for her work as a screenwriter, but has also written a handful of novels touching on often taboo topics (for the time) like gay relationships and pornography. Her first book The Leather Boys, a seminal work in gay fiction, tells the story of two young men both members of a motorcycle gang and their tenuous sexual relationship. Her screenplays include an adaptation of her first novel; I Want What I Want, one of the earliest films to deal with transgenderism; and the psycho-sexual thriller That Cold Day in the Park -- a dual review of movie and novel which is coming soon.

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Bingo Card, space E2 - "Book w/ Time, Day, Month, etc. in Title" I figure Easter in the title can be applied to the "etc".


  1. You've done it again, John - this sounds really terrific and will definitely get a copy - in fact, I couldn't wait and just ordered it - I will re-read your review after I get it - thanks chum - hope you had a great Easter.

    1. Easter was very laid back over here. I finished reading this book, we watched our usual Sunday night TV shows. Late night I got caught up in "Les Revenants", a French TV show now available on DVD in the US. Haunting and eerie and strangely beautiful.

      You might be able to read this in a single day, Sergio. It’s only 147 pages. I devoured it in two quick sittings. Very engrossing with fascinating characters and gorgeous writing.

      I should take the time to mention that Valancourt Books has reprinted three of Freeman’s early novels including her first novel The Liberty Man and The Leather Boys. Visit their Gillian Freeman page for ordering info and a brief biographical sketch about the writer. I got an email yesterday from James Jenkins, the editor-in-chief and founder of that indie press, and he was glad to see that Freeman was getting coverage. He calls her "criminally neglected." I'd agree based on this book alone.

  2. Replies
    1. Highly recommend it, Patti. Knowing your tastes, I think this is right up your alley.

  3. After they worked together on the film of "That Cold Day in the Park," Robert Altman and Gillian Freeman remained friendly, and at one point he had her work on a screenplay for a film version of "An Easter Egg Hunt" that unfortunately never made it to production. (All this information is by way of Patrick McGilligan's excellent Altman biography "Jumping Off the Cliff.")

    1. Thanks for that, Patrick. This would make a fantastic movie. Someone should try it again.

      I'm trying to find a copy of the recently released DVD of That Cold Day in the Park. I saw it decades ago on a VHS tape and I'm still haunted by Sandy Dennis' performance of that lonely woman. But I need a refresher viewing before I can accurately compare the book and movie. My memory of the movie trumps my reading experience of the book. Not a terrible book at all, but surfacey and more salacious than the movie which creepy yet poignant.

  4. John: Yes, Easter (or any holiday or calendar-related item) absolutely counts. And the book sounds delightful!