P.D. James is a contemporary novelist with a Victorian sensibility, a style that puts some readers off, especially those of us who want writers to get right to the point. "They lived in a house that cost big bucks" says it much quicker than four pages that describe the dwelling's lush gardens and opulent furnishings.
Yet this is a beautifully crafted work with profound psychological insight. The author isn't just skilled, she's wise.
Philippa is a complicated, cerebral, self-absorbed young woman. Giving and receiving affection are hard for her. When she re-connects with her birth mother, though, she falls quickly, simply and deeply in love. Then the truth about her mother's early rejection of her surfaces. Philippa, feeling betrayed, responds by rejecting her mother. By the time Philippa figures that out that what she's lost isn't love but love's illusion and that her love for her mother is real and true despite the earlier betrayal, the inevitable words have been spoken and the unavoidable tragedy has struck.
James could have opted for a cheerful ending. Philippa and her mother could have reconciled. The homicidal stalker could have been foiled. Philippa could have made peace with her adoptive parents or left them in a nice way. But circumstances conspire to teach Philippa that falling in love and the happiness that comes from it are only the surface of love. If it's a truer love that Philippa is after, her will must be broken. She'll need to experience pain, loss, grief and sacrifice to begin to attain the humility and poverty of spirit that James seems to feel are the prerequisites of a deeper or higher love. The compassion that Philippa feels for her mother's murderer and the actions that flow from it show that Philippa has begun to love in earnest. This is her mother's gift to her.
Neither Scase nor Maurice are villains. For all his denials, Maurice loves Philippa, though he lacks the courage to allow himself to love her selflessly and so to love himself and Hilda. Scase is pitiful but his suffering is as real as the others. So is Hilda's.
A less masterful writer might have left us with the feeling that suffering is the prelude to love or else its devastating aftermath. James, whose vision is religious though not doctrinal, seems to see it differently. Love, she seems to be saying, is both suffering and the power that redeems suffering. Philippa, the unloved and unloving child, has the potential to become a loved and loving woman.