One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

It’s not often that you find a book so exquisitely written that the story takes a back seat to the absolute divine quality of the language it is expressed in. In One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes effortlessly uses just the most perfect words in the perfect order to create a crystal clear image of a sweltering summer’s day in a rural post war village, the heat rising in a shimmer off the surface of the baked, softened tarmac on the roads and the crops in the fields swaying gently in the hot breeze. It is a moving, elegiac novel about love, beauty, and most importantly, freedom; that precious, indefinable gift that was almost destroyed, and that millions of men died to protect, so that their beloved England would never have to lie under the flag of another. I haven’t read a better book about the after effects of war, and neither have I read a better one about my beloved England and what it means to those of us who were born and bred here. It is a quietly patriotic novel, as only a British novel can be, and as such, it made me almost tearful in places, as I contemplated what it would have meant to lose this proud little island, with its green hills, its marshes, its moody seas, its stormy skys, its majestic spires, to another nation, and have our history and culture erased, destroyed, defeated, forever.

One Fine Day centres around the day in the life of Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria. They live in a large house in a country village and are used to servants and a decent standard of living. Stephen, recently returned from the war, has been shocked to find Laura managing the house alone, as all the servants have either been killed or have moved on to more exciting and better paid work in the city. His beloved garden is ruined – the gardener was killed in France – and Laura can barely keep the house clean, let alone produce an evening dinner. Victoria has grown from a toddler to a little lady, quite unrecognisable to her father, and Stephen is left floundering now he is master of a house no longer in capable hands, a husband to a rapidly aged wife, and a father to a child who barely remembers him. We follow Laura through her domestic focused day in the country, while Stephen is in his London office. From shopping in town, to household duties, to visits to the poorer neighbours in the search for a gardener, and finally to a blissful afternoon spent on Barrow Hill, a local landmark, Laura’s life and thoughts are laid bare. We also understand life from Stephen’s perspective as he goes about his day in the sweltering heat of  a battered and bruised London, wondering at the futility of his daily commute, worrying about the state of his house, and about their future.

My words can never hope to adequately describe how simply breathtaking this book is. Laura is one of the most charming, irresistable characters I’ve ever come across; she is a free spirit, a little downtrodden by her experiences, and greying around the edges, but still young, and vibrant, and yearning for more spontaneity and freedom in her life, unencumbered by the duties of house and family. Her childlike delight in escaping for an afternoon and just soaking in the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the wordless, heart filling, irrepressible joy she feels in knowing the war is over, is almost tear jerking in its sweetness. By the end of the day, as she sits on the Hill, despite the difficulties of her postwar life, she realises with tearful joy that she can rejoice in being free from fear, look into a sky no longer filled with latent menace, and plan a future again. Stephen’s  journey throughout the day is no less touching; despite his disappointment with his disordered house and the strains of his desk bound job, his love for his wife and daughter eclipse all of this, and his realisation that what the house looks like doesn’t matter – he is alive, and Laura is alive, and without each other, everything is dust and ashes – made my heart sing.

Laura and Stephen’s life has changed forever; no more will their house run like clockwork, the cogs greased by the hands of that unseen army of servants who keep everything clean and serve meals on time. Many of those they loved are dead, the things they took pleasure in are no longer available or they don’t have time to enjoy them anymore, and all the worry and strain and risk and danger of the war seems hardly worth it, as their former life is in ruins, and they don’t know how to cope with the one they have now. However, over the course of this hot summer’s day, when the roses are in full bloom and the sky is a cornflower blue, and all England is laid out in her splendour to be admired, they both come to experience the true joy of freedom from fear, and the luxury of once again having a future, and they realise that they are lucky, so lucky, to have each other, to have survived, to have lived through it all and to have come out on the other side, battered, but not broken, ready to live again.

It is making me feel strangely emotional, writing about this remarkable book. I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, an autobiography about her experience of living through the First World War, and bringing that personal viewpoint of war into my reading of One Fine Day, it has, on reflection, made me feel incredibly grateful that my youth has not been tainted by the constant horror of a war that threatens to destroy everything I hold dear. How truly awful it must have been for women to be stuck at home during those terrifying five years (‘women sew, men fight’, says Laura in One Fine Day), knowing little of the fate of their husbands, sons, brothers, friends, lovers, out there in a distant trench, fighting not just for their own lives, but for those of people they had never met, part of the King and Country it was their duty to preserve and protect beyond anything else. Constant worry, constant stress, constant fear, becoming part of your everyday life, due to a war you never wanted and don’t see the point of, ripping apart everything you love and plunging your existence into five long years of hardship and sacrifice and grief. And then when it ends, if you’re lucky, your husband comes home, and he’s different, and he doesn’t know you anymore, and though only five years have passed, it could have been twenty, for all the changes that have happened. The servants have gone, the house has gone to pot, most of your friends have been widowed, and half of your village has been killed or packed up and gone, unwilling to put up with the limited opportunities a rural life now offers after the widened horizons of a war worker’s life. Where do you go from there? How do you even begin to pick up the pieces and go back to a semblance of normality? I have no idea how they did it, and I am in such awe, and have such gratitude towards these brave men and women of my grandparents’ generation who sacrificed so much so that the people of my generation would have the freedom we so blithely take for granted. I know, after reading this beautiful book, that I am never going to look at the rolling hills of the English countryside in quite the same way again. You must read this. It will send shivers down your spine.

‘We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.’

46 comments

  1. I am so pleased that you enjoyed this fantastic book. Mollie Panter Downs is one of our most unappreciated authors…her “Letters from London” in the New Yorker were a superb chronicle of the war and postwar years in England.

    1. Hello Mary, thank you for visiting! I am in absolute agreement – I can’t believe One Fine Day isn’t required reading in schools as an exploration of the true effects of war on the civilian population. I can’t wait to read more of her writing!

  2. I’m reading this book at the moment, and, like you, loving it. I agree with every idea and emotion you’ve expressed, so there’s no need for me to say any more, since you’ve expressed it all so much better than I could ever hope to.

  3. Oh, Rachel, this is such a tender review and you have honored your grandparents and their generation and all of England with your response, as well as the lives lost or forever altered, as, it seems, the author of “One Fine Day” does.

    You have a unique voice and a way of drawing me into your reviews and your appreciation of language and the play of words is something I admire.

    Now, I must get on with my day, holding the knowledge that freedom of fear is a mighty gift on each and every day.

  4. This book sounds fantastic. I am in the middle of reading her collection of stories Good Evening Mrs. Craven and quite enjoying them. But the plot outline for One Fine Day has me itching to read it.

    1. It really is, and if you’re enjoying her stories, I know you will love this! I am now very eager to read her stories and also her letters that were featured in the New Yorker during the war. I hope you read this soon Thomas!

  5. I read One Fine Day in late spring and so enjoyed it. I loved the floral descriptions and how Laura and Stephen’s love for each other is shared with us throughout the book. Thank you for bringing back fond memories of a lovely book.

    1. It is such a romantic book in how it captures the beauty of not only human relationships, but the power of nature to move us emotionally. I’m so pleased you’ve read and enjoyed this already – I know I will come back to it many times to revel in the language.

  6. I too loved this book – so beautifully and poetically capturing the essence of England. A memorable novel about England in the aftermath of war and one of my favourite books of all time.

    1. Doesn’t it just capture England perfectly? I love how Mollie Panter-Downes can distil the essence of England into one turn of phrase. I read your review and thought it was marvellous- we were both obviously very touched by it and I think it has become one of my all time favourites too – I am so glad I discovered it!

  7. ‘We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.’

    Right.
    I now have to read that book.
    Thanks.

  8. Yep, that does it for me.

    BTW on “It’s not often that you find a book so exquisitely written that the story takes a back seat to the absolute divine quality of the language” have you tried Anita Brookner? I read a few of hers some years ago and while they tend to be reformulations of the same characters/themes, her word-craft is memorable.

    1. Glad to hear it!

      I have never read any Anita Brookner but I have often looked at her books and thought about reading them, which is a start! I shall try one on your recommendation, as wordcraft is something I particularly enjoy.

  9. Both books sound just up my street. I have just finished To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski which did the same for me as One Fine Day has done for you. Thanks for both reviews.

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed To Bed with Grand Music – that’s one war book I’d love to read as it really cuts against the grain of what is usually written about life during wartime. You must read One Fine Day if you’re into war literature – it truly is magnificent at hitting home just what effect the war had on people’s everyday lives and how they picked up the pieces afterwards.

  10. This sounds wonderful, and it is obvious that it was a very moving and personal read for you. Always special to have a read like that especially when you read a great deal. Will be picking this one up.

    1. It really was, and unexpectedly so too. Sometimes amongst my reading books like this really jump out and stay with me and you’re right, it’s special when that happens. I hope you manage to get a copy and that you enjoy it as much as me.

  11. This was one of the books I treated myself to earlier this year using a birthday present token.

    It’s earned a place on my over crowded bookshelves, a keeper, along with the 2 M P-D, Persephone republications.

    Highly recommend these 3 books to anyone that hasn’t read them yet.

    I’d love to read more of her work, a hint there to Persephone, pretty please.

    1. I’m so glad this is a keeper for you – I’d love to read the two Persephone volumes as well, I’m sure they’re marvellous. I think Persephone should print her London War Notes – they’d be terrific, I’m sure.

  12. That is a very nice way to put it. Now I know why my forefathers fought for freedom against those who wish to dominate because they don’t want this country with a different flag under its name. When I was young, how I wish Philippines was an American land! Life would have been better! But how can I tell?

    Thank you for the beautiful review!

    1. Thank you, Lex. National identity means a lot to people, if you really dig under the surface, I think. Look how passionate people have been about the World Cup! It’s interesting that you always thought you’d rather have been ruled by America, but then you don’t know what that would have been like, as you say. I’m sure it would have fundamentally changed many things about your life, just as it would have made my life very different if Germany hadn’t been defeated in either world war.

      I am glad you enjoyed the review, thank you for your lovely comment.

  13. I LOVE that poster you have at the top – it really sums up what was behind everyone’s desire to keep fighting for England during the war. I think I used it as part of an assessed essay at college!

    One fine day is such a fantastic read and I am desperately seeking The shoreless sea by MPD.

    1. Isn’t it gorgeous? One day when I have my amazing swanky dream house I shall have a copy of that poster on my wall.🙂 How fun that you got to write an essay on it!

      The Shoreless Sea is hard to get hold of so I hear – definitely one to look out for when rummaging in the basement of dusty 2nd hand shops!

  14. What a beautiful review! I agree with the other comments, you write wonderfully! I love the quote you posted at the end too – this is a definite must-read for me!

  15. Your review is beautiful and so fitting for one of my very favourite books.
    I read a borrowed copy last summer and had to go out and buy my own copy as soon as I had finished it because it affected me so much and I knew that it was a book I will return to again and again.
    MPD is a superb writer and her two volumes of short stories published by Persephone are wonderful. I usually try to read a story a day from compilations but I ended up reading Minnie’s Room, the collection of her post war stories, one after the other, marvelling at her skill.
    It would be wonderful if Persephone could publish more of her work.

    1. Thank you Liz! There seems to be a lot of MPB fans out there – it’s surprising that her work is not more widely published/known. I would love to read her short story collections – definitely my next Persephone purchases!

  16. Ah Rachel, you are a troublesome internet friend. After reading your review I rushed over to abebooks.com and found an older virago edition to order. So much for my book buying ban. Perhaps that is all part of your evil plan. Tempt others with delicious reviews and let them buy the books, thereby getting your book acquisition fix vicariously!

  17. Hi Rachel,
    One Fine Day sounds exactly my sort of novel – beautiful language, low plot, deeply moving… On the strength of your review I bought a copy from bookdep, along with Good Evening Mrs Craven, and I think Mollie Panter-Downes and I will be very good friends. The poster you chose is also superb and I think it might have to be a Fathers Day present for Anatoly who also read and loved this review and then said ” lets just sell the house and move back to England right away, even if we have to run a fish and chip shop.”

    1. Hi Merenia – yes, I think this would be just your cup of tea, and I’m so glad you’ve bought a copy because I know you will love it. I would really like to read her stories as well. Just another load of books to add to my TBR!

      How funny! The poster is gorgeous isn’t it? When I eventually get my own home, I shall have one over my fireplace! I concur with your husband – move to England, then you could come and have bookish chats with me!

  18. One Fine Day has been on my library hold list for so long that I should really check and make sure it’s still an active hold! I had loved the two Mollie P-D Persephone titles so much that I’m almost hesitant to read more, for fear they wouldn’t match up. I’m so glad to hear that this measures up.

  19. Dear Book Snob, love the wise candour and unflinching enthusiasm of your reviews. It feels like true enthusiasm has vanished from the world, unless it is of a corny, sirupy kind, that ‘tells’ you to feel instead of inspiring to. I discovered you quite by chance when I was looking for some criticism on ‘One Fine Day’ that was so strongly recommended by a friend that I felt as dubious as you felt about ‘I Capture the Castle’. But I loved it just like you promised I would. Thank you for your lovely presence on the web. Catherine

  20. I couldn’t agree more. I wrote my own review last year for Open Library. It’s not a patch on your own, but echoes the same admiration: “Mollie Panter-Downes was a great writer with a style as smooth as silk. She had a wide following for her New Yorker columns, but I encountered her by accident while browsing the fiction shelves in my university library. At first, nothing much happens in One Fine Day, which is set in England in 1947. And then, it seems to me, everything happens. I found myself thinking: this is life, as viewed from a hilltop. I’ve read the book multiple times, and I still can’t see how she does it. I bought a copy on Amazon, a first edition. It is one of my favourite books: gentle, lucid, surprising, precisely constructed.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s