A Game of Hide and Seek
by Elizabeth Taylor (1951)
NYRB Classics (2012)
328 pp

Thanks to #NYRBWomen24 I have now read my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel, A Game of Hide and Seek. My first was A Wreath of Roses, back in — gulps — 2015, and when I finished it I immediately put Taylor on my Pantheon, the list of authors whose books so struck me that I wanted to read everything they’ve written. It was potentially risky, particularly since I didn’t love the second one I read, her second novel, Palladian. But I then loved Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and A View of the Harbour. And now I can put A Game of Hide and Seek in the “love” column as well. That’s now a sufficiently good ratio to feel justified in my quick elevation of Taylor in my personal rankings!

I loved A Game of Hide and Seek from the first few sentences where we meet Harriet and Vesey, both eighteen years old, the two characters we will follow over the course of the novel and, as it turns out, over the course of a few decades in their lives. Here is that wonderful opening:

Sometimes in the long summer’s evenings, which are so marked a part of youth, Harriet and Vesey played hide-and-seek with the younger children, running across the tufted meadows, their shoes yellow with the pollen of buttercups. They could not run fast across those uneven fields; nor did they wish to, since to find the hiding children was to lose their time together, to run faster was to run away from one another.

It seems like we are about to read an idyllic love story. That is, unless you’ve read Elizabeth Taylor. Then you know that it will be much more complicated, more cynical — though without ever becoming nihilistic — than that. Soon we realize that while Harriet and Vesey may have these momentary moments where one or the other thinks there may be the potential for romance, they don’t necessarily think the other feels the same way. And even they go back and forth a bit. Vesey, we come to see, is not such a find. He’s a bit selfish and unreliable. Harriet finds the uncertainty of her own young love agonizing rather than pleasurable. It’s set up as an idyll in those first few lines, but it lacks that sense that things are just right, even if they are passing.

Still, time does pass. Vesey doesn’t stick around, and Harriet, though she yearns for him, also moves on and eventually marries someone else. Why wouldn’t she? Nothing really ever happened between her and Vesey. Certainly he was sometimes dismissive; sometimes he was even cruel. How could that be love?

And yet over the next fifteen to twenty years, Harriet and Vesey run into each other now and then. It turns out the attraction — even this dangerous and uncertain and painful one — didn’t go away. Both of them still feel drawn to each other, though of course things have changed a lot.

Harriet and Vesey are the main characters of this novel, but Taylor introduces several others — friends, neighbors, family members — who often take center stage. We often see Harriet and Vesey’s relationship through others’ eyes. This is introduced on the second page, when ten-year-old Deirdre recognizes that Harriet and Vesey use the game of hide and seek to abscond to the loft. Nothing happens in the loft — nothing other than a sense of attraction — but Deirdre, who cannot picture what could be happening still “imagined a guilty but simple intimacy up there.”

Later in the novel, Harriet’s husband, Charles, has a particularly fearful imagination. Not that it’s unfounded, even if nothing ever really happens between Harriet and Vesey. Their attraction to each other warps everything else. I think Taylor’s central theme is expressed in this line from later in the book:

She found, though, that love was a disorganizing element. Dropped into their midst, it had the power of upsetting other relationships, so that she felt emphasis shifted all about her, as if her world had slipped; as if a general subsidence had taken place.

And so we watch Harriet and Vesey, often unhappy — indeed, unhappiest when together — go in and out of each other’s lives, while those around them orbit in strange ways. Harriet’s daughter, Betsy . . . wow. Taylor so delicately lets us see how she thinks all of this affects her.

It’s an amazing, nuanced, complicated book. I know Elizabeth Taylor has her readers, but I think she needs more! I certainly look forward to my next one.

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