The Pumpkin Eater is a surreal black comedy about the wages of adulthood and the pitfalls of parenthood. A nameless woman speaks, at first from the precarious perch of a therapist’s couch, and her smart, wry, confiding, immensely sympathetic voice immediately captures and holds our attention. She is the mother of a vast, swelling brood of children, also nameless, and the wife of a successful screenwriter, Jake Armitage. The Armitages live in the city, but they are building a great glass tower in the country in which to settle down and live happily ever after. But could that dream be nothing more than a sentimental delusion? At the edges of vision the spectral children come and go, while our heroine, alert to the countless gradations of depression and the innumerable forms of betrayal, tries to make sense of it all: doctors, husbands, movie stars, bodies, grocery lists, nursery rhymes, messes, aging parents, memories, dreams, and breakdowns. How to pull it all together? Perhaps you start by falling apart.
Penelope Mortimer (1918–1999) was born Penelope Ruth Fletcher in North Wales, the younger of two children of an Anglican clergyman father and his wife. The family moved often, and Penelope was educated at half a dozen institutions before spending a year at the University of London. In 1937 she married the journalist Charles Dimont, with whom she had two daughters. Two more daughters by two different men would follow before, in 1949, she divorced Dimont and married the barrister, novelist, and playwright John Mortimer, with whom she had another daughter and her only son. The Mortimers were celebrated as “the last word in marital chic,” but the marriage was tumultuous and the couple divorced in 1972. In addition to The Pumpkin Eater (1962), made into a 1964 film from a screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch, Mortimer published several other novels, including Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1958), Long Distance (1974), and The Handyman (1983); a travel book co-authored with John Mortimer, With Love and Lizards (1957); and a biography of the Queen Mother. She also served as a film critic for the London Observer and was a regular contributor of short stories to The New Yorker. The first volume of her autobiography About Time (1979) was awarded the Whitbread Prize and was followed by About Time Too (1993).
Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment, a novel and Dreaming of Hitler, a collection of essays. Her cultural criticism has appeared in a range of publications, including Vogue and The
American Scholar, and has been widely anthologized. She has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, and is currently a contributing writer at Elle and The New York Times Magazine. She lives in New York City, where she teaches writing, and is at work on a memoir, Melancholy Baby.
“A subtle, fascinating, unhackneyed novel . . . in touch with human realities and frailties, unsentimental and amused. . . .So moving, so funny, so desperate, so alive. . . . [A] fine book, and one to be greatly enjoyed.” -Elizabeth Janeway, The New York Times
“A strange, fresh, gripping book. One of the the many achievements of The Pumpkin Eater is that it somehow manages to find universal truths in what was hardly an archetypal situation: Mortimer peels several layers of skin off the subjects of motherhood, marriage, and monogamy, so that what we’re asked to look at is frequently red-raw and painful without being remotely self-dramatizing. In fact, there’s a dreaminess to some of the prose that is particularly impressive, considering the tumult that the book describes.” —Nick Hornby, The Believer