Alys, Always

A Novel

About The Book

From the author of Her, a suspenseful, assured literary debut that explores the dark side of desire and ambition through one woman's unlikely entry into an elite world.

Driving home to London one winter evening, Frances happens upon a car that has flipped onto its side. She comforts the dying driver, Alys Kyte, and hears her final words. The wife of a celebrated novelist, Alys moved in rarefied circles, and when Frances agrees to meet the bereaved family, she glimpses a world entirely foreign to her: cultured, wealthy, and privileged. While slowly forging a friendship with Alys’s carelessly charismatic daughter, Frances finds her own life takes a dramatic turn, propelling her from an anonymous existence as an assistant editor for the books section of a newspaper to the heights of literary society.

With this unforgettable protagonist, author Harriet Lane draws readers into a tightly paced tale that careens towards an audacious ending. Transfixing, insightful, and unsettling, Alys, Always drops readers into the mind of an enigmatic young woman whose perspective on a glamorous world shines a light on those on the outside who would risk everything to be accepted.

Excerpt

Alys, Always

It’s shortly after six o’clock on a Sunday evening. I’m sure of the time because I’ve just listened to the headlines on the radio.

Sleet spatters the windscreen. I’m driving through low countryside, following the occasional fingerpost toward the A road and London. My headlights rake the drizzle, passing their silver glow over gates and barns and hedgerows, the CLOSED signs hung in village shop windows, the blank, muffled look of houses cloistered against the winter evening. Few cars are out. Everyone is at home, watching TV, making supper, doing the last bits of homework before school tomorrow.

I’ve taken the right fork out of Imberly, past the white rectory with the stile. The road opens up briefly between wide, exposed fields before it enters the forest. In summer, I always like this part of the drive: the sudden, almost aquatic chill of the green tunnel, the sense of shade and stillness. It makes me think of Milton’s water nymph, combing her hair beneath the glassy, cool, translucent wave. But at this time of year, at this time of day, it’s just another sort of darkness. Tree trunks flash by monotonously.

The road slides a little under my tyres so I cut my speed right back, glancing down to check on the instrument panel, the bright red and green and gold dials that tell me everything’s fine; and then I look back up and I see it, just for a second, caught in the moving cone of light.

It’s nothing, but it’s something. A shape through the trees, a sort of strange illumination up ahead on the left, a little way off the road.

I understand immediately that it’s not right. It’s pure instinct: like the certainty that someone, somewhere out of immediate eyeshot, is watching you.

The impulse is so strong that before I’ve even really felt a prickle of anxiety, I’ve braked. I run the car into the muddy, rutted margin of the road, up against a verge, trying to angle the headlights in the appropriate direction. Opening the car door, I pause and lean back in to switch off the radio. The music stops. All I can hear is the wind soughing in the trees, the irregular drip of water onto the bonnet, the steady metronome of the hazard flashers. I shut the door behind me and start to walk, quite quickly, along the track of my headlights, through the damp snag of undergrowth, into the wood. My shadow dances up ahead through the trees, growing bigger, wilder, with every step. My breath blooms in front of me, a hot, white cloud. I’m not really thinking of anything at this moment. I’m not even really scared.

It’s a car, a big, dark car, and it’s on its side, at an angle, as if it is nudging its way into the cold earth, burrowing into it. The funny shape I saw from the road was the light from its one working headlamp projecting over a rearing wall of brown bracken and broken saplings. In the next few seconds, as I come close to the car, I notice various things: the gloss of the paintwork bubbled with raindrops, the pale leather interior, the windscreen that hasn’t fallen out but is so fractured that it has misted over, become opaque. Am I thinking about the person, or people, inside? At this moment, I’m not sure I am. The spectacle is so alien and so compelling that there’s not really any space to think about anything else.

And then I hear a voice, coming from within the car. It’s someone talking, quite a low, conversational tone. A sort of muttering. I can’t hear what is being said, but I know it’s a woman.

“Hey—are you all right?” I call, moving around the car, passing from the glare of the headlight into blackness, trying to find her. “Are you okay?” I bend to look down into windows, but the dark is too thick for me to see in. As well as her voice—which murmurs and pauses and then starts again, without acknowledging my question—I can hear the engine ticking down, as if it’s relaxing. For a moment I wonder whether the car is about to burst into flames, as happens in films, but I can’t smell any petrol. God, of course: I have to call for an ambulance, the police.

I pat my pockets in a panic, find my mobile, and make the call, stabbing at the buttons so clumsily that I have to redial. The operator’s answer comes as an overwhelming, almost physical relief. I give her my name and telephone number and then, as she leads me through the protocol of questions, I tell her everything I know, trying hard to sound calm and steady, a useful person in a crisis. “There’s been an accident. One car. It looks like it came off the road and turned over. There’s a woman in there, she’s conscious; there might be other people, I don’t know, I can’t see inside. Wistleborough Wood, just outside Imberly, about half a mile past the Forestry Commission sign—up on the left, you’ll see my car on the road, it’s a red Fiat.”

She tells me help is on its way and I hang up. There’s quiet again: the trees creaking, the wind, the engine cooling. I crouch down. Now my eyes have adjusted, I can just make out an arm, thrown up against the side window, but the light is so dim that I can’t see any texture on the sleeve. Then she starts to speak to me, as if she has woken up, processed my presence.

“Are you there?” she’s asking. She sounds quite different now. There’s fear in her voice. “I don’t want to be on my own. Who’s there? Don’t go.”

I kneel down hurriedly and say, “Yes. I’m here.”

“I thought so,” she says. “You won’t leave me, will you?”

“No,” I say. “I won’t leave you. There’s an ambulance on its way. Just stay calm. Try not to move.”

“You’re very kind,” she says. The expensive, cultured voice goes with the Audi, and I know—hearing that voice making that remark—that she makes that comment dozens of times a day, without even thinking about it, when people have shown her courtesy or deference at the farm shop or the butcher’s.

“I’ve got myself into a bit of a mess,” she says, trying to laugh. The arm moves, fractionally, as if she is testing it out, then lies still again. “My husband is going to be so cross. He had the car cleaned on Friday.”

“I’m sure he’ll understand,” I say. “He’ll just want to know you’re okay. Are you hurt?”

“I don’t really know. I don’t think so. I think I knocked my head, and I don’t think my legs are too good,” she says. “It’s a nuisance. I suppose I was going too fast, and I must have hit some ice. . . . I thought I saw a fox on the road. Oh, well.”

We wait in silence for a moment. My thighs are starting to ache and the knees of my jeans, pressed into damp bracken, are stiff with cold and water. I adjust my position and wonder how long it will take the ambulance to get here from Fulbury Norton. Ten minutes? Twenty? She doesn’t sound terribly hurt. I know it’s not a good idea to interfere in a car accident, but maybe I should try to help her out somehow. But then again, if she has a broken leg . . . and anyway, I have no way of opening the car door, which is crumpled and pleated between us, like a piece of cardboard.

I cup my hands and blow on them. I wonder how cold she is.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“Frances,” I say. “What’s yours?”

“Alice,” she says. I might be imagining it, but I think her voice is sounding a little fainter. Then she asks, “Do you live around here?”

“Not anymore. I live in London. I’ve been visiting my parents. They live about twenty minutes away—near Frynborough.”

“Lovely part of the world. We’ve got a place in Biddenbrooke. Oh, dear, he will be wondering where on earth I’ve got to. I said I’d call when I got in.”

I’m not sure what she means and I’m suddenly frightened she’s going to ask me to ring her husband. Where’s the ambulance? Where are the police? How long does it take, for God’s sake? “Are you cold?” I ask, shoving my hands into my jacket pockets. “I wish I could do more to help make you comfortable. But I don’t think I should try to move you.”

“No, let’s wait,” she agrees lightly, as if we’re at a bus stop, only mildly inconvenienced, as if it’s just one of those things. “I’m sure they’re on their way.” Then she makes a sound that frightens me, a sharp inhalation, a tiny gasp or cry, and then she stops talking, and when I say, “Alice? Alice?” she doesn’t answer, but makes the noise again, and it’s such a small sort of noise, so hopeless somehow; and I know when I hear it that this is serious after all.

I feel terribly alone then, and redundant: alone in the dark wood with the rain and the crying. And I look back over my shoulder, towards my car, the dazzle of its headlamps, and behind it I can see only darkness, and I keep looking and looking, and talking—though she’s no longer responding—and eventually I see lights, blue and white flashing lights, and I say, “Alice, they’re here, they’re coming, I can see them, it’s going to be fine, just hold on. They’re coming.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Alys Always includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

Frances Thorpe’s life as an assistant editor for the books section of a struggling newspaper is neither exhilarating nor remarkable until a chance encounter on a rainy night changes her life forever.
 
While driving back to London after a weekend at her parents' home in the country, Frances notices a car that has crashed along the side of the road. After calling for an ambulance, Frances comforts the woman in the driver’s seat, and hears her final words. When the family wants to meet and thank her, Frances resists until she learns that the woman was Alys Kyte, wife of a famous English novelist. After easing the minds of the family members with her account of Alys’s last conversation, Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Alys’s daughter, the wealthy, careless and exuberant Polly. As the months go by, Frances gains access to the exclusive world of the literary elite, and becomes irrevocably bound to the Kyte family. 
 

Topics & Questions for Discussion 
 
1. When Sergeant Kate Williams first calls Frances about meeting the Kytes, Frances immediately declines “without having to reflect.” Why didn’t Frances want to meet the family initially? How do you view her sudden reversal after realizing that “Alice Kite” was really Alys Kyte, wife of the famous writer, Laurence Kyte? 
 
2. Compare Laurence’s character with the themes Frances describes as permeating his books: “In Kyte’s books, middle-aged, middle-class men…struggle with the decline in their physical powers, a decline which mirrors the state of the culture around them. Kyte’s prose is famously ‘challenging,’ ‘inventive,’ and ‘muscular’; usually it’s ‘uncompromising,’ too.” Does this description of Laurence’s prose suit his person as well?
 

 
3. “…Maybe it’s not really lying if you barely know you’re doing it. It should be true. It’s the way it should be, in an ideal world.” This thought occurs to Frances after hearing her mother lie to her friends about the dog, Margot; but Frances seems to apply this rationale to her own life. Reflect on the scene when Frances meets the Kyte family for the first time. Why does Frances lie to the Kytes about Alys’s last words? What effect do Frances’s words have on the Kytes? If placed in a similar situation what would you choose to do?
 
This is the first lie Frances tells, but she continues to mislead people throughout the novel. What other lies does Frances, or any other character, tell? Discuss how lying affects the trajectory of Alys, Always. 
 
4. At work, Frances misrepresents her relationship with the Kytes to her boss, Mary Pym. Outside of work, Frances makes herself available to Polly as a confidant and friend. Why does Frances begin to manipulate the people around her? Discuss other moments in the narrative when Frances suggests she has hidden motives in mind. Does her motivation for deceit ever change? 
 
5. When Polly tells Frances about the fight she overheard between her parents, neither woman is sure what Alys meant by her words: “And you can change the dedication while you’re at it…It’s not a tribute, it’s an insult.” What did you first suspect upon reading Polly’s account of this fight? 
 
6. The first night Frances stays at the Kytes’ house in Biddenbrooke she is very perceptive about how Honor feels about Teddy: “You’re getting bored, aren’t you? And you can’t quite bring yourself to admit it yet.” Discuss other instances where Frances successfully “reads” other characters. How does this intuition help her? 
 
7. What do you learn about Frances from her visits to her parents’ home? Compare the family scene at the Thorpe house with the family dynamic at the Kytes. How does Frances fit into each scenario?
 
8. “…If I overthink, events will feel rehearsed, and that would be no good at all. So I run through the possibilities, trying not to get snagged down by details. It’s a bit like making pastry. Light, cool hands, no hurry, lots of air. Wait for the moment when the texture changes.” In this passage Frances likens her actions to making pastry; discuss other points in the narrative when “the texture changes” and Frances moves forward towards her goals. To begin with, consider the scene where Frances is literally making a pastry—an apple tart. She feels the flour change “as it gains weight and texture.” How is this night a pivotal point in the novel? 
  
9. Examine the varying reactions to Frances’s friendship with the Kytes. Consider Mary Pym, Oliver Culpeper, Charlotte Black, Selma Carmichael, and Robin McAllfree in your response. 
 
10. For the most part, Frances exhibits disciplined self-control over her emotions and anxieties. Are there any moments when she reveals her weaknesses? How do you interpret the dream Frances has the night before she leaves Nevers? 
 
11. Frances often looks at her reflection and considers not only how she feels about herself, but also how she appears to others. For example, before and after Julia Price comes to the Questioner office Frances looks at herself in the elevator doors. Her assessment is initially positive: “I still have my healthy summer color, and my new haircut suits me,” but after observing Julia, “the eyes, the smile, the air of assurance. The whole package,” Frances judges herself again and thinks, “this time I’m not quite so pleased with what I see.” What do you think Frances means by the “whole package”? How does Frances’s image of herself change over the course of the novel? Does she have the “whole package” by the conclusion? Find other moments when Frances compares herself, positively or negatively, to other characters, or tries to imagine herself from someone else’s perspective. Does this habit reveal anything about Frances? 

12. Alys appears only in the very first scene, but Frances feels her presence at multiple points in the story—especially in the Kyte country home: “Alys is everywhere, too. At the back of drawers, under the stairs, in the greenhouse when I’m picking her tomatoes…Some mornings, everything I look at seems to refer backwards, to the past, to her.” Why do you think Frances feels Alys’s presence so acutely? Why is she so drawn to Alys’s material belongings? 
 
13. When Frances visits her parents, Stewart Pearson, a family friend, calls Frances “a survivor.” Oliver repeats this description towards the end of the novel: “You’re a survivor, aren’t you.” Discuss the ways Frances is a survivor in the novel. 
 
14. When Frances and Laurence finally get together, Frances realizes that she has not thought or planned her next move: “Laurence has knocked me off-balance. Somehow, I hadn’t fully anticipated this. Over the preceding months, he’d come to represent so many things, and as a consequence the man himself had somehow lost definition, become easy to overlook.” What did Laurence represent for Frances? And how has that changed now that they have begun a relationship? Do you think Frances expected to find herself “falling for him”? 
 
15. Examine the mysterious scene when Frances volunteers to read to Mrs. Brewer, the same blind woman to whom Alys read. Even though it pains Mrs. Brewer to continue hearing the book Alys left unfinished, Frances goes on reading it without regard for her listener. Why does Frances go out of her way to follow in Alys’s footsteps here? Why doesn’t she respect Mrs. Brewer’s wish to read something else?  
 
16. Do you think Frances was justified in accidentally leaving her scarf for Polly to find? What about dialing Polly’s number from Laurence’s phone? Why or why not? 
 
17. At the beginning of the novel, Frances sees herself as anonymous and insignificant. By the end of the novel, Frances has a new job, connections, and the love of Laurence. When she runs into Oliver at a party he says, “But everyone wonders where you’ve come from.” Both Laurence and Polly ask her the exact same question independently of each other. Why do Oliver, Laurence, and Polly all ask Frances this question? How is the question different each time, depending on who asks it? How is it similar? 

 
Enhance Your Book Club 
 
1. What happens next? Try to write—or talk through—an additional chapter for the story. Do Laurence and Frances succeed as a couple? Where does Frances’s ambition lead her in her career? 

2. As Polly explores Frances’s apartment, she pulls out the novel Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier from the bookshelf. Host a movie night and watch Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of this classic gothic novel. Discuss why Harriet Lane might have chosen to refer to Rebecca in Alys, Always. 

3. Frances works as a reviewer for the books section of the Questioner. Take a walk in her shoes and write your own review of Alys, Always. Share your review with your book club members.
 

About The Author

Stafford Critchlow

Harriet Lane has worked as an editor and writer at Tatler and the Observer. She has also written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, and Vogue. She lives in London, England. Alys, Always is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (June 12, 2012)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451673180

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Raves and Reviews

“Highly entertaining... Howards End meets All About Eve... A breezy, lacerating first novel.”

– Jonathan Dee, New York Times Book Review (cover review)

"A taut debut."

– Susannah Meadows, The New York Times

“Harriet Lane writes with style, wrapping her suspenseful debut in lovely bits of gently creepy description, as well as delicious social critique… a fast, sharp read.”

– Mindy Farabee, Boston Globe

“A deft and lively brain-twist of a thriller for which the only word that seems apropos is ‘spellbinding.’”

– Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune

"Controlled and precise, Lane’s writing bewitches with its undertones of implied meanings and carefully hidden secrets. This is a gem."

– Kirkus (starred review)

“Fabulous... I gobbled it up in one furtive sitting. It's crafted with the merciless but accurate observations and the lean elegance you find in Anita Brookner at her best... Like its narrator, Alys, Always is unforgettable”

– Deirdre Donohue, USA TODAY

“Lane’s wry debut delves into the political machinations of London’s literary scene.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Mesmerizing... a slow-burning psychological novel that unsettles and satisfies in equal, tantalizing measure—a literary All About Eve that stands testament to the old saying that it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

– Lucy Scholes, The Daily Beast

"This novel begins with a bang and delivers all sorts of surprises, but manages some accute and moving observations.. .A very fine debut. Lane works out her dramatic premise with great originality."

– The Times (UK)

"Wonderfully observed...This is a gripping, psychologically complex achievement, whose greatest success is its lingering sense of unease."

– The Telegraph (UK)

"Exceptional... In Frances [Lane] has created a character Daphne du Maurier might have been proud of: vulnerable, manipulative, resourceful, chippy, but one of us."

– Financial Times (UK)

"This chilling and accomplished debut is in classic Ruth Rendell territory. Crucially, the author knows the trick of what to leave out, and of how to tantilise."

– The Independent (UK)

"A superbly disquieting psychological thriller... Lane is a formidable wordsmith, and the literary world is conjured up in all its delicous, gossipy hierarchy.... Mordantly funny, yet chilling, this tale of an ordinary woman inveigling her way into a position of power is compulsive reading."

– The Spectator (UK)

"Superbly, even poetically written with an almost feverish hyper-realism, this All About Eve for our times misses no telling detail... A brilliant idea, brilliantly realized. I loved it, loved it. I've run out of superlatives and all that remains to say is that I wish I was you; I wish I hadn't read it and had that pleasure to come."

– Daily Mail (UK)

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