For well over a century now, young women have tended to have romantic ideas of a life partner who is ‘Tall, Dark and Handsome’ a.k.a the Mills & Boon dream.
The male vision has been even more stereotyped with a rather overt focus on beauty and fairness than over brains and character. It does seem that men may be intimidated to fall for a woman of intelligence and one who knows her mind.
Jean Piaget in A Town Like Alice breaks the stereotype and that makes the book so very special and enduring even nearly 65 years after it was first published.
The book is entertaining as well as inspiring. The opening scene in London has an ageing solicitor, Noël Strachan, advising a young Jean Piaget, working as a secretary, about her inheritance that makes her a wealthy woman. But most of the money is tied up in a Trust so that she can’t just blow it away and Noël will handle her financial affairs till she is thirty-five years of age. Her benefactor uncle apparently had a poor opinion about women managing their money and felt that they end up falling prey to Golddiggers.
Jean comes across a sensible and level-headed woman when she calmly accepts the good news but decides to continue working for the interim. She has a keen mind and asks some intelligent questions that engage Noel’s attention and so begins the relationship of a lifelong mentorship.
Noël learns that Jean had seen a tough life as a young woman and was no Lily of the field. She had suffered during the Second World War when she was forced by extenuating circumstances to lead a group of women and children, trying to survive in Malaya but having to keep marching every day to different villages as no one wanted to take responsibility for their welfare. A cruel life for three years that not many survived since they did not have the will to fight on when there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Eventually Jean was able to negotiate with a Malayan village to set up a base and help in planting rice as she cleverly realized that the men had been called to serve in the war and there was a labour shortage on hand. Still negotiating with a Village Headman, unused to engaging with women on near equal terms, was surely a tactful and diplomatic victory. Finally things normalized and she came back to England to lead a routine life.
But she has not forgotten the hard times and wants to repay for the kindness she received from the poor villagers. And so she pays a fitting tribute to the women folk in the village by using a part of her legacy to convince the Village Headman to permit her to build a well so that the womenfolk don’t have to walk miles to just fetch water. Noël is much impressed by her quiet dignity and the strength of her character.
Next she ventures to Australia to trace an Australian soldier, Joe Harman, who helped her survive the difficult days in Malaya. In fact this episode provides the hint of romance in rather dreary settings. Joe used to regularly help her with rations and money so that they could sustain themselves, he got into bad trouble for stealing some Chickens to help them. She only knew that he was native Australian and thought that he had died in the war. Due to her recent visit to the village she learns that he survived and went back to Australia. By coincidence, Joe too has won some money and comes to London looking for her at the same time. He is a typical ‘hail-fellow-well met’ who is more of brawns than brains.The love story is surely touching and Noël, discreet as ever, manages to unite the young love birds.
Jean in her trip to Australia has seen the boondocks where Joe is based compared to the best town around i.e. Alice Springs. She sets about single-handed to change the situation and unleashes her entrepreneurial ambitions. Each of her projects involve a significant outlay of cash and she finds means to convince Noël to loosen the purse strings and let her have the hard cash. Things are hard but she perseveres and makes a splendid success of her schemes.
We have the closing scenes of the novel showing a mixture of love and admiration that Noël felt towards this young spirited girl who, in his own words, he met forty years far too late.