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Ultimate Prizes - Susan Howatch

"Ultimate Prizes" offers the reader a rich and fascinating view into the life of a Church of England archdeacon (Neville Aysgarth), who, at the story's outset, appears to have it all. A position of high authority with the prospect of future advancement, a loving, supportive wife and 5 children. But, during the course of a dinner party given by his Bishop, Dr. Ottershaw, in the late spring of 1942, Aysgarth makes the acquaintance of a vivacious young woman (Diana Dorothea Tallent, otherwise known as "Dido"), with whom he strikes up a witty, bubbly, wide-ranging conversation --- both at the dinner table, in a nearby room among guests, and later during a short walk the two took afterwards on the grounds of the Bishop's residence. (Aysgarth's wife, Grace, who was not overly comfortable with some of the societal expectations of being the wife of a high Church official, had begged off from attending the dinner that evening with him.)

All the while, Aysgarth asked himself: "... Who exactly was this fantastic creature? I had heard of her but my knowledge was sketchy because I never read gossip columns unless the sexton accidentally left his Daily Express behind on the churchyard bench; like all good clergymen I confined my excursions into the world of secular journalism to The Times. However with the aid of the sexton's Express and the glossy magazines which nervous tension drove me to read in the dentist's waiting-room, I had learnt that Miss Tallent moved in the best society despite the fact that her father was a self-made Scottish millionaire. I had of course long since dismissed her as a frivolous creature I would never meet, and yet here she was, in a bishop's drawing room --- in my Bishop's drawing-room --- giving me impudent looks and talking about balls. I could hardly have felt more confused if I had been confronted by one of Orson Welles's invaders from Mars."

Dido expresses to Aysgarth a desire for religious instruction as a way of forging a firmer and greater sense of purpose with her life. This leads to a correspondence between them. (Dido is on active service with the Navy.) At the same time, the reader is given access to the relationship Aysgarth has with his wife and family, which is not as wholly harmonious as it appears at first sight. And as the story progresses, the reader is also made painfully aware that Aysgarth is driven to the point of collapse following a profound shift in his family life and from longstanding (hitherto suppressed) personal issues stemming from his past, which force themselves to the surface, threatening to undermine and destroy everything he has struggled to achieve for himself. Thus begins a long, painful, and hard journey for Aysgarth, which extends to 1946. 

Simply put, "ULTIMATE PRIZES" is one of the most compelling novels examining the private life of a public figure that I've yet had the pleasure of reading, juxtaposing the sacred and the profane. What's more, it's gripping stuff and comes highly recommended.