Midweek @ Musings: Death, Love, & Marriage in Elizabeth Taylor’s “In a Summer Season”


If you haven’t been following this month’s discussion of Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel, In a Summer Season, you’re really missing out!  Karen @ Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has written two tremendously thought-provoking posts, prompting one LibraryThing member to say, “Karen, your posts are very perceptive and I found myself mentally nodding and exclaiming ‘Yes! That’s absolutely right!’ as I read!”  I couldn’t agree more.  Each week I’ve found her posts ratting around in my head and sparking all kinds of thoughts, and all this for a book I read three years ago!

During Week 1, Karen talked about Death, and a recurring theme in Taylor’s work where a significant death occurs before the start of the story.  Then in Week 2, she discussed Love and Marriage, and how these are portrayed in several of Taylor’s novels, wondering whether Taylor had “a jaded view of the state of matrimony.”  This then led to discussion of physical attraction and sex in Taylor’s work.

Have I piqued your interest?  This week Karen will publish her review of In a Summer Season, and the next week will discuss “Art Imitating Life (or Vice Versa).”  I wonder what that’s about?  You can bet I’ll be watching for these posts.  I hope you will as well, and will feel free to dive into discussion via the comments.

Have you read and reviewed In a Summer Season?  Be sure to share your review via the “Mr. Linky” on my Elizabeth Taylor Centenary page.  There’s also discussion happening on LibraryThing, and on Facebook.

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Midweek @ Musings: August Readalong – Elizabeth Taylor’s “In a Summer Season”

It’s been a few months since my last Midweek @ Musings post (life does get away from me sometimes), but I finally found something to say on a Wednesday!

The 2012 Elizabeth Taylor Centenary continues in August with Taylor’s eighth novel, In a Summer Season.  Our host is Karen @ Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Karen is relatively new to blogging, but has dived in with both feet and I’m enjoying her bookish thoughts both on what she’s read, and bookish excursions like this recent crawl through a used bookshop.

The description on the novel’s back cover reads:

” ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.”

Kate Heron is a wealthy charming widow who marries a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. They live in commuter country, an hour from London. Theirs is an unconventional marriage, but a happy one. Their special love arms them against the disapproval of conservative friends and neighbors – until the return of Kate’s old friend Charles, intelligent, kind, now widowed with a beautiful daughter. Happily, she watches as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar. But then one night she dreams a strange and sensual dream: a dream that disturbs the calm surface of their friendship – foreshadowing dramas fate holds in store for them all.

I read In a Summer Season in 2009, and gave it 3 stars.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as the two I’d read before (A View of the Harbour and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont).  I might feel differently today, as I’ve come to appreciate Taylor’s talents all the more.  And with each monthly discussion, I gain new insights on this talented author.

Karen kicked things off last weekend with this introductory post, and today she published her plans for weekly discussion topics.  I hope you’ll visit her blog often and join in the conversation.  And when you’ve reviewed the book, be sure to share it via the “Mr. Linky” on my Elizabeth Taylor Centenary page.  There’s also discussion happening on LibraryThing, and on Facebook.

Enjoy In a Summer Season!

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Review: Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor

In Angel, Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, the author puts Angelica Deverell under her high-intensity microscope.  At the tender age of 15, Angel decides she wants to be a writer.  Her writing is sub-par, and the resulting books are trashy, but while the critics are universally negative her work appeals to a certain clientele.  Angel comes into money and fame before she is mature enough to handle it, and this fosters an unbelievable arrogance.  Angel accepts feedback from no one, not even her publisher or her mother.

Angel uses people to achieve her own ends, and when she’s done with them, she’s well and truly done.  Although her aunt Lottie paid for her schooling, Angel completely rejects her and will not allow Lottie in her home, even to visit her sister (Angel’s mother).  As a young woman, Angel befriends Nora Howe-Nevinson and her brother Esmé, niece and nephew of the wealthy Lord Norley.  She takes Nora’s loyalty for granted (what with being a famous writer celebrity and all), and uses her to get to Esmé.  Needless to say, Angel is not a likeable character.  Fortunately, Angel’s behavior has a down side.  As Angel goes through middle and old age, her arrogance is undiminished but her life becomes increasingly lonely and pathetic.

This book is more bleak than Elizabeth Taylor’s earlier novels.  And yet, it’s also full of what Taylor does so well:  economic phrases that brilliantly capture the essence of a character or setting.  While this wasn’t my favorite Taylor novel, it was a well-written character study that held my interest to the end.

WINNER: Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories

Thank you to all who entered to win a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories.  I’m pleased to announce the winner, chosen by Random.org:

Comment #3: Elaine

Elaine wrote,

It is hard for me to pick one, but I think I have to go with my first Elizabeth Taylor because it made me not only seek out more of her books, but also seek out the rest of the Virago Modern Classics list. That would be Soul of Kindness.  I am looking forward to rereading it this year to see if the heroine is as ghastly as I remember her!

That’s one I have yet to read myself, but I’ll get to it in the September readalong.  Elaine, I’ve sent you an email so we can work out the details with Virago Press.

Congratulations!

Thanks to all who entered!

 

It’s Elizabeth Taylor’s 100th Birthday! And you could WIN …

Happy 100th Birthday, Elizabeth Taylor!

Photo credit: NYPL Digital Library

The big day is finally here.  We’ve been celebrating the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary all year, and there’s much more fun to come with our monthly readalongs.  But today, July 3, is the actual anniversary of her birth.  So let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on this talented author’s literary contributions.  Considered by many as one of the best English novelists of the 20th Century, she published 12 novels and 5 short story collections. One of her later works, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, was short-listed for the Booker Prize. She was a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.  Taylor had strong connections with other distinguished novelists, but led an intensely private life and was overshadowed by the famous actress with the same name.  Fortunately, her work appears to be gaining visibility again, due in no small part to events surrounding her centenary. Here are just two, both from BBC Radio 4:

And no birthday celebration would be complete without presents, right?  Here’s one for you:

Win a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories

Thanks to the generous team at Virago Press, one lucky person will receive a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories. This newly published volume includes 65 stories with a beautiful cover. More details here.

  • The giveaway contest is open until 5:00 PM (US EDT) on July 7, 2011.
  • The giveaway contest is open to anyone in the world.
  • To enter, please leave a comment answering the question:
    • What is your favorite Elizabeth Taylor novel, and why?
  • The winner will be chosen at random and announced on my blog. I will also notify the winner by email, and request a shipping address for the book.
  • Virago Press will ship the book to the address provided.

Good luck!!

Comments are welcome, even if you don’t want the book. Just let me know not enter your name into the drawing.

The Sleeping Beauty: Book Chat, Week Four, the spoiler edition!

This month, we’ve been talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel, The Sleeping Beauty.  I hope you enjoyed the spoiler-free chat during weeks one and two.  Last week, I published my review but wasn’t especially “chatty”.  This week, the gloves come off!  It’s time to talk spoilers, and endings, and all the details that aren’t really spoilers but could still spoil the fun.

If you haven’t finished the book yet, you’ll want to stop reading this now, and visit the book chat posts for week one or week two.  And before we move on, just a reminder: if you’ve written a review of The Sleeping Beauty, be sure to add it to the Mr. Linky on the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary page.

So, here’s the most obvious spoiler: Vinny is a married man!  Taylor casually drops this little bombshell very early on (page 20).  A bit later, on page 26, Laurence says something about Vinny never having married, and Vinny doesn’t respond.  Rather, he gets in a snit over being called “sir.”  That stopped me in my tracks. Wait, didn’t Taylor say he was married?  What’s going on here?  I had to flip back and re-read the first passage and confirm that yes, he’s married.  Oh, Ms. T., you’re so clever.  I have to read your books so carefully, so I don’t miss a single detail.  And apparently I’m not the only one — there was a discussion about this in the comments to last week’s post.

And what about Rita, Vinny’s estranged wife?  Wasn’t she was an interesting character?  Taylor describes her as having “a distaste for the truth and was forever tidying it up or turning her back on it.” Rather than admit to a failed marriage, Rita moved to a new town, retained her maiden name and opened a school of dance, while Vinny paid the rent on her flat.  She introduced herself as the widow of a fighter pilot, which put her in somewhat of a social cul-de-sac:

‘But I can’t divorce you. Everybody thinks you’re dead.  I couldn’t bear the disgrace.  Why must I? Why change at our time of life? It seems so silly and unkind.  Surely you haven’t fallen in love with someone else — with someone, I mean?  At your age?’  (p. 120)

Vinny and Rita’s predicament was sufficiently maddening to send me off on a small research project about UK divorce law c. 1950.  It’s fascinating stuff (really!), especially when viewed through my 21st Century American lens.  Why did Vinny keep asking Rita to divorce him?  Why didn’t he take matters into his own hands?  Well, it seems the law didn’t allow it.  Under the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1937, men could divorce women on the basis of adultery.  Women had it even worse — they had to prove their male partners had committed both adultery and other specified offenses.  In the case of Vinny and Rita, Vinny had no evidence of Rita’s adultery (although one wonders if a private detective could have helped him out there), but Rita had plenty of evidence: Vinny’s adultery with Emily, and the extra offense of desertion.  So Vinny had to keep badgering Rita, and as we all know, she had reasons for resistance.  Stupid reasons, but reasons nonetheless.  It wasn’t until the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 that it became possible to divorce based on the couple living apart for a specified period of time.  Poor Vinny.

Finally, how about that ending?  I thought Taylor was heading towards a very dark place, but she left it all rather open-ended didn’t she?  Isabella and Evalie conspire to expose Vinny’s secret, and Emily is surprisingly accepting.  A bit too much so, I thought.  I suppose Vinny will end up going to jail, but she will be there for him when he is released.  Is that your take on it?  Why doesn’t Emily get up in arms about his deceit?  She struck me as a very passive character, but I suppose her drive to escape from Rose could be quite strong.  Well, I just didn’t know what to make of it all.

Now it’s your turn: let fly your spoiler-ish thoughts on The Sleeping Beauty!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ REMINDER ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On July 2, I will be hosting a giveaway. Thanks to the generous team at Virago Press, one lucky person will receive a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories. This new volume will be published June 21, and includes 65 stories with a beautiful cover. More details here.

Be sure to stop by on July 2 to enter the drawing!

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Review: The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel is unusual, in that it has a male protagonist.  Vinny Tumulty is a fifty-ish man living under the thumb of his domineering mother.  He has a large number of women friends, having been unable to muster the passion required to turn friendship into romance.  In the opening pages, Vinny has come to the aid of his recently widowed friend Isabella, who lives in the aptly named seaside town of Seething.  Early on, Taylor makes sure we know Vinny is not one to learn from his mistakes:

 

Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience. (p.22)

While visiting Isabella, Vinny spies the young and beautiful Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title.  He makes a point of meeting her, and is smitten.  Emily lives a reclusive life with her sister Rose, who runs an inn.  Emily’s primary responsibility is caring for Rose’s daughter, Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently. Rose is repressed and insecure, resenting her sister’s good looks while being “obsessed by sex as only those who fear it can be.”  As Vinny and Emily’s relationship develops she becomes increasingly agitated and resentful.  But Vinny has a secret in his past, that threatens his plans for wedded bliss with Emily.  As he is trying to defuse the situation, others are trying to bring it to light.

The Sleeping Beauty is a richly layered story with several sub-plots that could easily have been short stories or novels in their own right.  There is of course Rose, who is alone even though she is surrounded by others.  A bevy of middle-aged women give comic relief through their past-times and attitudes.  Isabella’s son, Laurence, is a moody character study and his romance with a girl in town runs along in parallel to Vinny & Emily, providing contrast as well as depth.  These threads become intertwined as Vinny becomes further involved with Emily, and the book appears to be heading towards a dramatic conclusion.  However, the ending left a lot unanswered for me.  This is characteristic of Taylor, who doesn’t go in for high drama, and as with her earlier work it has kept me reflecting on The Sleeping Beauty long after I turned the last page.

The Sleeping Beauty: Book Chat, Week Two

Welcome to week two of this month’s Elizabeth Taylor readalong of her sixth novel, The Sleeping Beauty.  Has anyone finished the book yet?  Have you just started?  Or is it still sitting on your TBR?

Last week we talked about the women in this novel.  Now it’s the guys’ turn.  As before, this discussion will be spoiler-free.  We’ll let loose a bit next week, OK?

Let’s start with our leading man, Vinny Tumulty.  The first thing I had to get over was that Vinny was fifty-ish.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (happens to be the same age as me), but I thought it an interesting choice.  Most romantic novels feature a younger, more dashing chap, so this came as a bit of a surprise.  And he didn’t strike me as particularly dashing, either.  Just a regular guy living a regular life, and sufficiently clueless to not have learned from his mistakes:

Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience. (p.22)

And let’s just say he didn’t strike me as a cad.  But he was.

Laurence, Isabella’s son, is in his twenties and doing his military service.  He’s a dutiful son, visiting his mother often.  He also harbors considerable guilt over his father’s death, since he was present and allegedly could have prevented it.  I found Laurence much more interesting than Vinny, especially when he fell for the nurse, Betty (that’s not really a spoiler, I promise).  He was inexperienced but endearing.

These two men figure most prominently in the story, but there are other minor characters.  Laurence’s friend Len, for example, who comes home with Laurence on a short leave.  Laurence so wants to impress him, but is a bit put off when Len ingratiated himself to Isabella.

Lindsay Tillotson is a lodger in Rose’s guest house, and is largely invisible except for this exquisite comedic bit — just the sort of thing I love about Elizabeth Taylor’s writing:

Lindsay Tillotson appeared, yawning, at his bed-room window. He felt rather enervated, having spent the afternoon making love to his wife and then reading the Manchester Guardian while she slept. The evening loomed before him. He told himself that it would soon be over: then he saw that tomorrow loomed, too, and — such was his mood — all the days of his life. (p. 134)

And finally, there are the dead husbands: both Isabella and Rose are widows whose husbands who died tragically.  We never meet these men, but they are always present, their deaths having had such a profound impact on the women.

What did you think of the men in The Sleeping Beauty?

Next week: I hope to publish a full review of this novel.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ REMINDER ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On July 2, I will be hosting a giveaway. Thanks to the generous team at Virago Press, one lucky person will receive a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories. This new volume will be published June 21, and includes 65 stories with a beautiful cover. More details here.

Be sure to stop by on July 2 to enter the drawing!

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The Sleeping Beauty: Book Chat, Week One

How’s everyone doing with The Sleeping Beauty?

For the next two weeks I promise to keep these posts free of spoilers, and ask that you do the same in the comments or make a very visible notation.

But before we dive into the book chat, I have an exciting announcement …

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On July 2, I will be hosting a giveaway.  Thanks to the generous team at Virago Press, one lucky person will receive a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories.  This new volume will be published June 21, and includes 65 stories with a beautiful cover.  More details here.

Be sure to stop by on July 2 to enter the drawing!

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This week I’d like to talk about the women in the story.  I found some of them absolutely hilarious and that seems like a fun way to begin our discussion.

Nicola Beauman piqued my interest with this comment in her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor:

The very best thing in the book was missed by most reviewers. The description of middle-aged women in The Sleeping Beauty is, as Bill Maxwell put it, ‘classical: my God those women are funny’ … Yet what critic, what academic, has ever perceived artistic brilliance in the description of middle-aged ennui, despair, and bulging flesh?

The story takes place in the seaside town of Seething, which amused me in and of itself.  Seaside towns are normally quiet, serene places of rest and enjoyment.  What exactly is seething in Seething?  Well, Isabella and Evaline, to start with.  Isabella is recently widowed, her husband having died tragically in a boating accident.  She and her friend Evaline enjoy high social standing, which affords them the privilege of judging everyone else.  They are keenly observant — much like Taylor herself — and with a very strong sense of right and wrong.  So when they see something amiss, they feel compelled to put things right, sometimes with equally negative consequences.  Beneath all this self-righteousness lurks a secret fondness for betting on horses, and the women go to great lengths to prevent anyone else from discovering their habit.

After a while, they turned to gambling. They did this not as any reckless crisis in their lives, but because they needed money for their face-creams and fashion-papers. …they progressed from little flutters to a cool and steady daily appraisal of all the runners and riders; to having an account with a bookmaker instead of giving half-crowns to Evalie’s gardener. They gave up morning coffee in the town and hurried to one another’s houses to make their plans for the day and to lament or rejoice over the day before.  This was more of a tonic to them for having to be indulged in secret. … when they overheard others talking of racing, their faces became so devoid of expression as to have invited suspicion if anyone had noticed. But they were perhaps beyond the age for being noticed. (p. 34)

Mrs Tumulty is another mature female character, and the mother of Vinny, the male protagonist.  She travels to Seething after becoming suspicious of Vinny’s regular weekend visits.  She makes a grand entrance, passes instant judgement on everyone around her, and engages in a completely tactless and insensitive conversation with Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title, who is at the center of this story. Emily has lived a reclusive life since a car accident left her severely disfigured.  Surgery repaired the physical scars, but emotional healing will take years.  Rather than face the outside world, she has chosen to live with her sister Rose and care for Rose’s daughter Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently.  Rose, too, has suffered, and is buried under layers of repression and resentment.

So as you can see, not all the women play a comedic role.  And there’s one other significant female role: Rita, a dance instructor in a nearby town. I can’t say much about her without a major plot spoiler, but she certainly adds color to the story.

I found myself smiling and even giggling when Isabella or Evalie came on the scene. They would be great main characters in a short story.

What did you think of the women in The Sleeping Beauty?  Do you have a favorite woman character?

Next week: the men!

The Sunday Salon: Join “The Sleeping Beauty” readalong!

I’m having a great time with the 2012 Elizabeth Taylor Centenary.  Each month we read another of her novels, and each of the blog hosts has done a great job promoting the book of the month and organizing discussion.  We’re also promoting the readalongs on the  Virago Modern Classics Readers Facebook page.  And I’m seeing more and more people on LibraryThing picking up on the buzz and rushing to their bookstore or library to discover Elizabeth Taylor.  If by some chance you haven’t caught up with all this yet, my Elizabeth Taylor Centenary page has loads of links to blog posts and reviews.

Now it’s nearly June, when it’s my turn to host a readalong of Taylor’s sixth novel, The Sleeping Beauty. The description on the back cover reads:

The Sleeping Beauty is a love story of middle age by a writer whom Arthur Mizener called “the modern man’s Jane Austen.” Vinny Tumulty is a quiet, sensible man. When he goes to stay at a small English seaside resort his task is to comfort a bereaved friend, Isabella. A master of sympathy, Vinny looks forward to a few solemn days of tears and consolation. Then, on the evening of his arrival, he looks out of the window at sunset and catches sight of a mysterious, romantic figure: a beautiful woman walking by the seashore. Before the weekend is over, Vinny has fallen in love, completely and utterly, for the first time in his middle-aged life. But Emily is a sleeping beauty, her secluded life hiding bitter secrets from the past. How can this unlikely Prince Charming break the spell and rouse her from her dreams?

In her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman writes, “As so often with Elizabeth’s work, there is room for half a dozen short stories within the one book (and in the case of The Sleeping Beauty she might have written six stories of genius rather than one good enough novel …)”

This book differs from ones we’ve read before, in that it has a male protagonist.  Still, Taylor’s greatest talent lies in her observation of everyday life, and the ability to weave these observations together realistically and often with great wit.  Doing so with a “male lead” will be an interesting twist.

I hope you’ll join me in reading The Sleeping Beauty in June.  I’m planning to post on Wednesdays, with a full review on June 20.  See you in June!

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