Review: Queen Lucia, by E.F. Benson

Queen Lucia is the first in a series of six novels satirizing a slice of 1920s English society (which Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book recently christened, “Bright Middle-Aged Things”).  Mrs Lucas is the self-appointed “queen” of Riseholme, a sleepy village somewhere near London.  Her speech is littered with Italian phrases, inspiring the nickname Lucia.  She prides herself on staying au courant with all the local gossip, cementing her dominant social position in Riseholme.  Lucia is an amusing character in her own right, and Benson populates Riseholme with an extensive supporting cast.  Mrs Quantock gets caught up in every cultural fad (first yoga, and later spiritualism).  Olga Bracely, an opera singer, takes up residence in Riseholme and threatens to disturb the social order.  Lucia’s dear friend Georgie simultaneously worships Lucia and works to subvert her power.  And there are many more …

In lieu of a complete story arc, the novel meanders through a series of vignettes intended to both define the social order and amuse the reader.  Each one is a comedy of manners where situations and people are not as they seem, misunderstandings abound, and someone gets their comeuppance. Benson’s Riseholme came to life, and  Reading Queen Lucia I was transported to a time when people communicated by letter several times each day, servants were largely invisible until they decided to (shock!) marry one another, and formal dinner parties with music and tableaux were routine entertainment.  It was all quite cozy and fun.

Some readers criticize these books, and the characters, for being shallow and mean-spirited.  But it’s satire — it’s meant to be biting, and the humor makes you stop and think about how ridiculous and self-important people can be.  If you’re looking for light amusement, this is just the ticket.

Review: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym

Wilmet Forsyth is a bored housewife in 1950s England.  She and her husband Rodney have no children, and he takes her for granted, like part of the furniture.  So Wilmet looks for stimulation elsewhere, and finds it, in a way, in the life of her church.  Specifically, she takes a keen interest in the lives of three unmarried priests and their male housekeeper.  She also joins her mother-in-law in taking Portuguese lessons from Piers Longridge, the attractive brother of her friend Rowena.  This  is yet another idle activity: Wilmet has no need to learn the language, but it fills up otherwise empty time.  The only real excitement in her life comes when she finds herself the object of Piers’ attention, and Rowena’s husband Harry begins flirting with her.  Rodney is oblivious, which gives Wilmet considerable freedom, but dampens her excitement as well.

Readers experience the story through Wilmet’s narration, which is rather unfortunate since she is insufferable.  Pym makes this clear early on, when Wilmet says, “I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction.” (p. 5)  Later, when a church member is seriously ill, she hopes to make herself useful: “I suppose I had imagined myself busy in a practical way — cooking meals or running errands, even being what people call a tower of strength.” (p. 107)  Wilmet is completely serious, but this is typical Pym humor.  Her characters are always well-drawn, their foibles obvious and amusing.  I enjoyed her digs at Wilmet, and her portrayal of certain minor characters, such as the housekeeper Mr. Bason and Piers’ flatmate, Keith.

However, it was difficult for me to get over my dislike for WIlmet, and I didn’t care much about resolving the conflict that stemmed from her idle flirtations.  In the end, this was a respectable read but not my favorite Pym.

Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

When I was in my teens, summer nights were often spent in the company of three or four neighbor kids, all the same age.  I remember sitting under the stars, eating pizza, playing cards, and sharing our hopes and dreams.  One summer, we became a little obsessed with the ways small events could completely change our lives.  It probably started with something serious, but eventually we came to see even the tiniest detail as potentially significant:  “If I hadn’t eaten this pizza, our whole lives would be different.”  It was a bit of silliness, really, but reading Life After Life sent me down memory lane, wondering which seemingly inconsequential events and decisions actually had far-reaching consequences.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born again and again, and each time her life takes a different course.  She dies repeatedly, in many ways and at different times.  In the first few pages, Ursula dies immediately after birth.  Later, an adult Ursula dies in one of several bomb blasts in London during World War II.  Each of her lives plays out differently, and often has an effect on the lives of family members and friends.  Sometimes Ursula’s life feels vaguely familiar to her:

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

And at other times, she acts impulsively to change the course of events:

Ursula had done a wicked thing, she had pushed Bridget down the stairs. Bridget might have died and she would have been a murderer now. All she knew was that she had to do it. The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.

I absolutely loved this book.  Kate Atkinson brilliantly constructed a series of intricate life stories, repeatedly taking the reader back to specific points in time: Ursula’s birth, the 1918 Armistice, the London Blitz.  It was fascinating to see lives take so many paths, and how often this was due more to small everyday events than to life’s “big decisions.” I enjoyed the way Ursula would sometimes act to change the future based on knowledge from an earlier life.  Atkinson also kept me guessing about other characters in the story.  In one life, something bad would happen to them.  Would it happen again in Ursula’s next life?  Or would their fate take a slightly different turn?

Life After Life was a bit like working a challenging puzzle.  This book begs to be re-read as I’m sure there are details I missed.  And I know I’d enjoy it just as much the next time, and the next …

Short and Sweet: The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The May edition of Short & Sweet is coming to you earlier than usual.  If you’ve followed along, you’ll know I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald.  Or rather, I read half of it.  I have no idea why I had this book on my shelves, seeing as I really disliked Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore.  I should have known better.

The Means of Escape is a mercifully short collection of ten stories.  I read half of them before throwing in the towel.  The title story, where a woman helps an escaped convict in hopes of running off with him, was the best of the bunch.  One story, The Prescription, was so indecipherable to me that my notes just say, “???”.  The last story I read, The Axe, began with promise.  It took the form of a letter written by a manager who had recently made a long-time employee redundant.  Clearly he felt the decision was unjust and had sympathy for the employee.  But it took a sudden turn into very strange territory, and that’s when I knew I was done with this book.

This book was just too full of “quirky” characters and bizarre situations.  These might work better in a long-form novel, but encountering a new set every ten pages or so was just too much for me.


Next month I’ll be reading The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

Review: The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner

Long afterward, Bruce looked back on the life of his family with half-amused wonder at its rootlessness. The people who lived a lifetime in one place, cutting down the overgrown lilac hedge and substituting barberry, changing the shape of the lily pool from square to round, digging out old bulbs and putting in new, watching their trees grow from saplings to giants that shaded the house, by contrast seemed to walk a dubious line between contentment and boredom. What they had must be comfortable, pleasant, worn smooth by long use; they did not feel the edge of change. (p. 374)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain tells the story of the Mason family, who lived in the western United States in the first half of the 20th century.  It opens with Elsa leaving her home in Minnesota after her widowed father marries her best friend.  Elsa meets and marries Harry “Bo” Mason, a restless idealist with a continuous stream of ideas for making big money.  Whenever Bo lost interest in his current business venture, they pulled up stakes and moved on to the next opportunity, the “Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.”  As you might imagine, things never panned out as expected, and their life was a hard one filled with dashed hopes and unrealized expectations.  Bo and Elsa had two sons, Chet and Bruce, who experienced not only Bo’s whims, but also his strict parenting style and volatile temper.  By the end of the story, the boys have grown up and the family is deeply scarred.

It sounds like a real downer, doesn’t it?  Well, yes, it is.  For several days nagging, low-grade feelings of anger and sadness infiltrated my heart and mind.  I was angry at the way Bo jerked them around, and the ways he emotionally manipulated his wife and children. But Stegner was a very skilful storyteller.  Each time Bo lit on a new scheme, I hoped it would work out for them.  I celebrated small victories, and mourned losses.  When the influenza epidemic hit their rural town, I felt both desperation and hope.  As Bruce comes of age he plays a larger part in the story, and I was right there with him as he tried to make sense of the man he has become:

“I suppose,” he wrote, “that the understanding of any person is an exercise in genealogy. A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. he runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”  (p. 436)

In the novel’s last pages, the adult Bruce reflects on life with his father, how the experience shaped him and what it means for his future.  It was a very moving scene that I won’t soon forget.

Readers should be ready to feel uncomfortable, sad, and angry.  But it’s worth it for the reading experience.

Short and Sweet: The Thing Around Your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Welcome to the April edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This year I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Thing Around Your Neck, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It’s been 5 years since I read her novels, and I needed an Adichie fix while waiting for her new book, Americanah, which will be released in the US in May.

This collection of twelve short stories begins in Nigeria, exploring contemporary life and the effects of the 1967 Biafran Civil War.  Later stories focus on immigration issues and life in the United States.  I was struck by Adichie’s ability to write a well-crafted and deep plot, with very real characters, all in 15-20 pages.  These stories hooked me within a few sentences — I really cared about the characters, to a degree that’s unusual for the short story form.  Some of the better stories included:

  • Imitation – A woman living in the US with her children sees her husband only once a year.  When she learns he is having an affair back home in Nigeria, she takes an important step to change the situation.
  • A Private Experience – A woman caught in a riot takes refuge in an abandoned shop and finds another woman there.  One is Igbo, the other Muslim, but they share a few hours of community and support each other through loss.
  • The Thing Around Your Neck – in this immigration story, a Nigerian woman’s relationship with a white man creates cultural tension.

Adichie is better known for her novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun; the latter won the Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize) for Fiction.  The Thing Around Your Neck demonstrates the broad range of her writing talent.

Next month I’ll be reading The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

Review: The Misses Mallett, by E.H. Young

‘The Malletts don’t marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble.  We’ve been terrible flirts, Sophia and I.  Rose is different, but at least she hasn’t married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.’ (p. 79)

And that’s the book, in a nutshell.  Caroline, Sophia, and their stepsister Rose are all unmarried women of a certain age, although Rose is several years younger and still considered attractive.  When their niece Henrietta comes to live with them, she upsets the gentle rhythm of spinsterhood.  These women have become very, very comfortable just being themselves:

Sitting up in bed looking grotesquely terrible, they discussed the event. Caroline, like Medusa, but with  hair curlers instead of snakes sprouting from her head, and Sophia with her heavy plait hanging over her shoulder and defying with its luxuriance the yellowness of her skin, they sat side by side, propped up with pillows, inured to the sight of each other in undress. (p. 32)

Hmm … perhaps they’re a little too comfortable!

Henrietta is young and has a mind of her own.  While she loves and admires her aunts, she has no intention of following in their footsteps.  And so she sets her sights on local heart-throb Francis Sales who, incidentally, has had a secret “thing” with Rose for some time.  And who, incidentally, is also married to an invalid confined to her bed.  Meanwhile Henrietta is being pursued by the dull but caring Charles Batty, a man who loves music, but can’t stand to attend concerts because other patrons whisper and crinkle their programs.  Rose attempts to resolve the conflict with Henrietta in many ways, all indirect because heaven forbid the situation be brought out into the open.  I found this infuriating, and lost patience with them more than once.

While Young’s social satire is amusing, autobiographical details add much interest to this story.  E. H. Young’s husband died at Ypres, and later she went to live with Ralph Henderson, a school headmaster, and his wife, who was a wife in name only.  They were inseparable, and while those in their social circle understood the situation, their relationship was not publicly acknowledged.  Young wrote The Misses Mallett when her living arrangement was still fairly new, and I can see how she used the experience to work through issues she must have wrestled with at the time.  Oh, how I wish she could have written more openly about that situation!

Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is commonly read in secondary school, but I missed out, and the upcoming film release was just the inspiration I needed to finally read it.  That, and a husband who read it about a month ago, and really wanted to discuss it.

The story is short, and seemingly straightforward.  Jay Gatsby is a wealthy man known for throwing huge, lavish parties on his Long Island estate.  His next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, narrates the story and views Gatsby with a sort of detached awe.

I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited — they went there.  They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission. (p. 41)

Nick’s friends, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, are also new to Gatsby’s parties, but not new to wealth, being part of old, established Long Island “aristocracy.”  Gatsby himself maintains an aura of mystery.  No one knows much about his past, and speculation abounds: he’s a bootlegger, he killed a man, he served in the war, he went to Oxford … or perhaps not.  But he’s clearly “new money,” and Daisy and Gatsby have a shared past which becomes a central conflict in the novel.

The Great Gatsby is a tightly written work of only 180 pages.  Fitzgerald quickly immerses the reader in 1920s society, infuses his characters with a certain emotional desperation, and uses them to portray everything he felt was wrong with America during this period, especially greed and the quest for wealth.  None of the characters are particularly likeable, but to a great extent they are simply vessels for Fitzgerald’s message.  And despite being short on both character development and setting, Gatsby still feels complete, with a strong plot and thought-provoking themes.  I’m looking forward to the film to see how these themes are brought to life.

Addendum:  Claire @ Word by Word published a superb review of The Great Gatsby a day after mine.  Read it now! 

Review: The Dinner, by Herman Koch

Two Dutch couples meet for dinner in an expensive restaurant:  Paul and Claire, Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette.  Their meeting at first seems purely social, and something they do together from time to time.  But from minute details strategically placed in the narrative, the reader begins developing a different picture.  Just before leaving the house, Paul discovers disturbing content on his son Michel’s phone, but chooses not to mention it to Claire.  Paul detects signs of distress when Serge and Babette arrive at the restaurant.  We learn their son Rick was involved in a crime, as was Michel.  But what do the parents actually know?  What will they do about it?  And how did two boys from “good families” get into this situation?

Paul narrates the events of that evening, filling in family history along the way.  The result is a kind of cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin (troubled teens committing horrific acts) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (disturbing scenes unfolding over a meal).  Neither family is what they seem at the outset.  Paul is an unreliable narrator, failing to see the damage resulting from his behavior over the years.

None of the characters are likeable; in fact, they are all pretty horrible.  And the story is unpleasant, too.  Normally that would be enough to make me hate a book.  Why didn’t that happen this time?  Because I was really intrigued by Koch’s writing.  I liked the way he meted out relevant details, first in tiny fragments and then in increasingly obvious chunks.  He deftly showed us not only the nature of the boys’ crime, but events that directly and indirectly made it possible, and made me question who really was the guilty party in this case.  The book was hard to put down and I finished it in just a couple of days; however, its dark, disturbing nature means it’s one I cannot recommend unequivocally.

Review: The Beth Book, by Sarah Grand

What do you do when you realize you’re reading a book only because you “should”?  I had high hopes for The Beth Book, a Virago Modern Classic first published in 1897 and billed as “the story of all Victorian women who rebelled against the conventions imposed upon their sex.” Oh yeah, that’s right up my street.  Bring it on!

Sadly, this autobiographical novel suffered from a dialogue-heavy style that insisted on telling, not showing.  The story opens the day before Beth’s birth, and author Sarah Grand wastes no time showing her reader the reality of women’s lives in the late 19th century.  Of Beth’s mother, she writes:

She was weak and ill and anxious, the mother of six children already, and about to produce a seventh on an income that would have been insufficient for four. It was a reckless thing for a delicate woman to do, but she never thought of that. She lived in the days when no one thought of the waste of women in this respect, and they had not begun to think for themselves.  (p. 1)

Later, when Beth is old enough for school, Grand tells us how society felt about women’s education:

The education of children was a more serious matter, however — a matter of principle, in fact, as opposed to a matter of taste.  Mrs. Caldwell had determined to give her boys a good start in life.  In order to do this on her very limited income, she was obliged to exercise the utmost self-denial, and even with that, there would be little or nothing left to spend on the girls. This, however, did not seem to Mrs. Caldwell to be a matter of much importance.  It is customary to sacrifice the girls of a family to the boys; to give them no educational advantages, and then to jeer at them for their ignorance and silliness.  (p. 114)

At each milestone in Beth’s life, Grand makes points about societal conventions, the constraints women faced every day, and the views men held about women.  This was probably revolutionary in its day, but oh my, it just took her forever to tell a story.  Notice in the quotes above, that after 100 pages Beth is only just starting school.  The “blurb” on the back cover promises a romantic story of a bad marriage and Beth’s eventual escape to “a room of her own, a career of her own and to a man who loves her for the New Woman she becomes,” but first we have slog through a narrative describing “this happened, and then this, and then this.”   After 300 pages the bad marriage is finally upon us, but there are still 225 pages to go before the book delivers the promise on the back cover.

When I realized the writing wasn’t working for me, I tried to focus on the message, and the courage that writing and publishing The Beth Book required.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to turn this novel into a pleasant reading experience.