Review: Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope

In this third volume of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Anthony Trollope leaves behind familiar characters from the first two novels, and introduces his readers to an entirely new cast.  The eponymous Doctor Thorne serves an area of Barsetshire that includes Greshamsbury and the Gresham family, which includes Frank, who has recently come of age.  Thorne lives with his niece Mary, who is about Frank’s age.  Can you see where this is going?  Of course, but that’s not the point.  It’s the journey to the inevitable ending that makes reading Trollope so much fun.

In Doctor Thorne, Frank’s father has fallen into debt, and the family’s only hope is for Frank to marry money.  Mary is of humble birth, or so everyone believes.  But Doctor Thorne has a long-held a secret about her origins, and he is far too ethical to spill the beans.  Besides, if he did there would be no novel!  Frank loves Mary and cares nothing about her class, but Frank’s mother, the haughty Lady Arabella, is constantly scheming to keep Frank and Mary apart and introduce Frank to wealthy women.  Doctor Thorne stays out of it, trusting everyone to do the right thing but defending Mary when her honor is challenged:

“Why should I object? It is for you, Lady Arabella, to look after your lambs; for me to see that, if possible, no harm shall come to mine. If you think that Mary is an improper acquaintance for your children, it is for you to guide them; for you and their father. Say what you think fit to your own daughter; but pray understand, once for all, that I will allow no one to interfere with my niece.”

Trollope infuses this novel with his trademark wit.  For example, he lets us know early on just what sort of woman is Lady Arabella:

Of course Lady Arabella could not suckle the young heir herself. Ladies Arabella never can. They are gifted with the powers of being mothers, but not nursing-mothers. Nature gives them bosoms for show, but not for use. So Lady Arabella had a wet-nurse.

Trollope guides us through several twists and turns, over more than 500 pages sprinkled with quips like this, before Frank and Mary are finally united. It’s all good fun making for a very pleasurable, satisfying read.

Short & Sweet: At the Owl Woman Saloon, by Tess Gallagher

Welcome to the March edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is my third month reading short stories, mostly at bedtime.  At this rate I can read a book a month, and mixing stories with full-length books works well for me. This month I read At the Owl Woman Saloon, which I ran out and bought after it was featured in Belletrista.

At the Owl Woman Saloon has 16 stories set primarily in the Northwestern United States.  Some deal with people who work in logging, a major regional industry, but themes of aging and widowhood a paramount.  Like most short story collections, some stories spoke to me in very direct ways, and stood out from the rest:

  • The Leper: this story recounts everyday events for a couple living in a seaside village.  Gallagher captures a moment in time without attempting to tie up loose ends.  The woman takes a phone call from a distraught friend.  Funeral flowers are mistakenly delivered to her home.  She watches horses swimming in the sea.  Small, ordinary and yet extraordinary occurrences all beautifully portrayed.
  • Coming and Going: Emily, recently widowed, is visited by a deputy Marshall looking for her husband regarding a legal dispute.  She directs him to where her husband has “relocated.”  I could feel her pain while also laughing out loud at her deception.
  • Mr Woodriff’s Neckties: A man observes his neighbors as one of them declines and eventually passes away.  A good deed brings a sense of calm.  I loved this story; it made me think about mortality and the importance of enjoying today because you never know what the future holds:

On Sundays I see her gathering these same roses, now that they’ve bloomed, to take to the cemetery. It makes me wonder if they both knew while they were planting them that this was out there in the future. Or maybe they were so involved with earth and root balls and whether the holes were deep enough that they didn’t trouble to think ahead, except that eventually there would be roses. Maybe their minds were mercifully clear of the future.  That’s what I hope, anyway.  (p. 148)

  • The Woman who Prayed:  the book ends with this powerful story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair, and handles the situation in a unique and admirable way.

Gallagher is first a poet, which is clear in her beautiful prose.  More than characters or plot, her stories are best appreciated by letting her words, imagery and metaphor wash over you.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Thing Around your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watch for the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Review: In the Woods, by Tana French

This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here’s the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob’s 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can’t help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there’s one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.

With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.

But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it’s difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, “guys aren’t like that.” It’s not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn’t do, especially with Cassie (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn’t authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.

Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it.  So if you’re intrigued, I say go ahead and read it.  And then let’s talk about it!

I read this as part of a group read hosted by Rebecca @ Love at First Book.  I can’t wait to discuss the ending with the group!

Review: Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

They continued to cope, poorly, with the excretions and secretions of their stepfather’s body, moving from revulsion to pity to anger, and back to revulsion. They were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy.  Neither Nariman’s age nor his previous illnesses had served to warn them. Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them. And by nightfall, the air was again fraught with tension, thick with reproaches spoken and silent. (p 68)

Nariman Vakeel is an elderly, retired English professor suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  He lives in the family home — ironically named Chateau Felicity — with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy.  Nariman married their mother Yasmin when Jal and Coomy were children, after his family forbid him to marry his true love, Lucy.  He raised them along with a younger half-sister, Roxana.  Coomy is filled with resentment; everyone else walks on eggshells to avoid her bitterness.  Jal feigns obliviousness, tinkering with his hearing aid when tempers flare.

When Nariman falls while out on a walk, Jal and Coomy are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him.  Coomy wastes no time tricking Roxana into taking him in.  Roxana and her family live in a smaller flat and struggle to make ends meet, but they are blessed with a more positive outlook on life. Even Roxana’s young sons take things in stride:

The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.

And then it struck her like a revelation — of what, she could not say.  Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the previous moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. (p. 98)

But as weeks pass, the strain takes its toll on everyone.  Coomy takes dramatic steps to keep up the illusion she is unable to care for Nariman.  Jal is silently complicit.  Roxana tries, in vain, to stretch Yezad’s salary to cover the cost of Nariman’s medication.  And Yezad responds to the financial strain through a series of progressively destructive acts aimed at improving their financial situation.  Eventually they hit rock bottom in ways both inevitable and shocking, and are then faced with the challenge of rebuilding what they hold most dear.

I put off reading this book for some time, thinking it might strike too close to home.  My father has Parkinson’s, and last year a medical incident set in motion a series of events culminating in my parents’ long-overdue move to a continuous care retirement community.  Family Matters was indeed painful to read, although I could distance myself from it because the Vakeel family’s situation was very different from mine.  And yet there are valuable messages in this book about the importance of family, and living for today, that are still with me days after finishing the book.

Review: Full House, by M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane)

Lady Olivia Bird is the family matriarch, ruling over husband Julian, sons John and Mark, daughter Sheena, and their estate, Silverue.  Lady Bird is domineering, cruel, insipid and self-centered.  She is focused more on her garden than on any aspect of family life.  She has a near-oedipal relationship with John, who has just returned home after being treated for a nervous breakdown, and practically ignores everyone else.  Sheena is in love with a young man named Rupert; Mark is still  young enough to spend most of his day with his lonely governess, Miss Parker.

Eliza, a family friend, visits Silverue just as John returns home.  Eliza has long loved Julian, although it’s not clear whether their relationship ever went beyond the platonic.  Eliza is a keen observer of the family dynamics:

Eliza said, “Dear, but it’s lovely for me,” and she went away leaving Julian to everything that was more important than she was. To dressing flies for his mad son. To waiting for his faithless, cruel wife. To his Life in which he had no smallest part. Well, so long as one knew where one was, nothing hurt one. Only unexpected wounds and defeats.  (p. 39)

Whoa!  Molly Keane does dysfunctional Anglo-Irish families in large country houses very, very well.  As Caroline Blackwood wrote in the afterword to my Virago Modern Classics edition:

Molly Keane “really knows” the shallow, sheltered world of Anglo-Irish gentry which has provided her with so much excellent  material. She  knows the facade of the beautiful romantic houses that her characters inhabit, and because she knows that facade so well she can make us see it.

Full House unfolds with a series of character studies, entire chapters focused on Lady Bird, Julian, Sheena, John, and sad little Miss Parker, who is waging a fruitless war against her facial hair:

Nor, when one is Miss Parker’s age, does one expect great results from any depilatory. However largely advertised. However highly paid for. Used with whatever trembling of the soul and carefulness. Still one does not hope too much.  One does not dare. (p. 90)

The children all despise their mother, and Olivia is oblivious to it.  Julian is ineffectual, enabling his wife’s behavior.  John is simply taking one day at a time, pretending life is completely back to normal.  Sheena hopes to escape through marriage, but the relationship is threatened by advice from a not-so-kindly relation.  Only Olivia can help her, but has to be able to see beyond her own needs.  In the end, Eliza makes it all turn out right for both Sheena and John, even though she knows there will be no reward for her in doing so.

This is my fourth Molly Keane novel, and I can now see themes common to her novels: the Anglo-Irish gentry in decline, horrible mothers, weak men, and biting satire.  Altogether, they make for a very good read indeed.

Short & Sweet: Mrs Somebody, Somebody by Tracy Winn

Welcome to the February edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is the second month of a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories residing on my nightstand.  I’ve found the short stories to be perfect bedtime reading. Sometimes I can read a story in a single sitting, sometimes I need two bedtime reading sessions.  And before I know it, I’ve made my way through an entire book!  Now it’s become a habit.

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Mrs Somebody Somebody reminded me how much I love connected stories.  Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the book begins with the arrival of unions in Lowell’s textile mills.  Several years later, industry has died and the town’s demographics have changed dramatically. Characters wander through multiple stories.  Children reappear as adults.  A girl who featured prominently in one story is identified later only by the color of her shoes.  But the reader knows who she is.   These are gritty stories of life’s hardships: a man returns from the war and has trouble reconnecting with his wife.  Over the course of three stories, a little boy grows into a troubled man.  Immigrants struggle to make their way in American society.  The first and last stories are both about Stella, a mill worker turned hairdresser.  They wrap around the entire collection, providing a surprising but somehow fitting conclusion.

Mrs Somebody Somebody is an impressive debut effort.  If you liked Olive Kitteridge, you’ll like this book (and if you haven’t read Olive yet, then read that one too!)

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Next month I’ll be reading At the Owl Woman Saloon, a collection by Tess Gallagher.  I ran out and bought this after it was featured in Belletrista.  More in the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

After my last read, which was bleak and somewhat depressing, Sovereign was just what the doctor ordered: an intelligent, historical mystery.  This is the third in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  Shardlake, a London lawyer, receives orders from Archbishop Cranmer to travel to York with King Henry VIII’s 1541 Progress.  There, he is to watch over the health and well-being of a prisoner, who is part of a conspiracy that threatens Henry’s right to the throne.  Shardlake and his assistant Barak arrive in York ahead of the Progress; the city is alive with preparations for the big event.  When a craftsman dies a grisly death, Shardlake suspects it was no accident.  He takes it upon himself to investigate, and so the tale unfolds.

There is so much to enjoy in these books.  First, there is the historical context.  Shardlake operates on the edges of court.  Well-known figures like Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk are seldom central to the plot but never far away.  Familiar stories unfold, but as a backdrop instead of the centerpiece — such as, in this book, the events leading to Queen Catherine’s execution.  Second, Sansom fills Shardlake’s world with several interesting characters, and convinces the reader that just about any one of them could be guilty.  Then he weaves several threads into a web of major and minor mysteries.  In Sovereign, not only is there a murder to be solved, but someone is out to get Shardlake too.

My only quibble with these books is that Sansom can run on a bit: why use one word when ten will do?  The dead body didn’t show up until page 75, and it took nearly 600 more pages to solve the crime and tie up the loose ends.  However, I was hooked on the story and found myself sneaking short bursts of reading into my day, just to see what would happen next.  I’m happy to have the next installment already on my shelves.

Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels is a 680-page omnibus of four works by Edward St. Aubyn, originally published between 1992 and 2005: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk.  A fifth novel, At Last, was published in 2012.  Each book covers a period in Patrick’s life, often only a day or two, spread out over four decades.

In Never Mind, Patrick is five years old and living in France with his British father and American mother.  This tightly written novella tells you all you need to know about David and Eleanor Melrose, and it’s not pretty.  David is an overbearing, sadistic man; Eleanor and Patrick are victims of his cruelty.  Towards the end of the novella, something unthinkable happens, and you know Patrick will be scarred for life.  In the following books you can see Patrick trying, mostly in vain, to move beyond this childhood trauma.  In Bad News, 22-year-old Patrick has taken to drugs and is constantly in search of his next hit.  By age 30, in Some Hope, he has given up drugs (or has he?), and is making an effort to address long-term psychological issues.

Have you seen the amazing “Up” documentary series?  Bear with me, there’s a point to this digression.  In the documentaries, director Michael Apted visits the same group of British-born people every 7 years, beginning at age 7 (the latest installment, 56 Up, was released in 2012 and will soon arrive in US cinemas — see it if you can).  The Patrick Melrose Novels share a similar premise, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Like the documentaries, each novel gives us a glimpse into Patrick’s life at a point in time.  We know little about the intervening period.  But the events in Never Mind are like a thread woven through Patrick’s life, influencing everything he says and does, and the man he becomes.

By the time we get to Mother’s Milk, Patrick is 40, married, with children.  He’s a devoted father with stable employment.  You might think he’s living the dream, right?  Well, no.  Patrick’s aging mother has pretty much disinherited him by making increasingly irresponsible decisions about her estate.  Patrick’s well-being teeters on a precipice; not surprisingly, we see some backsliding into destructive behaviors.  The scars from Never Mind have never healed.

When I picked up this book my original intention was to read the first novella and return to the others later.  Instead I found myself drawn into Patrick’s story, despite the fact that nearly every character is unlikable in the extreme.  The writing is harsh and direct; St Aubyn doesn’t sugar coat the situation in any way.  It was all so unpleasant!  And yet something kept me coming back for the next installment, hoping to see Patrick in a better place with each passing decade.  I did have one quibble with the writing, however.  Mother’s Milk is told largely through the thoughts, words and deeds of Patrick’s very young sons.  Their voices didn’t ring true; I’ve never met a preschooler who could think or speak in such a sophisticated way.

Mother’s Milk was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize, and because of that I nearly made the mistake of reading it as a standalone novel.  I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you’ve read the three previous books.  Perhaps the Booker judges were recognizing a body of work more than an individual novel?

Short & Sweet: The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro

Welcome to Short & Sweet, my new feature dedicated to short fiction.  In my 2013 Reading Resolutions, I launched a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories that currently reside on my nightstand.  In Short & Sweet I will bring you reviews, commentary on individual stories, and other chatter related to short fiction.

Faced with a huge backlog of short stories on my TBR pile, I realized the only way I could work through them is by setting aside dedicated reading time — and why not bedtime?  I have fond memories of bedtime reading as a child, and with my own children.  So why not treat myself now?  And so far, bedtime is proving to be ideal for reading stories.  While I don’t often get through a complete story before nodding off,  seldom does a story take more than a couple of nights.

The first collection I tackled was Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love.  Munro writes almost exclusively short fiction, and I’ve enjoyed some of her more recent efforts (most notably Runaway, which I reviewed here).  The Progress of Love was published in 1986, one could say midway through a career that is still going strong.   There are eleven stories, all dealing with relationships, especially marriage.   Unfortunately, none really stood out.  I kept waiting for one that would take my breath away, or give me something to think about until my next bedtime reading session.  No dice.  Most of the stories seemed like mere retelling of events, and lacked emotional tension and impact.  I can’t even muster up a proper review.  Sorry!

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Despite this slow and unsatisfying start, I’m ready for more!  Next up is Tracy Winn’s Mrs Somebody Somebody, which comes highly recommended by several LibraryThing friends.  Watch for more about this collection in the next Short & Sweet!

Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s sequel, or more accurately companion, to Oryx and Crake.  Both novels are set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world, where Atwood shows what might happen to our society if we continue the destructive behaviors she believes are destroying our planet.  Where Oryx and Crake told the story through the eyes of two men, The Year of the Flood centers on two women, Toby and Ren, survivors of a devastating “waterless flood.”  The women met as members of God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist sect.  Through flashback Atwood covers the 20 years leading up to the flood.  She describes in detail day-to-day life with God’s Gardeners: their leaders, rituals, and hymns.  Atwood’s world is also populated with genetically engineered animals, unusual food, and corporations who claim to be doing good in the world while actually wreaking havoc.

The book got off to a slow start, as Atwood meticulously built her world.  But about halfway through, the pace suddenly accelerated.  Characters’ lives intertwined, including some key figures from Oryx and Crake.  The catastrophic nature of the flood left people stranded and alone, foraging for food while remaining ever on guard against predators.  Were there any “good guys” left, or would this all end in a Hunger Games-style fight to the death?  Will the planet survive?

The story was both suspenseful and thought-provoking.  And while I would probably agree with Atwood on several points, I found her treatment heavy-handed.  This was especially true of the God’s Gardeners.  I loved their self-sufficiency and animal rights activism, but the homilies and hymns in each chapter were a bit much.  Still, I’m looking forward to the third book in this trilogy, MaddAdam, which is scheduled for publication in August.