Review: Taking Chances, by Molly Keane

This is one of Molly Keane’s earlier novels, published in 1929 when the author was in her mid-20s.  She wrote about what she knew: the Irish landed class, with their propensity for dogs and hunting.  Taking Chances is based on a familiar construct, in which a stranger’s arrival upsets the order of daily living.  Roguey, Maeve, and Jer are young adult siblings living in Sorristown, their family home.  Maeve is about to be married to Rowley, and her bridesmaid Mary comes to visit just before the wedding.  Mary is beautiful and flirtatious, and has an immediate impact on the men:

At the lighted door of the bathroom she asked for a cigarette. Roguey produced his case and lit one for her clumsily.  In her bath Mary found that, along with the dampness round his eyes, subjects for consideration. Used to swift work, his early show of interest did not thrill her. She was, as a matter of fact, totally unaware of the unsafe propensities of a scanty kimono when its wearer, with a poorly drawing cigarette in one hand, and bathing apparatus in the other, stoops over an awkwardly held match. (p. 35)

Yes, Mary is memorable, if not especially likeable.  But the story itself is dreadfully cliche and boring.  The minute Mary arrives, you know she’s going to wreak havoc on the close-knit trio at Sorristown.  And it’s easy to predict the form this will take, as well as the consequences.  And then there are the endless hunting scenes, described in such detail I wondered if Keane was trying to pad her novel.  I skimmed the last third of this novel, simply to confirm it ended as I thought it would.

I’ve read several of Keane’s later books and enjoyed her characters and social satire immensely.  This is an author whose talent took time to develop and while it’s interesting to see “where it all began,” one experience like that was quite enough!

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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: 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 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.

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: 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: The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

This is one of those books I suspect “everybody” has read by now, as it won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was made into a popular movie in 2002.  Well, I hadn’t read it yet, despite running into it nearly every time I entered a used bookshop.  Now that situation has been remedied, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed the experience.

The Hours uses Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a jumping-off point, and chronicles a single day in the life of three women:  Woolf, during the period in which she wrote the novel, Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife smitten with the novel, and Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed “Mrs Dalloway,” who is preparing to host a party for a dear friend on a summer day in the late 1990s.

I read Mrs Dalloway several years ago, and recall being underwhelmed.  It was my introduction to Woolf and her writing requires special attention.  I’ve since come to appreciate her work; and found myself nodding in agreement as Laura Brown experiences the novel for the first time:

How, Laura wonders, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that — who was able to feel everything contained in a sentence like that — come to kill herself? What in the world is wrong with people? Summoning resolve, as if she were about to dive into cold water, Laura closes the book and lays it on the nightstand. … At least, she thinks, she does not read mysteries or romances. (p. 41)

The day unfolds through chapters about the three women in turn.  Clarissa goes out to buy flowers for the party (much as Clarissa did in the novel), Laura makes a birthday cake for her husband, Virginia struggles to get a few sentences down on paper while staring down her depression.  Cunningham writes delightful prose, making even the most ordinary activities exquisite and sensual:

Guiding Richie’s hands with her own, she helps him dip the cup into the flour. The cup goes in easily, and through its thin wall he can feel the silkiness and slight grit of the sifted flour. a tiny cloud rises in the cup’s wake. Mother and son bring it up again, heaped with flour. Flour cascades down the silver sides. Laura tells the boy to hold the cup steady, which he nervously manages to do, and with one quick gesture she dismisses the grainy little heap on top and creates a flawless white surface exactly level with the lip of the cup. He continues holding the cup with both hands.  (p. 77)

As the day proceeds, we come to know each woman better.  Laura feels confined by her lifestyle, but guilty because she “should” love being a good wife and mother.  Clarissa is a perfectionist about the party, but also tremendously insecure about her life and relationships.  As for Virginia, Cunningham shows us signs of the mental illness that eventually leads to her suicide.  Knowing what’s in store for her makes her sections of the novel all the more poignant.

The lives of these three women become intertwined in a surprising way, which actually made me gasp.  And now, after reading The Hours I want to re-read Mrs Dalloway.  If you haven’t read either book yet, I recommend reading them concurrently; each would enrich the other.