Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne goes missing.  A neighbor calls her husband Nick, to report the front door wide open and the cat out on the lawn.  Nick rushes home from work, and inside the house he finds signs of a struggle.  Police and detectives arrive and begin their investigation by questioning Nick.  This seemed like a perfectly natural way to gather the first facts, but then Nick, as narrator, something that sent chills down my spine: “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting.”

Why did he lie?  Which of his statements were true, and which false?  Did Nick have a role in Amy’s disappearance?  This is just the beginning of an intense, fast-paced thriller.  Nick and Amy tell their story in alternating chapters.  Amy’s chapters are diary excerpts beginning several years earlier, when she first met Nick.  She describes their romance, their marriage, and the circumstances that caused them to move from New York City to Nick’s hometown in Missouri.  Meanwhile, Nick’s chapters describe the investigation and more recent events in his life with Amy.  By the time the two narratives converge, the reader has a complete picture of their marriage.  Or do they?

Whenever I thought I was onto something important about Amy’s disappearance, Gillian Flynn would take the plot in a dramatically new direction.  Previous facts were shown to be fiction.  Mysterious clues were explained, and seemingly normal events suddenly appeared suspicious.  There’s not much that can be said about Gone Girl without revealing critical plot details.  Suffice to say this story of a troubled marriage, and the psychological drama between the couple, is a page-turner that will keep you guessing from start to finish.

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.

Review: A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor

Harriet and Vesey grew up together as playmates and friends.  One summer while caring for Vesey’s cousins, they realize their affection has blossomed into something more:

‘I cannot put down what happened this evening,’ she wrote mysteriously. ‘Nor is there any need, for I shall remember all my life.’ And, although she was so mysterious, she was right. Much in those diaries would puzzle her when she turned their pages in middle age, old age; many allusions would be meaningless; week after week would seem to have been wiped away; but that one entry, so proudly cryptic, would always evoke the evening in the woods, the shadows, the layers of leaves shutting out the sky, the bronze mosses at the of the trees, the floating sound their voices had, and that explosive, echoing cry of the cuckoo. (p.21-22)

But Vesey goes off to Oxford and Harriet remains at home.  She picks up tidbits of news from his aunt and uncle, but they lose touch and eventually Harriet makes her own way.   She finds a job in a gown shop, marries Charles, a respected business man, and they have a daughter, Betsy.  Harriet thinks of Vesey often, but for the most part she is a reasonably happy wife and mother.

Until one day, nearly 20 years later, when Harriet and Vesey run into each other at a dance.  Dancing with Vesey, Harriet is overcome with memories and emotion. They do not see each other often — Vesey is in the theatre, and travels around the country — but they exchange letters and find reasons to meet anytime he is nearby.  Charles feels Harriet’s distance, but can neither draw her out nor express his own feelings.  The strain rubs off on Betsy, too.  Even though Harriet sees how differently people respond to her, she desperately wants to believe they’re fine.  It’s just her, responding differently to them.

Taylor’s writing is exquisite.  The story unfolds very slowly, with the rich observational detail Taylor is known for.  And it’s emotionally intense as well. In the first part, the reader feels the pain of young love — we want Harriet and Vesey to accept the love they feel for each other, and live happily ever after.  We feel pain in the awkwardness of their parting, and the pain returns when they meet again in middle age.  By that time, I had come to appreciate her marriage to Charles.  I was caught up in Harriet’s dilemma, simultaneously wishing for things that might have been, and wanting to maintain the comfort and security of her family life.  The ending is ambiguous, and yet felt completely right.

In her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman called this “Elizabeth’s most flawless, most nearly perfect novel.”   I couldn’t agree more.

Review: Someone at a Distance, by Dorothy Whipple

Avery and Ellen North have an ideal marriage and a model family.  Son Hugh is in military service;  daughter Anne attends boarding school and spends her holidays mostly obsessing over her mare, Roma.  Avery is a successful partner in a London publishing firm, and Ellen gardens, cares for family needs, and maintains their home in the country.  Their peaceful life is forever changed when Avery’s elderly mother employs Louise, a young French woman, for conversation and light domestic duties.

Louise comes from a small provincial town.  Now in her late 20s, she has no real marriage prospects and is recovering from an illicit romance with Paul, a wealthy young man recently married to someone more appropriate for his station.  At first she appears a suitable companion for old Mrs. North, but eventually she begins to shirk her domestic duties, encroach on family life, and generally walk around behaving as if she’s better than everyone else.  Gradually it becomes clear she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.  Having failed to snare Paul, she sets her sights on Avery.  It’s obvious from the word “go” that she will succeed, but Dorothy Whipple takes her time.  Little by little, Louise endears herself to the family, and Whipple allows the reader glimpses of Louise’s thoughts and feelings so we know, long before anyone else, just how manipulative and conniving she is.

I almost got bored with all the build-up.  But then came the most painful pages of the novel, when Ellen discovers what’s going on between Avery and Louise.  And a bit later, when a devastated Ellen comforts Anne:

‘Don’t let’s talk about it Mummy,’ she said.

‘No, darling,’ said Ellen.

With the other hand, she began to stroke Anne’s hair. Backwards and forwards went her gentle hand and by and by Anne’s head drooped against her knee and her mother saw she was asleep.

The day had been long and bitter, there was trouble behind and before, but for this brief space in the dining-room, there was nothing but peace and love.  (p. 238)

At that point, I was fully invested in Ellen’s welfare, and pulling for her every step of the way.  Whipple continued giving me glimpses of Avery and Louise, and Louise’s family in France, but I was always eager to return to Ellen’s story.  At first she withdrew into herself, and didn’t want to tell anyone what had happened.  But as the shock wore off and she summoned the courage to venture forth, Ellen was surprised to find others who had been through a similar experience.  Day by day, she grew stronger and more independent.  And along the way, so did Anne.

There’s much more complexity to this story; I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The Norths and Louise are surrounded by a rich set of characters, all brilliantly portrayed, even down to the family cat.  There are interesting subplots, like the story of Paul and his wife.  And the ending is satisfying, if inconclusive.  All I can say is, you have to read Someone at a Distance to appreciate it.

Someone at a Distance is the third book published by Persephone Books.  It sports the classic unassuming gray cover enclosing vibrant endpaper and a matching bookmark.  Lovely.

Review: Hunt the Slipper, by Violet Trefusis

Nigel Benson enjoys life’s luxuries:  fine food & wine, antiquities, books, and of course women.  49 and still single, he lives with his sister in a beautiful country home.  One day he meets the much-younger Caroline Crome, wife of his good friend Anthony.  She treats him rudely, but sparks fly when they meet again in Paris a short time later.  Caroline is bored by her marriage, and she has already been unfaithful to Anthony, so an affair with Nigel seems a fait accompli.  Their travel itineraries conspire against them at first, and communicating by post leaves them both mopey and dissatisfied.  When they are together, Nigel is seized by jealousy of the younger men in Caroline’s life.  Even though she repeatedly professes her love for him, true happiness seems to always be just out of reach.  But Anthony is clearly none the wiser:

Everyone had noticed the improvement in Caroline. It was amazing how she had changed, and in such a short time, too!  All the things she used to set about with such ill grace, such as going to church, calling on the vicar’s wife, etc., she now accomplished with zeal and alacrity, Margaret was no longer scolded. Slaps were a thing of the past. She was charming to Anthony’s mother and had actually been seen studying a seed catalogue. Though he didn’t entirely ascribe this happy change to Nigel, Anthony was sure that his influence had counted for something. (p.119)

Eventually Nigel and Caroline tire of the constant deception and sneaking around, and decide they will break the news of their affair to Anthony.   Certain events require them to postpone this dramatic act, and it seems Nigel & Caroline will just learn to live with the situation.

But Violet Trefusis has other ideas, and in the novel’s last 30 pages takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride.  Up to this point I found Hunt the Slipper a pleasant read, but nothing really stood out.  The final twists and turns left me breathless:  will they stay together or won’t they?  The ending was emotional and cleverly done, packing an unexpected punch.

Review: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan has a unique ability to make me love his books, despite making me feel so terribly sad.  On Chesil Beach is the story of one young couple’s ill-fated wedding night.  The book opens as Florence and Edward are enjoying a private dinner in their honeymoon suite:

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They were sitting down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn.  In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand.  (p. 1)

Florence was scared to death, ill-informed, and disgusted by the few facts she knew about impending events. Edward was filled with desire, but also with intense fear of failure.  The first chapter (33 pages) builds tension up to the point that Florence and Edward make their way towards that four-poster.

McEwan then leaves Edward and Florence in a state of suspended animation, and takes the reader back in time to understand how they met, their family histories, and their relationship.  Florence is a violinist in a string quartet, and the daughter of a wealthy businessman.  Edward was from more humble stock, but well-educated, and while he did not particularly appreciate classical music, he was very supportive of Florence.  He also dutifully accepted employment with Florence’s father, even though it was far removed from his field of expertise.

Back to the bedroom, where you can cut the tension with a knife.  You just know things aren’t going to go well for this couple, and their complete inability to communicate just takes things from bad to worse.  It’s not just that they can’t talk about sex, it seems they can’t talk about anything important.  Their responses are all too human, but as McEwan shows, small acts of anger have lasting consequences.

At just over 15o pages, On Chesil Beach was a very quick read, but Ian McEwan is such a master at both characterization and drama that the book had enormous emotional impact.

Review: Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym

Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners set in Oxford’s academic community.  The plot is straightforward and in some ways predictable, but it’s simply the backdrop for some memorable characters and situations that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The elderly spinster Miss Doggett and her paid companion, Miss Morrow, serve to connect all the characters.  Miss Doggett’s nephew, Francis Cleveland, is an Oxford don infatuated with Barbara, one of his students.  As their relationship evolves, they are increasingly observed by others (except, of course, Francis’ wife Margaret), and become the subject of village gossip.  Miss Doggett wants so badly to be in control, both of the relationship and the way it is revealed to Margaret, and her controlling nature is very funny, indeed.  As Miss Doggett meddles in everyone’s affairs, Miss Morrow quietly and patiently observes, sharing her innermost thoughts only with the reader.

Meanwhile Miss Morrow has ideas of her own, as she unleashes her wiles on a new curate, Mr. Latimer.  Miss Doggett does not approve:

They were still laughing when Miss Doggett came in. The sound of their laughter was the first thing that she heard before the shameful sight met her eyes:  the sight of Miss Morrow — painted like a harlot — sitting laughing on the bed with a handsome clergyman whom she had just met for the first time, the new curate whose welcome Miss Doggett had planned so carefully. It was too bad.  Miss Doggett cast about in her mind for words strong enough to describe Miss Morrow’s perfidy and deceit, but could find none. (p. 24)

To fully appreciate this quote one has to conjure up an image of the biggest busybody you’ve ever seen, decked out in a ridiculous hat, bursting in on the mousey Miss Morrow and the unsuspecting curate.  Crampton Hodnet is full such little moments, where words and imagination come together to marvelous effect.  Like when the persnickety, effeminate Edward Killigrew reflects on living with his mother:

‘Oh, Mother is very well, thank you,’ said Edward. ‘Full of beans, as usual,’ he added, his tone losing a little of its joviality. He knew that it was wicked and unfilial of him, but he sometimes wished that Mother was not quite so full of beans.  (p. 74)

Or this, as Latimer prepares to go on holiday with another clergyman:

His friend, the Reverend Theodore James, was rather too serious a companion for a holiday. He couldn’t think now why he had suggested that he should join him. It wasn’t as if they had ever liked each other. Still, it was too late to do anything about it now, and at least they would be able to have a good talk about old times, rejoicing over those of their contemporaries who had not fulfilled their early promise and belittling those who had. (p. 158)

My only complaint about this book is that I would have liked for Margaret to show a bit more emotion — anger, even — at Francis’ indiscretions.  But Pym wasn’t trying to make a statement; his infidelity was simply a mechanism to unleash a variety of characters and put them in awkward or humorous situations for the reader’s enjoyment.  And enjoy it, I did!

Review: The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch

Bradley Pearson is a marginally successful author well past his professional prime, who fancies himself  much more talented and good-looking than he is.  At the beginning of the novel Bradley is preparing to leave on holiday, sure that a change of scene will inspire him to write his greatest work.  But barriers arise in rapid succession, as he learns of his ex-wife’s arrival in London, his friend Arnold Baffin calls asking for help resolving a quarrel with his wife Rachel, and his sister Priscilla breaks down after trouble with her husband.  Bradley immediately falls into “fix-it” mode, but every act has consequences.  Watching Bradley is like watching a row of dominoes fall.  And then Bradley becomes positively delusional, falling head over heels for a much younger woman and being just arrogant enough to think the relationship will work.

Iris Murdoch’s characterizations are brilliant.  Bradley is a bumbling fool but doesn’t know it.  Rachel and Priscilla are women of a certain age, each with her own set of neuroses.  Rachel and Arnold’s relationship is typical of many long marriages, but Bradley fails to understand how two people are angry or frustrated with one another without fracturing the strong bond between them.  I also love Murdoch’s ability to describe the ordinary in such extraordinary ways:

The division of one day from the next must be one of the most profound peculiarities on this planet. It is, on the whole, a merciful arrangement. We are not condemned to sustained flights of being, but are constantly refreshed by little holidays from ourselves. We are intermittent creatures, always falling to little ends and rising to little new beginnings. Our soon-tired consciousness is meted out in chapters, and that the world will look quite different tomorrow is, both for our comfort and our discomfort, usually true. How marvellously too night matches sleep, sweet image of it, so neatly apportioned to our need.  (p. 232)

The Black Prince has a very interesting structure.  Bradley’s story is written in the first person, as if he is telling it to the book’s editor, who wrote a “foreword” to this book.  A second foreword, written by Bradley, provides the reader with his personal history.  After Bradley’s story is complete, four important characters offer postscripts.  These not only supply a denouement, they also shed entirely new light on everything that was written before.  It turns out Bradley is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever experienced.  The plot twists at the end sent me off in search of earlier passages, to re-read in a new light.  I’m still puzzling through the intricacies of this book, which is why Iris Murdoch is one of my favorite authors.

Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer

In 1937, Andras Lévi travels from his home in Budapest to Paris to study architecture at the École Spéciale.  He faces a variety of challenges adjusting to the new country and making ends meet, but manages to find a part-time job, make friends of fellow students, and most importantly, fall in love with Klara, an older woman with a secret past.  But their happiness is overshadowed by the growing threat of Nazi Germany, especially since Andras and Klara are both Jewish.  A series of events take Andras and Klara back to Hungary, where Andras is pressed into service not as a soldier, but as a member of a labor corps responsible for digging ditches, felling trees, loading boxcars, and so on.

The first half of The Invisible Bridge takes place primarily in Paris, and serves to develop a rich cast of characters in a setting that is idyllic compared to what they have in store.  Andras is established as a promising young architect; his brother Tibor, a physician.  The brothers meet their future wives, and forge strong bonds with a group of peers.  And then suddenly, new laws affecting Jewish immigrants change everything, and their close-knit group is scattered.  The second half of the book covers the war years in harrowing detail, and it was interesting to read about World War II from a Hungarian perspective.  Hungary was part of the Axis powers allied with Germany and Italy, but this was somewhat by force.  Many of the characters in this book secretly hoped for Germany’s downfall.  Life was one struggle after another:  labor servicemen were subjected to extremely poor conditions as well as physical and emotional abuse.  It wasn’t any easier for those left at home, as they faced food shortages and government corruption.  And communication channels were poor, so people often didn’t know how their loved ones were faring while they were apart.

The Invisible Bridge is a well-paced story of love and hardship, but it’s also a long book (nearly 600 pages), and I lost concentration in the last 100 pages.  Some aspects felt repetitive: Andras leaves for labor service, returns home, and is called up again.  And then he comes home.  And then he is called back.  And … well, you get the idea.  Each time there were new plot developments both in his life and in the war, but I still tired of it.  And yet, there was a lot of excitement in this story, as well as emotion, and I will not soon forget Andras, his family, and the hardships they had to overcome.

Review: 13, rue Thérèse, by Elena Mauli Shapiro

When author Elena Shapiro was a little girl, she was given a box of mementos that belonged to Louise Brunet, a woman in her apartment building.  Louise had recently died, so Shapiro had no way to learn about the mementos or their owner.  The contents of the box fascinated her and she turned them loose in her imagination.  Years later she wrote a novel that tells Louise’s story through the trinkets found in the box.

Louise grew up in wartime France; her father, brother and a cousin/boyfriend served at the front in World War I.  She married Henri Brunet, a quiet and unassuming man who worked in her father’s jewelry shop.  Unable to have children, Louise became resentful and bored.  She derived satisfaction from teaching piano to Garance, a very talented 15-year-old girl.  And Louise had a mischievous side, combating boredom by gleefully making up outlandish, erotic stories to shock priests in the confessional.  When a new family moved into her building at 13, rue Thérèse in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, Louise was attracted t0 the husband Xavier, and envious of his happy marriage and children. Louise’s story is an emotional one; she experienced loss not uncommon for that time period, but searingly painful nonetheless.

But there’s another story wrapped around that of Louise.  In the present day, American professor Trevor Stratton is working in Paris and finds a box of mementos (his secretary Josianne left it for him, but he doesn’t know that).  There are love letters from a young man, gloves, coins, photos, jewelry, and a handkerchief.  As he pores through the box, his imagination runs away much as Shapiro’s must have done.  He begins constructing Louise’s story, but it’s often unclear when the story is true to the contents of the box, and when it reflects Trevor’s imagination or even fantasy.  What develops is a story within a story intertwining past and present in a most intriguing way.  What really happened to Louise?  What has Trevor made up, perhaps to satisfy his own longings?  His findings are reported in letters to “Sir,” who I presumed to be his superior, perhaps back at the American university.  But he poured out his feelings so candidly and completely, I could not imagine such letters written in a professional context.   When the relationships between Trevor, “Sir,” and Josianne became somewhat clearer, the “story within a story” aspect of this novel turned out to be even more complex than I’d thought.

This book left me with lots of unanswered questions about Trevor and Louise which, like the box of mementos, are now left to run amok in my imagination.