Review: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England.  Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age.  Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village.  Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village.  Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines.  Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal.  Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.

The entire village is quite comfortable, actually.  Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party.  People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship.  This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.

Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters.  Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources.  His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:

There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing.  Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.  (p. 21)

But his talents are largely lost on his flock:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)

The minor characters are just as amusing.  There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables.  Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel.  Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.

The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.

Check out Heaven-Ali’s post for an equally complimentary view of Some Tame Gazelle.


Review: Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

Discovering a new author is so much fun, especially when they have published many books, and you know you have those to look forward to as well.  Such is the case with Angela Thirkell, and Pomfret Towers which is part of her 29-volume Barsetshire series.  I received this book from a Secret Santa, and was looking for fun, light reads over the holidays.  Pomfret Towers fit the bill completely.

The novel is set in Barsetshire, a fictional English county created by Anthony Trollope.  Where Trollope’s novels are set in the 1850-60s,  Thirkell’s take place in the first half of the twentieth century.  Pomfret Towers centers on a weekend house party for the young people of Barsetshire, hosted by the elderly Lord and Lady Pomfret.  For Alice Barton, it is her first house party and she’s scared to death: unsure of what to wear, how to conduct herself, and what to expect of servants.  Her first instinct is to excuse herself completely, but she is convinced to attend when she learns good friends Roddy & Susan Wicklow will be there, along with her brother Guy.  Once at Pomfret Towers, Alice meets a couple of young men who capture her interest, and the feelings seem to be mutual.  But Alice is an unlikely match for both, so one wonders throughout how all this will turn out.  Needless to say, over the course of the weekend there is much courting, and matchmaking by older members of the party, and Thirkell keeps the reader guessing about how people will pair off.  Because, of course, they do.

Thirkell delivers the romantic storyline with a strong dose of social satire, poking fun at certain character types.  Besides Lord Pomfret, who provides considerable much comedic value, she makes fun of authors, like this one:

Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. … When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours. (p. 3-4)

There are also annoying party guests, social climbers, and several all-around good people.  Mix them up with an interesting and funny story line, and you have a highly enjoyable novel.  I look forward to reading more of this series.

Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

This was my second attempt at reading this book (read about my first, failed attempt here).  I learned a valuable lesson:  always read a series in order.  Barchester Towers is the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. In The Warden, Trollope introduced Septimus Harding and Archdeacon Grantly, and established important plot points that continue developing in Barchester Towers.

When we last saw Mr. Harding, he was recently ousted from his position as Warden of a charitable hospital due to controversy over compensation and duties, and assumed a lesser role in a nearby church.  Now, a few years later, he is comfortably ensconced in his role and, it seems, semi-retired.  The appointment of a new bishop resurrects questions of the hospital warden, since the role was left vacant.  Bishop Proudie brings a different style to Barchester, being more “Low Church” than “High Church.”  But perhaps more importantly, he is ruled by his wife:

This lady is habitually authoritative to all, but to her poor husband she is despotic. Successful as has been his career in the eyes of the world, it would seem that in the eyes of his wife he is never right. All hope of defending himself has long passed from him; indeed he rarely even attempts self-justification, and is aware that submission produces the nearest approach to peace which his own house can ever attain.

Proudie is also heavily influenced by his chaplain, the creepy and slimy Obadiah Slope.  Both Slope and Mrs Proudie have strong views on who should be appointed Warden, and Slope is also angling to be appointed to the more senior position of Dean.  Slope and Mrs Proudie engage in a very amusing  battle for control of the diocese as the hapless bishop looks on.

But Barchester Towers is about much more than church politics.  In this second novel, Trollope further develops the Barsetshire area, introducing characters from all layers of society and skewering them with his excellent wit.  There’s also a romantic storyline, in which Harding’s widowed daughter Eleanor is courted by three different gentlemen, with everyone else conspiring to influence the outcome.  Trollope shows his hand early on, allowing the reader to enjoy these antics without worrying about Eleanor doing something stupid.  All’s well that ends well, for both Harding and his daughter, and Trollope’s summing up in the last chapter left me feeling very satisfied indeed.

Trollope’s writing is filled with detail, devoting an entire chapter to introducing a single character and going on at length about issues in the church which may need some research to fully appreciate.  Reading his work requires some investment of time and effort, but I’m now a complete convert and am looking forward to working my way through this delightful series.

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: The Fault in our Stars, by John Green

Three days after finishing this book, I still can’t find words that will do it justice in a review. All I know is this: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that gave me a lump in my throat from start to finish.  Or one that, three days later, still conjures up a sad, pressurized feeling in my chest when I think about it.  I’ve certainly never loved a book that had those effects on me.

Hazel is sixteen and living with terminal cancer.  Medication has extended her life, but has not changed her prognosis.  She attends a support group for kids with cancer, and there she meets Augustus, who has been cancer free since surgery to remove a leg.  He’s very good-looking, and the two are instantly attracted to each other.   But Hazel initially resists becoming romantically involved, knowing it can’t last:

I wanted to know that he would be okay if I died. I wanted to not be a grenade, to not be a malevolent force in the lives of people I loved.

Augustus is persistent, and he eventually wins her over.  Their love blossoms through their shared experiences at support group.  She shares her favorite book with him (the story of a girl who dies of cancer), and they obsess about the author.  They play Augustus’ favorite video game, which is a kind of metaphor for their cancer battles.  They deal with the ups and downs of teenage life, which are remarkably normal and even funny, considering everything else they have to deal with.  And of course, there is a shared adventure which cements their bond:

What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.

I loved Hazel’s confidence and attitude, and Augustus’ courage and caring.  Even though their story has an inevitable conclusion, the ending is unexpected and very, very moving.  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Review: An Unsuitable Attachment, by Barbara Pym

This was a most satisfying read, full of what Barbara Pym does best:  satirizing the public and private lives of England’s “excellent women.”  Sophia Ainger is a vicar’s wife in a parish in a somewhat dodgy part of London.  When she’s not supporting her husband’s work, she’s arranging suitors for her younger sister Penelope.  There’s a comforting predictability to church work:

Ianthe Broom, Daisy Pettigrew, Sister Dew, and one or two others whose names she could never remember, now sat down round the table and began to discuss the final arrangements for the bazaar, which had always been exactly the same and always would be, except that from one year to another a pint more or less of milk might be ordered for the teas. (p. 53)

Sophia is also slightly obsessed with her cat, Faustina, who is always in the background engaging in typical feline behavior:

Her tone was a little agitated for she had also just seen Faustina mount the refreshment table and pick her way delicately among the dishes of cakes and savouries, sniffing the air, ready to pause and pounce when she came upon something that took her fancy. (p. 60)

Sophia finds sympathetic company in Daisy Pettigrew and her brother Edwin, who run a cattery.  But when conversation lags or gets awkward, Sophia fills the gap by comparing Faustina to various humans, or wondering aloud what Faustina is doing at that moment.  This never seems to help matters, but it made for amusing reading.

Then there’s Ianthe Broom, a 30-something unmarried daughter of a curate.  She works in a library and recently moved into the parish.  Most consider her past her prime, but Sophia is concerned about her competing with Penelope for male attention.  Ianthe is oblivious to all of this; she’s not looking for a mate, and values her independence.  She is both surprised and flattered when a male colleague begins paying attention to her.  But is he suitable?  Or will others judge her?

A church-sponsored trip to Rome puts everyone out of their element.  This heightens anxieties, but new experiences also offer opportunities for self-discovery.  Ianthe and Penelope both return to England with a better understanding of what they want from life and their relationships.

Pym’s world is familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in church committees, and she simultaneously respects and pokes fun at this slice of society.  Sophia’s “crazy cat lady” personality made me laugh out loud on several occasions.  And so, for that matter, did Faustina (especially since I had a cat in my lap most of the time when I was reading this book)!

I’ve read most of Barbara Pym’s books, and enjoyed them all.  An Unsuitable Attachment is now one of my favorites.

Review: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

What a delight!  Miss Pettigrew is a middle-aged governess, unmarried, and part Cinderella, part Mary Poppins.  One day, her employment agency sends her to Miss Delysia LaFosse, ostensibly to fill an open place.  On arrival, Miss Pettigrew finds Miss LaFosse, a night club singer, trying to deal with an unwanted male visitor.  Miss Pettigrew surprises everyone, including herself, by successfully getting rid of the gentleman.  And from that point on, she can do no wrong in Miss LaFosse’s eyes.

Miss Pettigrew is forty-ish, unmarried, and entirely dependent on employers for her room and board.  Miss LaFosse’s lifestyle is foreign and exciting, as are her relationships with men.  Despite her success ousting unwelcome suitors, Miss Pettigrew is completely inexperienced in the art of romance, and even the most basic beauty rituals:

Miss Pettigrew stared at her blankly. Her mind was whirling: her thoughts chaotic. A mental upheaval rendered her dizzy. Yes, why? All these years and she had never had the wicked thrill of powdering her nose. Others had experienced that joy. Never she. And all because she lacked courage.  All because she had never thought for herself. Powder, thundered her father the curate, the road to damnation.  Lipstick, whispered her mother, the first step on the downward path. Rouge, fulminated her father, the harlot’s enticement. Eyebrow pencil, breathed her mother, no lady … !  (p. 73)

She’s also very proper:

“I’ve never sworn in my life before,” wailed Miss Pettigrew.

… “But I didn’t hear you swear,” consoled Miss LaFosse.

“You must have been too upset.  I said ‘damned’ and ‘hell’ and meant them … that way.”

“Oh!” said Miss LaFosse with a reassuring beam.  ‘“They’re not swear words.  They’re only expressions.”  (p. 45)

Over the course of a single day, Miss Pettigrew comes to the aid of Miss LaFosse and her friends in countless ways.  And they teach her a thing or two as well, giving her a makeover and whisking her away on their evening adventures.  As the clock advanced into the evening, it appeared Cinderella’s coach might turn back into a pumpkin, and Miss Pettigrew would once again find herself destitute and alone.  But Winifred Watson takes the story in a different direction, one that is simultaneously predictable and enormously satisfying.

This book was  real treat.  And while it was my first Persephone Classic, I have a feeling it won’t be my last.

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: Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This is my second time reading Pride and Prejudice, so it was a bit like going to visit an old friend.  I knew I’d enjoy it, and I also hoped I’d discover something new.  I was not disappointed!

The story opens with the famous line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Charles Bingley is the aforementioned single man, and when he arrives in the neighborhood Mrs. Bennet is determined to marry off one of her five daughters. Jane, the eldest, catches Bingley’s eye.  At the same time Jane’s younger and feistier sister Elizabeth verbally spars with Bingley’s more reserved friend Mr. Darcy.  Misinterpretation and poor communication keep Lizzie and Darcy apart for far too long.  During that time Lizzie works to bring Jane and Bingley together, and rejects an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, a distant relative who is set to inherit her father’s estate.  And there’s so much more: balls, elopements, kind relatives, nasty relatives … and of course true love conquers all.

I most enjoyed rediscovering Jane Austen’s marvelous wit.  Characters like Mr. Collins, and Lizzie’s mother Mrs. Bennet, were so ridiculous I just had to laugh.  And even though Pride and Prejudice was written two hundred years ago, the book and its characters seem just as realistic and relevant today.

This really isn’t much of a review, just a few impressions of a book I know I will re-read many more times.

Review: The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch

The Nice and the Good opens with a suicide in a London government office.  The department head, Octavian Gray, asks lawyer John Ducane to investigate the situation and any potential security breaches.  Ducane then becomes the axis of rotation for the rest of the extensive dramatis personae in this book.  Ducane interviews other members of the department by day, and by night attempts repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — to break up with his mistress.  No one is quite what they seem.

On the weekends, he is often found at Gray’s seaside home in Dorset, where he mingles primarily with women:  Octavian’s wife Kate and their teenage daughter Barbie, Kate’s long-time friend Mary and her son Pierce, and recent divorcee Paula and her nine-year-old twins.  Rounding out the group are Octavian’s brother Theodore and a tenant, Willy Kost.  Here as well, everyone has skeletons in their closet:  why did Theodore leave India?  What happened to Willy during the war?  How did Mary’s husband die?  What are the circumstances behind Paula’s divorce?  How can Kate and Ducane carry on their bizarre, not-platonic-but-not-romantic relationship right under Octavian’s nose, and with his full knowledge?

Murdoch uses Ducane to move seamlessly between London and Dorset, while exploring goodness and morality:

What Ducane was experiencing, in this form peculiar to him of imagining himself as a judge, was, though this was not entirely clear in his mind, one of the great paradoxes of morality, namely, that in order to become good it may be necessary to imagine oneself good, and yet such imagining may also be the very thing which renders improvement impossible, either because of surreptitious complacency or because of some deeper blasphemous infection which is set up when goodness it thought about in the wrong way.  To become good it may be necessary to think about virtue, although unreflective simple people may achieve a thoughtless excellence.  (p. 77)

Well, that’s all a bit abstract.  If I had been in a more deeply philosophical mood as I read this, I might have formed some profound thoughts about morality.  Instead, I just enjoyed the twisting plot and the gradual revelation of secrets.  This was philosophical, too, but in a different way:  Murdoch’s style inevitably involves a lot of personal reflection and talking things out.  The denouement was neat and satisfying, with a bit of high drama, characters getting exactly what they deserved, and an air of hope.