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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Recent Reads: One Mystery, one Classic

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Sunday Salon post, I’ve been in a “book review funk.”  But I’ve still been reading, and over on LibraryThing I dashed off a few comments about my two most recent books.  I also finished my June short story collection.  Since I’m off work this week with time on my hands, I might actually write a proper review!

But without further ado, here are my thoughts on a mystery, Revelation, by C.J. Sansom, and a classic, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense.

This is the fourth Matthew Shardlake mystery set in Tudor England, and I found it just as good as the others. In this book, Matthew vows to avenge a friend’s murder by finding his killer. He learns of a previous murder, sees a pattern, and realizes he’s on the hunt for a serial killer who is likely to murder several more people. There are plenty of grisly murder scenes in this one. Matthew’s sidekick Jack Barak, and his friend and apothecary Dr. Guy Malton, figure prominently in this story as well, and provide interesting subplots. There’s only one book left in this series, and I’ll be sad when it ends.

In one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, the author explores issues of morality and sexuality in the context of a mother-daughter relationship. Kate Clephane left a loveless marriage and was denied further contact with her young daughter Anne. She escaped to the French Riviera and moved among society there. Kate and Anne are reunited many years later. Anne is now a young adult, and surprisingly welcoming. She introduces Kate to post-World War I New York society, where much has changed from the world Kate once knew. Anne and Kate’s relationship blossoms, but is severely tested when one of Kate’s “old flames” arrives on the scene. For the first time in many years, Kate has to think about someone other than herself, and sort through several moral dilemmas. Wharton is masterful at showing the constraints women faced in those days, and resolves the conflict in what was probably the only way possible. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, and I really enjoyed this book.

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: 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.

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.