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!

Review: One by One in the Darkness, by Deidre Madden

I am so grateful for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for introducing me to Deirdre Madden.  I read her 2009 shortlisted novel, Molly Fox’s Birthday, two years ago (read my review),  and then discovered she’d been nominated once before, in 1997, for One by One in the Darkness.  It took ages for me to find this book — my library didn’t have it, and it was outrageously expensive through online retailers.  Finally, Paperbackswap granted my wish.  And I couldn’t be happier; this quiet, unassuming novel is a gem.

The story is set in 1994, just before the IRA ceasefire.  Three sisters converge on their family home for a week.  Middle sister Cate arrives on her annual visit, weeks earlier than usual, citing work as an excuse. Oldest sister Helen visits almost every weekend, and immediately spots inconsistencies in Cate’s story.  Sally, the youngest, is a teacher in the village and lives at home with her mother.  Not surprisingly, it turns out Cate has reasons for visiting early which create some conflict in the family.

The relationships between the sisters and their mother are fleshed out through flashbacks to their childhood:

For the pattern of their lives was as predictable as the seasons.  The regular round of necessity was broken by celebrations and feasts: Christmas, Easter, family birthdays. The scope of their lives was tiny but it was profound, and to them, it was immense. The physical bounds of their world were confined to little more than a few fields and houses, but they knew these places with the deep, unconscious knowledge that a bird or a fox might have for its habitat. The idea of home was something they lived so completely that they would be been at a loss to define it. But they would have  known to be inadequate such phrases as ‘It’s where you’re from,’ ‘It’s the place you live,’ ‘It’s where your family are.’

Sadly, this predictable, peaceful pattern was shattered in 1968-69 as civil rights protests became increasingly violent.  Living in a rural village, events seemed remote for a while.  But eventually they, too, were affected by senseless, tragic acts.

I loved the juxtaposition of past and present, which delivered a richly detailed story in just 180 pages.  This was the first time I had read such a personal account of this period in Irish history.   I felt like I knew these people.  Their history was new to me, but their contemporary struggles were not.  And the ending took my breath away, revealing details only alluded to before, while leaving so much open to interpretation.

 

Recent Reads: Barbara Pym’s “Sweet Dove,” and Maria Semple’s “Bernadette”

My summer reading continues apace, as I work through my July book stack.  I finished two books in the past week, which is unusual for me. But one was really short and the other made for quick reading.  Here’s a run-down…

The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym
This novel centers on three friends: Humphrey, James, and Leonora. James is Humphrey’s nephew, and an assistant in his antique shop. Leonora is a middle-aged woman — younger than Humphrey and older than James — and enjoys flirtatious relationships with both men. She expects their attention, and enjoys receiving little gifts, without having to give much in return. She arranges for James to rent a flat in her house, and enjoys their “platonic living together” arrangement. But when James’ attentions stray to younger and possibly more compatible partners, she becomes jealous and tries to manipulate events in her favor. All the while poor Humphrey sits on the sidelines, a steady reliable friend with desires to take the relationship further, but Leonora is oblivious to this opportunity.

As you might expect, the story is bittersweet. Pym lightens the mood with supporting characters like Leonora’s “crazy cat lady” friend Liz, and Ned, a young American with designs on James.  Although the novel was published in 1978, the characters and story seemed more “vintage 1950s” with the odd references to sex and cannabis thrown in to modernize. Still, I always enjoy Pym’s work and found this a pleasurable comfort read.

The title comes from a poem by John Keats:

I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox was once an award-winning architect, and now lives in Seattle with her husband Elgin Branch and their daughter, Bee. Bernadette gave up her work when Elgin took a position with Microsoft; he is widely recognized as a genius. Bernadette has become a recluse, leaving her house only when absolutely necessary and relying on an India-based “personal assistant” to handle most of her administrative responsibilities. She has an antagonistic relationship with other school parents, who she refers to as “gnats.” Bee started life with a serious heart condition and is now a precocious eight-grader at a second-tier private school. To celebrate Bee’s upcoming graduation, the family plans a trip to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. But as the date approaches, Bernadette disappears, and a more complex story emerges.

The story is told through a series of emails, letters, and other documents. Bernadette initially comes across as just quirky, but deeper issues are soon revealed that challenge the family’s overall stability. The “gnats” also prove to be more complex characters than they seem, showing there is always more than one side to any story. The central conflict and its resolution bordered on the preposterous at times, but the light writing style was misleading. Beneath the surface is a novel with surprising emotional impact.

 

Review: May we be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

In the first 15 pages of May we be Forgiven, the Silver family falls completely apart.  George Silver, a television executive, is involved in a car accident with fatalities, which he may have caused.  His older brother Harold, a professor, sleeps with George’s wife and then witnesses a horrific act of violence.  Harry is a mess, and yet is the only one who can pick up the pieces in the wake of such trauma.  He is appointed guardian for George’s children, Nate and Ashley, but it’s a good thing they are at boarding school because Harry has some pretty serious issues to work through.  He engages in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, while trying to keep up appearances as a successful academic.  But as his personal life unravels, the children’s needs take on greater importance, and together the family begins their long healing process.

This book drew me in at the start with its high-action opening, and immediate sympathy for a family struck by tragedy.  And for a while, it was hard to put down.  But about halfway through, the family’s path to recovery became less believable.  Harry became involved with two different women, both under circumstances that would not normally result in healthy relationships.  The children sometimes behaved in ways that seemed more advanced than a typical 11- or 12-year-old.  And then Harry staged an elaborate trip for Nate’s Bar Mitzvah, which was crucial to their healing process, but really over the top. At this point my attention began to wane — I generally prefer more realistic plots.  But on the other hand, I think much of this story is metaphorical, and the fantastic situations are carefully crafted to illustrate a point.

A few days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about the Silver family and the way Homes told this story.  And I guess that says something.

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: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson


When I was in my teens, summer nights were often spent in the company of three or four neighbor kids, all the same age.  I remember sitting under the stars, eating pizza, playing cards, and sharing our hopes and dreams.  One summer, we became a little obsessed with the ways small events could completely change our lives.  It probably started with something serious, but eventually we came to see even the tiniest detail as potentially significant:  “If I hadn’t eaten this pizza, our whole lives would be different.”  It was a bit of silliness, really, but reading Life After Life sent me down memory lane, wondering which seemingly inconsequential events and decisions actually had far-reaching consequences.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born again and again, and each time her life takes a different course.  She dies repeatedly, in many ways and at different times.  In the first few pages, Ursula dies immediately after birth.  Later, an adult Ursula dies in one of several bomb blasts in London during World War II.  Each of her lives plays out differently, and often has an effect on the lives of family members and friends.  Sometimes Ursula’s life feels vaguely familiar to her:

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

And at other times, she acts impulsively to change the course of events:

Ursula had done a wicked thing, she had pushed Bridget down the stairs. Bridget might have died and she would have been a murderer now. All she knew was that she had to do it. The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.

I absolutely loved this book.  Kate Atkinson brilliantly constructed a series of intricate life stories, repeatedly taking the reader back to specific points in time: Ursula’s birth, the 1918 Armistice, the London Blitz.  It was fascinating to see lives take so many paths, and how often this was due more to small everyday events than to life’s “big decisions.” I enjoyed the way Ursula would sometimes act to change the future based on knowledge from an earlier life.  Atkinson also kept me guessing about other characters in the story.  In one life, something bad would happen to them.  Would it happen again in Ursula’s next life?  Or would their fate take a slightly different turn?

Life After Life was a bit like working a challenging puzzle.  This book begs to be re-read as I’m sure there are details I missed.  And I know I’d enjoy it just as much the next time, and the next …

Short and Sweet: The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The May edition of Short & Sweet is coming to you earlier than usual.  If you’ve followed along, you’ll know I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald.  Or rather, I read half of it.  I have no idea why I had this book on my shelves, seeing as I really disliked Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore.  I should have known better.

The Means of Escape is a mercifully short collection of ten stories.  I read half of them before throwing in the towel.  The title story, where a woman helps an escaped convict in hopes of running off with him, was the best of the bunch.  One story, The Prescription, was so indecipherable to me that my notes just say, “???”.  The last story I read, The Axe, began with promise.  It took the form of a letter written by a manager who had recently made a long-time employee redundant.  Clearly he felt the decision was unjust and had sympathy for the employee.  But it took a sudden turn into very strange territory, and that’s when I knew I was done with this book.

This book was just too full of “quirky” characters and bizarre situations.  These might work better in a long-form novel, but encountering a new set every ten pages or so was just too much for me.

(DNF)

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Next month I’ll be reading The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

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.