Sunday, 19 May 2019

The Female Persuasion


I loved Meg Wolitzer's last novel The Interestings.  Particularly the summer camp for gifted teenagers Spirit-in-the-woods and her evocation of the 1970s.  Her latest novel The Female Persuasion has just been published in paperback.  The reviews described it as a feminist or #MeToo novel and I wasn't sure if it was for me as I'm not keen on novels which are heavily based on issues. It's probably why I like Anne Tyler so much as her focus is usually on families who are out of step with each other and the passing of time.

I needn't have worried though, because The Female Persuasion is a big sweeping story with love, tragedy, ambition and compromise.  It starts off as a bit of a campus novel - I love a campus novel!  The central character Greer is bright and likeable but lacks confidence.  An introspective teen who was saved by books as a child.  After an unpleasant incident at a fresher party and a visit to her campus by a renowned and charismatic feminist Greer finds her focus and a heroine.

The feminist Faith Frank is an interesting character.  Active during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s she is now slightly out of step with social media and herself the target of snide internet comments.  Still glamorous and active in the movement she has had to learn to compromise.  I kept thinking she must be based on Gloria Steinem but it is never stated.

Everyone grows and changes in this novel - Greer's adorable boyfriend Cory and her best friend Zee and Greer herself learns that sometimes your heroines have feet of clay.

An immersive and enjoyable read.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

In This House of Brede


Almost all of the nuns were acutely observant of clothes and, perhaps because of their own perpetual black and white, they revelled in colours .... the new sister Cecily’s dress and matching coat were delightful. ‘That love-in-the mist blue, said Dame Beatrice.'

Mention Rumer Godden and women of a certain age will smile fondly and remember beloved children’s books such as The Diddakoi or Miss Happiness and Miss Flower or coming-of-age novels such as The Greengage Summer, always charming and never sentimental. Then there are the semi-autobiographical trilogy of ‘Indian’ novels for which she is perhaps best known. My own favourite is her 1969 novel set in an enclosed order of nuns at Brede Abbey in Sussex. Godden had written about nuns before in the darkly melodramatic Black Narcissus but In the House of Brede is her great mature novel.
 
Philippa Talbot joins the order in her early forties, having been married and giving up a highly successful career for the contemplative life. Philippa makes mistakes, accidentally breaking the wing of a stone angel and failing to be impressed with a know-it-all missionary. She also inadvertently stokes the jealousy of Sister Agnes who sees Philippa as a threat.

She envied the clarity of the younger woman’s mind and Philippa was so much quicker than Dame Agnes who felt herself beginning to be slow; she even envied Sister Philippa’s slim height, her carriage and the grey eyes that were so beautifully set; they would be more noticeable still when they were framed by the wimple and fillet.


Philippa learns that nuns can be envious and occasionally mean-spirited but they always, always try to support one another, to do what is right and to harness the power of prayer. There are secrets in the order, too. What is Dame Hester trying to say on her deathbed? Why is Dame Veronica acting so strangely and what is Philippa herself not revealing.
 
I didn’t think that the election of a new Abbess at Brede or Dame Hester’s deathbed message or the unsuitable crush that Dame Maura develops for novice Cecily would be so nail-bitingly readable but Rumer Godden’s gift for storytelling will keep you turning the pages. 

Do you have a favourite Rumer Godden?

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Raymond Chandler kinda mood

‘Mostly I just kill time,’ he said. ‘and it dies hard.’
 
The Long Goodbye is, I think, Raymond Chandler’s best novel. I like the nods to Scott Fitzgerald, particularly in the portrayal of the tragic Gatsby-like Terry Lennox. I also liked the California setting of dusty eucalyptus trees and airless heat. The plot is sometimes utterly baffling but I don’t think Chandler is read for sophisticated plots. He is read for the attractiveness of his laconic private investigator Philip Marlowe and his mastery of the American vernacular.

The novel has a brilliant opening with Marlowe giving a drunken Terry Lennox a lift home when his wife drives off and abandons him outside a country club. This leads to a friendship - drinking gimlets (gin and lime juice) in Victor’s bar. When Lennox’s wealthy and adulterous wife is found murdered, Marlowe risks his private investigator’s licence by helping him escape to Mexico. After a few nights in jail having been framed by the corrupt police officers who pervade Chandler’s novels he is asked to locate a missing writer prone to go on alcoholic binges by his anxious wife which sends Marlowe off again on a search for a man who doesn’t particularly want to be found.
 
Terry Lennox drinks to forget the horrors of the war. The missing novelist is aware that his skills as a writer are declining and drinks to forget. Philip Marlowe’s advice to Terry Lennox for giving up drinking is an example of Chandler’s beautiful writing.
 
‘Usually it does. It’s a different world. You have to get used to a paler set of colours, a quieter lots of sounds. You have to allow for relapses. All the people you used to know will get to be just a little strange. You won’t even like most of them, and they won’t like you too well.’ 

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Guard Your Daughters


I’d kind of dropped out of the loop a bit with Persephone books but Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters was prominently displayed in the Cambridge Heffers just before Christmas so I bought a copy and raced through it in a couple of days.

This post-war novel features one of those bohemian, female-centred households consisting of five sisters and narrated by nineteen year old Morgan who has something of the charisma of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle. I loved the rambling old house and the episode where the sisters are initially reluctant to play French cricket in the damp garden with a soggy ball but get completely involved and finish the game in high spirits.  


I liked the daughter Cressida who cares how things look and the elder married sister Pandora who is unafraid to challenge her parents. When her father objects to a young man visiting because it upsets their mother (who is clearly not well) she calmly asks ‘Are we a convent father?’
 
 A review I read somewhere complains that the sisters call each other ‘Darling’ too much but those of us who have read a lot of Nancy Mitford and all five volumes of The Cazalets are well used to that! Just when you think the novel is getting a little twee towards the end the dark undercurrent resurfaces and although the attitudes towards mental health would now be questionable it is sympathetically written. Highly recommended.
 
I’m also ploughing through Violet Powell’s leaden biography of E M Delafield. Waaaaay too much recounting of every plot of every novel and Delafield was very prolific.  The only time the biography really comes to life is the chapter in Elizabeth’s own words which describes  her life as a postulant in a convent at the age of 21 and the touching reason she decided not to become a nun.

Occasionally when Violet Powell describes Elizabeth packing empty Christmas cracker boxes with earthy primroses to give to friends or the moment a robin from her Devon garden flies into her bedroom after her death at only 53 you get glimpses of what this book could have been.  We are well overdue for a definitive biography of E M Delafield.  Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Louisa May Alcott


'Amy we must go. Good-by dear, do come and see us, we are pining for a visit. I don’t dare to ask you, Mr Lamb; but if you should come, I don’t think I should have the heart to send you away.’ Jo March, Little Women

One of my favourite scenes in Good Wives is Calls where Jo reluctantly pays social calls with Amy and wickedly imitates May Chester’s gushing conversational style. This results in trouble for Amy in the subsequent chapter Consequences where she helps out with the art stall at the Chester’s fate and pays the price for Jo’s thoughtlessness. Those who find Little Women sentimental may be surprised at Alcott’s brilliance at dialogue and social satire in these chapters. I’ve just re-read Little Women and Good Wives recently and found it as fresh and charming as ever. 

I took a little trip to Heffers in Cambridge last week. There is something magical about Cambridge in winter with its cobbled streets lit up for Christmas and the great colleges against the skyline. I was looking for a biography or collections of Alcott’s letters but couldn’t find anything so I bought Meg, Jo Beth and Amy - The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux. 

It contains some fascinating facts about the life of Louisa May Alcott. She wrote most of Little Women in 10 weeks(!) at the requests of her publisher who wanted a book for girls. I was interested in the scenes that were cut from the original manuscript of Good Wives - Amy visiting a casino in Europe, Amy having more than one suitor and Laurie passionately kissing Jo when he proposes to her! Rioux goes into extensive detail about the film, television and theatrical adapations of Little Women which I am not particularly interested in but it’s an enjoyable read.

Do you love Little Women?

Sunday, 11 November 2018

A Patchwork Planet


There were eleven full-time employees at Rent-a-Back. That meant nine people that I knew of had New Year’s plans. And these were not particularly successful people. Several might be looked upon as losers.


Anne Tyler’s charming novel A Patchwork Planet begins with a package delivered on a train to Philadelphia the day before New Year’s Eve and ends pretty much the same way. Barnaby Gaitlin is probably Tyler’s most attractive underachiever. His teenage penchant for breaking into neighbourhood houses to steal tiny mementos and rifling through photo albums results in a spell in a reform school for rich boys. Now almost thirty, he refuses to join the family firm and works for Rent-a-Back shifting furniture and doing odd jobs for the elderly and housebound.

Pretty much impervious to criticism from his ex-wife and appalling mother for not finishing his degree, living in a rented apartment, dressing like a tramp and working in a job without prospects Barnaby has an empathy which has the reader rooting for him from the start. When he goes to watch his daughter Opal’s ballet recital he feels for her ungainliness:
 
When they all set their heels together and pointed their toes sideways, she was the only one with no space showing between her thighs.

When he unpacks the Christmas decorations belonging to an old lady consisting of faded paper chains and a bent home-made aluminium star with no matching points he is overwhelmed with sadness and remembers why some of his workmates can’t stay in the job.

There is much comic relief though particularly in the dialogue between Barnaby and Martine, his Rentaback sidekick, who despite her petite stature, talks tough and drives the truck and the farcical plot involving a substantial sum of money hidden and retrieved in a flour bin more than once.  There is also one of Tyler's notorious family mealtimes at Thanksgiving where Barnaby's mother - a woman with something 'glittery and overwrought' about her excels herself in unpleasantness.  
 
This is a lovely seasonal read. What is your favourite Anne Tyler novel?

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Elizabeth Jane Howard

'I have always rather wondered whether perhaps you and Clary might not benefit from university?  It is the time when one can absorb most and I should like to think of you being exposed to really good minds, first-class teaching and the opportunity to meet many different kinds of people.' Miss Milliment, Marking Time, Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’m racing through Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet novels quite unable to put them down. I’ve almost finished the third volume Confusion and I’m so invested in the characters now that I can’t wait to find out whether Polly will find love, Villy will kick her cheating husband into touch, Louise will resume her passion for acting and Clary’s father will ever return from capture in France.

Home Place, the Sussex country house with its familiar and comforting routines provides sanctuary for various generations of the Cazalet family amidst the hardships of wartime. Tennis tournaments are played while bombers fly overhead, lemons and sugar are nowhere to be found, clothing coupons are used on rare shopping trips to Liberty and Peter Jones in London and passengers arriving on the Sussex trains have to count the stops and guess which station they are at because of the blackouts.
 
And what will become of the wonderful Miss Milliment? The elderly governess of great intellect and gift for teaching. Despite her unfortunate appearance and lonely life lived in abject poverty she always advocates education for girls.

Elizabeth Jane Howard has a remarkable ability to portray three or four generations of the Cazalet family and their domestic staff and wider networks of friends and make them all seem vivid and real. There are lots of affairs and extra-marital relations perhaps as a reaction to the constant fear of bombs and the advance of Hitler.  

Good to see that the first volume The Light Years is now a Picador classic and good to know that I still have two more books this series to come. Do you love The Cazalets?