Tag Archives: miserable marriages

A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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Six Figures by Fred G. Leebron

In Fred G. Leebron’s novel, Six Figures, Warner Lutz is the newly-appointed director of  MORE, a third-rate charity in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a very small budget. There’s BIG money to be made working for high-profile charities, but Warner certainly isn’t getting rich at a salary of $35,000 a year while his wife, Megan makes $25,000 a year working at an art gallery. With a combined income of $50,000, the Lutzs are just over double the poverty level for a family of 4, so we can’t exactly feel sorry for Warner. That’s ok, he’s busy feeling sorry for himself, and even Megan, who’s continually put in the position of finding the so-called silver lining, admits that Warner is the “most negative person” she knows.

six figuresWarner is full of bitterness, anger and resentment about all the things he doesn’t have. They live in a tiny townhouse and drive a beat-up Honda that’s clocked over 100,000 miles. It doesn’t help that Warner mingles with the wealthy or drives by their mansions, and while he knows that life could be worse, he could fall through the “trapdoor” and join “the working poor, the criminal poor,” he can still barely contain his resentment at being treated second class.

Yet he still wanted more. Every morning when he drove Sophie in their shitcan hundred-thousand-plus-mile Honda with the guardrail crease down one side to the private but only $175-a-month preschool and he saw the other parents in the new Volvos and minivans and Suburbans, he wanted more. Every noon when he stood in line at the vegetarian take-out for his cup of soup and can of diet cola while in a nearby café the gray suits and sleek dresses milled between garden salads and poached salmon, he wanted more. And in the evenings when he drew up to the cramped, redbrick town-house apartments of Crape-Myrtle Hill, having passed the magic dust mansions of the growing rank-and-file rich with their screened-in porches and their two-story great rooms sand their eat-in kitchens and their master bedroom baths and built-in saunas, he wanted more.

Warner deeply regrets going into charity work, but it’s too difficult to change careers, and so he spends his days bitterly comparing his lot in life with those who ooze money; he “failed to swallow Megan’s relativity argument,” and finds it impossible to curb his anger and resentment.  Megan becomes the centre of much of Warner’s anger, and when Warner’s job performance comes under scrutiny, pressure mounts to boiling point. Then something terrible happens.

Six Figures is a novel seeped in psychological suspense in a domestic setting, and in this examination of a marriage, we see the simple day-to-day demands of a family. Megan has put her career on hold in order to follow her husband, and yet he secretly resents her and the children. Everything seems to be a choice for the Lutzs as they juggle careers, car repairs and daycare with strained financial realities. Warner is stretched to breaking point by the immense pressures of his job, and his constant envy of the ever-elusive affluent lifestyle. While a crime takes place, this is not primarily a crime novel. Instead this is the story of a marriage, the assignment of blame, and the limits of trust.

Warner is an unlikeable, alienating character with a nasty temper, and while that’s not a problem in itself, nearly everyone in this slightly depressing book is unpleasant, including Warner’s parents who arrive on the scene from Pennsylvania. There are a few scenes in which Warner rubs up against those wealthier than him and while his resentments and observations are directed towards showing the superficiality of status markers, we see that he wants the very things he supposedly despises.  There will always to be people who have more than us, but you can bet that there are also people who have less. Warner and Megan’s social position puts them outside of the window of the wealthy looking in, and that’s an interesting but uncomfortable place to be. While it’s easy to have sympathy for Megan, it’s not easy to have sympathy for Warner, yet they are, after all, in the same boat.

I loved the book’s title–after all that six figure income is a term that’s bandied about and seems to mean that the recipient has passed some magical status marker to a point of arrival. It’s a bit odd though when you think about it as 101,000 is a lot different from 999,000 but those two numbers both qualify as ‘six figures.’ It was interesting to see how the Lutzs decided to spend $150 on carpet cleaning on a regular basis when they are supposedly squeezing every penny to buy a house, but that’s society for you. I’m always amazed at how many people who claim to be ‘broke’ have regular lawn service, or cleaners, or who take their pets to be washed when they could do it their damn selves.

The biggest problem I had with the novel is characterisation. Initially this seemed to be a character-driven novel focusing on the dynamics of a marriage, but for this reader, the crime aspect worked against the character development. For the first part of the novel, Warner is a time bomb waiting to explode and then later, he remains in control until one big outburst which is intended as a defense. Somehow this didn’t quite gel. There’s a big build up and then a dispersal of all that anger and rage as it disappears … puff… into the ozone. Perhaps people would act this way in this horrible situation, but character seemed secondary to the plot.  A couple of the plot twists strained credulity, and readers should be prepared for the ambiguity of the ending.

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Balzac on Marriage and Power

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty is the story of an unhappy marriage. Julie, a young girl marries a flashy young military aristocrat and while her father knows he’s poor marriage-material, Julie can’t see past the glitter.  Here’s a superb quote on the subject of mediocrity and power:

How many men are there whose utter incapacity is a secret kept from most of their acquaintances. For such as these high rank, high office, illustrious birth, a certain veneer of politeness, and considerable reserve of manner, or the prestige of great fortunes, are but so many sentinels to turn back critics who would penetrate to the presence of the real man. Such men are like kings, in that their real figure, character, and life can never be known nor justly appreciated, because they are always seen from too near or too far. Factitious merit has a way of asking questions and saying little; and understands the art of putting others forward to save the necessity of posing before them; then with a happy knack of its own, it draws and attaches others by the thread of the ruling passion of self-interest, keeping men of far greater abilities to play like puppets, and despising those whom it has brought down to its own level. The petty fixed idea naturally prevails; it has the advantage of persistence over the plasticity of great thoughts.

But there’s more. Balzac asks what happens when the woman realizes that she’s married to a loser. Well she can deal with it and/or take a lover–that’s one option. But there’s also Catherine the Great’s Nuclear option:

Bethink yourself now of the part to be played by a clever woman quick to think and feel, mated with a husband of this kind, and can you not see a vision of lives full of sorrow and self-sacrifice? Nothing upon the earth can repay such hearts so full of love and tender tact. Put a strong-willed woman in this wretched situation, and she will force a way out of it for herself by a crime, Like Catherine II., whom men nevertheless style “The Great.” But these woman are not all seated upon thrones, they are for the most part doomed to domestic unhappiness none the less terrible because obscure.

The Scarlet Empress

scarlet empress

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The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt

“It’s always the memories you comb through the most avidly that fade the fastest, that are eclipsed  by–what to call it–? a sort of memory-fiction. Like a dream. Whereas the things we forget totally, the things that sneak up on us in the middle of the night, after thirty years–they’re so uncannily fresh.”

Sometimes reading choices are serendipitous, and that is definitely the case with David Leavitt’s excellent novel The Two Hotel Francforts as it turned out to be a perfect companion piece to a novel I read earlier this year: Transit. While Transit (which is highly recommended, by the way) depicts desperate Jewish refugees trying to exit Marseille, The Two Hotel Francforts depicts two affluent couples–one American, the other Anglo-American–in Lisbon in no particular hurry to embark on the SS Manhattan for New York.    

We met the Frelengs in Lisbon, at the Café Suiça. This was in June 1940, when we were all in Lisbon waiting for the ship that was coming to rescue us and take us to New York. By us, I mean, of course, us Americans, expatriates of long standing mostly, for whom the prospect of returning home was a bitter one.

The narrator is Pete Winters, a General Motors executive stationed in Paris, who is married to the very high-maintenance, temperamental and neurotic Julia. Being married to Julia is like devoting oneself to a cause, but since Pete acknowledges that “she was never satisfied, my Julia,” it’s a thankless, wearying task. When pursuing Julia, he “disregard[ded] every warning sign” which included Julia’s own mother who told Pete “I beg you to reconsider” when he indicate his desire to marry her daughter. Now, the marriage isn’t about passion, love or even friendship–it’s about one person absorbing the other’s demands, neediness and neuroticism:

All my life, I saw, I had been looking, in the absence of any pressing desire of goal, for a purposefulness outside myself on which I might, as it were, ride piggyback. It could have been a religion, it could have been a political party, it could have been a collection of musical instruments made from shoeshine boxes. Instead it was Julia.

As the background of this couple is teased out, we learn that Julia and Pete have lived in Paris for 15 years now in a mausoleum of a showcase apartment. They moved to Paris at her insistence, and “she had sworn” that she would never return to America. Julia intended to be a writer, but “she could only write first chapters. The middle, the vast middle, defeated her.” Instead, she’s become an empty woman who shops and decorates endlessly and is terrified that her many relatives will swoop into her home. She claims to see various relatives in various places and these sightings cause her to panic & run into hiding. Pete, who is used to dealing with Julia’s hysteria, isn’t convinced that these sightings are legitimate.  It’s with a sense of defeat and a low-grade panic that Julia counts the days until the SS Manhattan arrives. Julia schemes to stay in Portugal, and there’s the hint, from this story that’s narrated about the long-ago past, that something goes terribly wrong:

And how funny to think that when all is said and done, she was right and I was wrong! For we would have been perfectly safe in Portugal. Well it is too late for her to lord that over me now.

With money and the appropriate papers, Lisbon is a decent place to wait for a ship sailing for America. After all, “everything that was scarce in France and Spain was plentiful here: meat, cigarettes, gin. The only trouble was overcrowding.” As the refugees pour in, “hotel rooms were nearly impossible to come by.” As a consequence, there’s a desperate end-of-the-world air to Lisbon, with some people staying up all night long at the casino. The Winters are the lucky ones. They have somewhere to go and the papers to ensure they get there.  They are also lucky enough to secure an excellent room at the Hotel Francfort, but with Julia insisting that she doesn’t want to leave, there’s a great deal of tension between Pete and Julia. Then the Winters meet Iris and Edward Freleng and their elderly dog, Daisy. Meeting the Frelengs is a welcome distraction for Pete Winters, but Julia dislikes them. Iris begins to absorb some of Julia’s demanding fitfulness, and this gives Pete a little respite from Julia’s 24-7 care. The meeting seems fortuitous, and the Frelengs offer Pete, at least, interesting intelligent company for the week or so before their ship arrives. But just what is the Frelengs’ game? ….

the two hotel francfortsStrong on characterization, the novel sets the scene by showing how Pete feeling “almost giddy with relief and gratitude,” leaps at the apparent lifeline thrown to him by the Frelengs. Pete is mentally exhausted by herding the unwilling Julia to Lisbon, and the Frelengs, who are peers in the same socioeconomic status, appear to absorb some of Julia’s neediness. Julia’s impossible personality does not deter the Frelengs who seem determined to ‘buddy up,’ and the very first time the Winters meet the Frelengs, Iris drags an unwilling Julia off to see the vet blatantly ignoring Julia’s protests and disgust with Daisy.

It seems natural, at first, that the Frelengs, who write detective novels under the name Xavier Legrand, should want to spend the next 7-10 days in the company of the Winters, but then again, Julia doesn’t exactly attract friends. Her petulant self-focus is expressed almost the moment she meets the Frelengs and the two couples exchange thoughts about the war that has ripped their life plans apart:

“Us?” I said. “Oh we’ve been lucky.”

“And just how is that, pray tell?” Julia said.

“Well, we’ve made it this far without getting killed, haven’t we? A ship’s coming to rescue us. And when you think what some of these poor devils wouldn’t give to have a ticket on that ship–”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see why their having to leave their homes is any worse than our having to leave our homes,” Julia said.

“Oh, but it is,” Iris said. “Because we’ve got somewhere to flee to, haven’t we? Whereas all they have to look forward to is exile–that is, if they find a country willing to accept them.”

“But it’s exile for us, too,” Julia said. “France was our home, too.”

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between The Two Hotel Francforts and Ford Madox Ford’s excellent novel The Good Soldier, for while the setting is different, both novels examine two marriages and the problematic relationships sparked between the two couples years after the events take place. Leavitt’s intriguing title, The Two Hotel Francforts hints at the duplicity at play in the novel, and that duplicity exists on several levels. No one is quite what they seem and everyone reveals what they want people to see–no more than that.

For Edward, his broad shoulders notwithstanding, was mercurial. You could reach for him, and sometimes you would grab hold of him. But sometimes all you would grab hold of was a reflection of a reflection in a revolving door.

The ‘rules’ and dynamics of any marriage are impenetrable to outsiders, and both the Winters and the Freleng’s marriages are pathological, but in very different ways. While we know almost immediately how toxic the Winters’ marriage is, just what keeps the Freleng’s marriage together isn’t apparent at first–although the dog Daisy is arguably part of the visible gel that bonds Iris and Edward. Their lives appear to coalesce around Daisy, and it’s because of her they declined to take a ship to England. As these two couples wait for the ship that will take them to New York, the foundation of European civilization is in a state of upheaval; people are running for their lives, and here, just as the Winters and the Frelengs appear to have reached safety, their lives are ripped apart by duplicity and will never be the same. The four main characters, whose actions are clouded with desire, desperation and selfishness, are thrown together by circumstance as the world spins from unbridled fascism. They all lie to each other and to themselves, and as Iris tells Pete:

Poor thing, you’re such an innocent in some ways. Such a novice. You think there’s a protocol to all this … But there are no rules here. We’re beyond rules.

While the narrator of Ford Madox Ford’s novel, The Good Soldier, is classically unreliable, the narrator of The Two Hotel Francforts appears to be reliable. But after I put the book down, I chewed that decision over, and concluded that Pete Winters, in the depths of the lies he contrives, could possibly be unreliable in his version of events. Was his marriage to Julia quite how he portrayed it with him as the unhappy factotum for his wife’s neurotic demands? After all, we only have his version of things decades later. If you can’t already tell, I loved this novel for the way in which Leavitt depicted the complexities of these two toxic, brittle marriages–both kept together by a set of unspoken rules.

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Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook

My introduction to the crime novels of Thomas H. Cook came late in his career with The Crime of Julian Wells. For obsessive readers, it’s always exciting to ‘discover’ a writer who already has an impressive backlist, but before I could get to that backlist, here’s Thomas Cook back again a  year later with another unusual crime novel. We’ve all seen films that fall into that ‘courtroom drama’ category,  and the novel Sandrine’s Case takes place mainly in the courtroom–either through the scandalous murder trial that takes place, or in the mind of the man accused of murdering his wife as various witnesses give their testimony. Sandrine’s Case hits some buttons for me–this is a very cerebral crime novel, an unusual combination, so there’s no violence and a crime may or may not have been committed. Of course, there are crimes that break the law and for which people are caught and imprisoned, but there are other ‘crimes’ too–moral crimes, or moral transgressions if you will, frequently committed against those we supposedly love, and this are the two territories Cook explores in a parallel fashion during the murder trial.

sandrines caseThe book opens on the first day of the murder trial of English and American Literature Professor Samuel Madison who is accused of murdering his wife, a “much -loved” professor of history, Sandrine Madison, and then staging her death to look like a suicide.  While the court case determines whether or not Professor Samuel Madison murdered his wife, as the narrator, Samuel’s flashback memories provide us with a painful glimpse into their marriage. The court case, of course, provides a strict structure for the narrative, but in comparison, Samuel’s thoughts are in freefall. This juxtaposition allows us to see the barebones of the case and then moves us into the mind of the man accused of murder as he recalls the circumstances surrounding the testimonies given by various witnesses.

As the story unfolds, hints about Samuel’s guilt or innocence begin to appear. Did he or didn’t he murder his wife?  With each subsequent witness, Samuel’s memories float to the surface effectively bringing Sandrine back to life, so that a portrait of the dead woman emerges. Through the course of the trial, Samuel begins to realize that he didn’t know his wife nearly as well as he thought he did. Sandrine was a complex woman deeply satisfied with her professional life while her husband Samuel is embittered by the fact that he never wrote the ‘great novel’ he intended to write, and neither did he have the stellar career he thought he deserved. Both Samuel and Sandrine taught at a small college in Georgia, and while Sandrine loved her job and, according to Sam showed “unaccountable devotion” to her students, to Sam, the students are all dull and “uninspiring,” not worth the slightest effort on his part. Sam’s arrogance extends to his colleagues:

I’d endlessly scoffed at my fellow professors. I always thought them a mediocre gaggle of academics waylaid in an inconsequential terminus at the end of the academic line.

Of course, if all your colleagues are “mediocre” twerps, what does that make you? One of the herd or vastly superior? Testimony from witnesses and Sam’s unfolding memories show how two people can view the same town, their friends and their neighbours through two entirely different lens. Sandrine loved her job, her students and her community, but for Sam, none of it was ever good enough. Sam isn’t a very nice man, and his arrogance does him no favours. As a narrator, he’s initially hard to peg and impossible to like. He spends part of the trial deriding the intelligence of the jury and the witnesses and also believes that he’ll be found guilty simply because he’s an intellectual and privileged. Sam finds it “odd” that 12 people, the very sort of people he’s made fun of now sit on the jury about to decide his fate.

In addition to the dreadful things I’d done to their children, the people of Coburn no doubt resented the fact that I’d done it while living a very privileged life, at least some of it paid for by the exorbitant tuition required to send their children to Coburn College. But this hostility had remained more or less mute before Sandrine’s death. After it, the media had gone on a feeding frenzy, the result of which was that by the first day of my trial I’d become a person much despised in this little town. To them, I was a man who had a great job, if you could even call it work, what with summers off and sabbaticals at full pay and holidays for every religion known to man. I was a tenured professor, which to the people of Coburn was  a free ticket to a carefree and semi luxurious retirement. I couldn’t even be fired–so the locals assumed–no matter what I said in class, or even if I failed to show up in class at all. But this Samuel Joseph Madison character had wanted something more, they said to themselves and to each other. A cushy life had simply not been enough for the esteemed professor, expert on Melville, Hawthorne, and God knows how many other lesser-known literary figures. Here was a man who’d lived high on the hog despite the fact that he conceived nothing, built nothing, invented nothing, maintained nothing, sold nothing. Here was a man who lied high on the hog by  … talking.

When Sam whines about how the rest of the world treats him, going on about how everyone thinking he’s elite and privileged and then bolsters that self-pity with himself vs the plebs and their worthless offspring, the very whining illustrates how Sam sees himself as privileged and ‘different.’ That snobbery works against him during the year-long investigation that led to the trial.

As the story weaves back and forth in time, the author infuses his story with regret and tenderness, and while an image evolves of Sandrine, a woman who loved life and lived it to the fullest, Samuel is clearly too bitterly detached to feel much of anything, but as the trial continues, revelations cause him to revise many of his opinions. The plot also explores the issue of protracted illness along with the accompanying fact that disease takes us on a lonely road. Empathy and love will lighten that solitary journey, but it’s a path that must inevitably be endured alone.

I really enjoyed the book’s structure, and even though I thought I knew where the story was taking me, I did not. Cook took some risks here in creating such an insufferable narrator–a self-focused man incapable of thinking about but himself, but since I always enjoy reading about nasty people, I thoroughly enjoyed Sam’s thoughts. The novel includes a postscript which took the story into sentimentality and rather ground home the point. IMO, the book would have been better without it. Apart from that flaw, Sandrine’s Case is a thoughtful novel which explores the idea of punishable crime which society holds us accountable for vs. the elusive culpability of the moral transgressions we have to live with.

Review copy

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A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro

When I read Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Thursday Night Widows, I knew I’d found an author that I wanted to follow. Then came All Yours with its deliciously bad unreliable narrator.  This brings me A Crack in the Wall, the latest novel from Claudia Piñeiro–a story of greed, murder, and identity. All three novels are highly recommended, and while the plots are dissimilar, there’s a common thread– class, the pathology of marriage and its link with crime–all set against the shifting economic backdrop of Buenos Aires society.

a crack in the wallIt’s 2007, Pablo Simó is an unhappily married middle-aged architect living in Buenos Aires. He’s in a strange position at work–although he’s worked there for over 20 years, he’s never been made an associate, and he’s the odd man out in the unhealthy triangle at the office. There’s a long-term affair between Pablo’s married boss Borla and the third person in the office, sexy architect Marta, and that leaves Pablo, who’s plagued with his own sexual fantasies of Marta, in a  somewhat awkward position. Even though the company name is Borla and Associates, the associate, in reality is singular. Pablo has the somewhat undignified position of being the employee who overhears intimacies between Borla and Marta, and he even occasionally acts as a liaison between the two long-term lovers. If Marta wants to call Borla at night, Marta will call Pablo with a message instead of talking to Borla directly, and then Pablo picks up the phone and runs the gauntlet of Borla’s wife in order to give Borla whatever message Marta has sent.

It’s a dead-end job in more ways than one. Not only is Pablo the lowest man on the totem pole, but he’s also destined to build generically designed, cheaply made, ugly highrise buildings. With land in short supply, Buenos Aires is in state of flux: beautiful old buildings are being destroyed and systematically replaced, and as Pablo acknowledges: “You can’t lay a single brick in Buenos Aires without first finding a building and condemning it to annihilation.” Pablo can only just remember the man he used to be–a man who had goals to design and build something unique, but all this is lost. Now he’s driven, like the rest of the herd, to tear down old beautiful buildings and pack in cheap, rapidly built, high-rise flats into every available square foot of Buenos Aires, always keeping the shifting “profit margin” in mind.

For years Pablo Simó has looked at Buenos Aires purely as a source of what Borla calls business opportunities: reasonably priced plots of land on which to build: public auctions; municipal land that comes up for sale and which is feasible to buy thanks to some friend or contact; complicated estates, where the heirs want a quick sale and end up settling for a pittance; divorces that require selling off property ridiculously cheaply so as to separate what can no longer be joined. That’s what he looks at these days, because that’s what he’s been told to look for. He tries to remember a time when he saw things differently, harking back to student days when he could stand in front of a newly discovered building and feel a current pass through his body, an almost sexual sensation, a tension that nowadays he never feels so fervidly, not even in bed.

But Pablo is a dreamer, so by day he scribbles plans for the building he’d like to build, and he also holds silent conversations in his head with his long-lost, equally idealistic friend and fellow architect, Tano, a man who loved the exotic, excessive splendors of Art Nouveau. Even though Pablo hasn’t seen Tano in years, the memory of his friend acts as Pablo’s conscience–the two men hold imaginary conversations with arguments about Pablo’s actions. The presence of this imaginary Tano also reminds Pablo just how far he’s veered from the path of his youth.

And speaking of Pablo’s conscience … well, he’s hiding a horrible secret. Partly due to his passivity and partly due to his susceptibility to hysterics, Pablo committed a crime, and while the crime seemed to be buried and forgotten, that recent past walks through the door of Pablo’s office in the form of a very attractive young woman who begins asking some awkward questions….

A Crack in the Wall is both literal and figurative. Pablo was involved in building yet another high rise when he’s approached by a rather strange man named Jara who contends that the new building is undermining the integrity of his apartment. Jara has a series of photos to show the progression of a sizeable crack in his wall that has opened and continues to grow as the building next door progresses. But the “crack” also exists in Pablo, and it’s a crack that separates the man he is and the man he’d like to be. As the story unfolds with Pablo going back over past events, the crack in Pablo’s psyche widens, making it much more difficult for Pablo to live with himself. While this is a very satisfying psychological crime novel, to say this is  just a crime novel negates the rest of the plot and its character driven elements which explore the issues of identity and moral compromise while also giving us fascinating glimpses of Argentinean culture and architecture. Claudia Piñeiro shows us that there’s a very definite connection between ideals and an inner moral compass. Lose one and the other is in jeopardy.

Tomorrow he’ll walk or take a bus–there must be a bus that follows a direct route across the city from his house to his work instead of describing the peculiar horseshoe around which he travels every day beneath the earth–he will make a journey overland, allowing him to look up and take stock of all that each street has to offer. He will roam from one side of town to the other, like a treasure seeker but with no map or coordinates, with no references or clues, leaving chance to do its work, letting an invisible hand carry him through the city, guiding his determination to rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost.

Translated by Miranda France.

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Five Days by Douglas Kennedy

“But the truth is, no matter how successful or happy you may consider yourself to be there is always a part of your life that is problematic, or deficient, or a letdown in some way.”

The blurb on the back cover of Five Days includes this:

Douglas Kennedy’s powerful new novel poignantly examines the death of hope, the limitless possibilities of love, and how the entire trajectory of a life can change through one brief encounter.

It’s interesting that the words ‘brief encounter’ appear as this is the film I thought of when I read Douglas Kennedy’s latest book, but while I’d class the 1945 film Brief Encounter as a romance, Five Days isn’t so easily pegged. Yes, there is romance in these pages, but primarily this is a story of how one very unhappy 41-year-old woman faces her unhappiness and decides to do something to change her life. five daysLaura is a married Radiology Technician who works at a hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, and here between the hours of 9-5, she performs scans on patients sent to her as part of the diagnostic  sequence. It’s my personal belief that you can’t work in this sort of job without it impacting your thoughts about life & death, and this is certainly true of Laura who sees people who are dying of cancer on a daily basis. Not that Laura is the one that breaks the news, of course, but she is, nonetheless part of the sequence of events. She’s always been able to handle her job, but lately the job has been getting to her, and she’s internalizing the results: euphoric when nothing is found, and tearful when the scans yield positive results. Peel back a few layers of Laura’s life, and it’s easy to see that her marriage is unhappy and unsatisfying. Add two troubled teenagers to the mix. Trouble then is on the horizon when Laura heads off solo to a conference in Boston where she meets Richard Copeland, a 50-something insurance salesman who is just as unhappy as she is…..

Five Days illustrates perfectly that affairs do not occur in the real world. They exist in a bubble–a very special, fabricated place that is not hampered by everyday concerns, and the novel does an excellent job of showing how very much easier it is for Laura to communicate with a brand-new person who shares a great deal of her interests instead of trying to discuss anything with Dan, her long-term unemployed, depressed husband of over 23 years.

So far so good.

As a protagonist, Laura is an irritating, insufferable human being–nothing wrong with reading about insufferable people, of course, as they can be a lot of fun (thinking Kingsley Amis here), but when they’re supposed to garner our sympathy and our subsequent interest in the character’s journey of self-discovery, it helps if that character is sympathetic, and if this transaction doesn’t occur, then something different happens.  The alarm bells initially went off for me with Laura’s character early in the novel when she described her competency at diagnosing cancers, and the alarms were loud and clear when she reveals the “shock” and “hurt” she feels after discovering that her now-deceased mother had an ectopic pregnancy years earlier. And this sums up in a nutshell Laura’s central issue as a character for this reader.; other people’s death sentences are her tragedy; her mother’s inability to have more children is somehow a personal betrayal. Laura is self-focused and egotistical even while she’s presented as suffering from a general lack of affection from an obtuse, depressive, dull and uninspiring spouse. Listening to Laura became a bit like listening to a work acquaintance complaining about her home life even as you, the audience, silently feel a bit sorry for the poor sod at home.

Laura is a RT but has long-buried dreams of being a doctor with long slow hints of why that didn’t happen. The first person narrative goes back and forth in time, and Laura’s story of just what went wrong with those dreams is gradually revealed. She ‘settled’ for Dan, and it seems that there’s no intellectual spark between them. No matter. When she meets Richard, the sparks fly in an egoistical word-play exchange. I’m not sure that people really talk like this, and if I’m wrong and then they do, they are obnoxious. Here’s Laura and Richard discovering their mutual love of synonyms

“He initially had a business partner–Jack Jones. A fellow Marine. Unlike my father, Jack actually liked people. Don’t know what he was doing in business with my father, as Jack was a genuinely happy-go-lucky guy and Dad was kind of dyspeptic about life.”

“I like that word: dyspeptic.”

” ‘Bilious’ would also be a good descriptive word as well. ‘Liverish’ might also fit the bill.”

“How about ‘disputative’?”

“A little too legal, I think. Dad was a misanthrope, but never litigious.”

I looked at him with a new interest. “You like words,” I said.

“You’re looking at the Kennebac County Spelling Bee champion of 1974, which is kind of Middle Ages now, right? But once you get hooked on words you don’t really ever lose the habit.”

This sort of thing goes on for a while–a sort of word-one-upmanship, and the mental/sexual sparks flying through the air which each new posturing.

“Okay, I give you that. How about ‘abrogatory’?”

“Now you’re getting too fancy. ‘Approbative.’ “

“That’s not fancy? Sounds downright florid to me.”

“Florid isn’t ‘aureate.’  “

“Or ‘Churrigueresque’? he asked.

Five Days certainly has its merits; it is a page turner and at its best when conveying the unreality of an affair when compared to the ever-present tensions of home and responsibility. Life can throw a lot of unexpected disasters at anyone, but two middle-aged people discussing their disappointments, loneliness, unfulfilled dreams of literary fame, and past glory of long-gone college days has never been exactly an up experience. Here it’s an angst-filled odyssey into some depressing territory. I’ve been meaning to read a Douglas Kennedy novel for some time as I have seen a few films based on his books: The Woman on the Fifth (disliked it), Welcome to Woop Woop (one of my favourite cult films), The Big Picture (excellent). Perhaps Five Days was the wrong place to start, and I may very well be the wrong reader for the book as my sob-o-meter isn’t exactly a sensitive instrument. So, if any Kennedy readers out there would like to recommend one of his titles, I’ll give it a go.

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Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.

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A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee

Fellow blogger Kevin from Canada read, reviewed and enjoyed The Privileges, an earlier novel from American author, Jonathan Dee, and so when I saw a new title A Thousand Pardons from the same author, I knew I wanted to read it. Kevin had mixed feelings about The Privileges–enjoying it immensely at first (well this is my interpretation at least) but then feeling not-so-happy with an ending which he felt did not live up to the novel’s excellent opening. I say all this because I had the same reaction to A Thousand Pardons, a novel that had an absolutely tremendous start with a gripping plot, but then the novel appears to move into a different zone, dropping the storyline I so badly wanted to continue. And then the ending…well I’m still chewing it over, and now after reading A Thousand Pardons and re-reading Kevin’s review of The Privileges, I’m about to conclude that the ambiguous ending which I found disappointing, was a decision by the author–not to disappoint us, of course (who wants to do that to a reader?), but to show the emptiness and disenchantment of the American dream.

a thousand pardonsNow to the plot…

The novel begins with a view of a marriage–Ben, a New York attorney commutes to work from a gorgeous home in a small affluent town while his wife, Helen, is a stay-at-home mother to their 12-year-old adopted Chinese daughter, Sara. Ben pulls impossibly long hours at the office, arriving home just long enough to grab something to eat, walk around “like the walking dead,” and go to bed. Not much of a life.  Things have deteriorated to the point that Helen is trying to retrieve their relationship and their 18-year-marriage through therapy. Ben arrives home later than usual one night–a “passive-aggressive” move on Ben’s part, Helen is certain, and they barely make it to their therapist’s office for their weekly session and an unpleasant revelation:

“Because it’s all so unsurprising.” Ben said, very much as if he hadn’t heard anyone else’s voice. “I’m scared of it. I’m scared of every single element of my day. Every meal I eat, every client I see, every time I get into or out of the car. It all frightens the shit out of me. Have you ever been so bored by yourself that you are literally terrified? That is what it’s like for me every day. That is what it’s like for me sitting here, right now, right this second. It’s like a fucking death sentence, coming back to that house every single night. I mean, no offense.”

“No offense?” Helen said.

Helen knows that she and Ben should divorce, but she’s in that mode of punishment and endurance:

She knew what the right thing to do was. Dismantle it together: help him find a new place, work out the money, sign whatever needed to be signed, put on a united front for poor Sara, who’d already had two parents abandon her, after all. But for once in her life Helen didn’t want to do it. Why should she make it easy for him? She’d made everything easy for him for eighteen years, and he’d repaid her by making an explosive, weepy public display of his horror at the very sight of her. Screw the right thing. If he hated her so much, if life with her was such a death sentence, then let’s see him be a man about it, for once, and devise his own escape.

I happen to be a believer in the idea that some people (with the exception of natural disaster, disease, or just plain bad luck) get what they want by hook or by crook. They may not be honest or straightforward about getting what they want, but somehow things just seem to “happen.” Back to that passive-aggressive thing. In Ben’s case, he seeks freedom from his boring, predictable life without taking firm, direct action, and just how he achieves his desire through sabotage takes up the first, gripping section of the novel. Shortly, and with virtually no warning except the fact that her marriage has been on the rocks for some time, Helen finds herself seeking work, and this section, covering Helen’s subsequent career takes up quite a chunk of the novel.

The section dealing with Ben’s self-destructive sabotage of his life is unbelievably good–after all a married father who’s affluent, and with a secure, enviable career has a lot to lose, but there’s also a lot of protective padding. So it’s logical that Ben is going to have to sabotage all his advantages in a spectacular way if he wants to jettison from his established life. But then the novel moves on, leaves Ben and follows Helen’s job hunt in New York. The move from Ben’s gripping, incredibly insane actions to the plod of a job hunt is a tremendous change of pace, and one that is not without its narrative problems. Helen has been out of the job market for over 10 years, and even when she did work she was a sales manager at Ralph Lauren. Somehow, with no experience whatsoever, she lands a decent job at a pathetically small PR company. I had problems with swallowing that part of the plot and could only conclude that she was hired because her new boss must have fancied her. My annoyance with this plot development was premature as the author addressed this issue later on.

As a reader I had also issues with Ben’s mental shift as he morphs from a man adamantly denying a mid-life crisis and making a complete idiot out of himself into the one character in the book who seems to have it all together. I began to wonder if he was on medication as he stoically swallows his pride and suffers through humiliation after humiliation in some sort of penance. Meanwhile Helen takes on the PR management of the sins of a small business owner, mega corporations, a film star and even the catholic church. She’s spent the last ten years of her life being the perfect mother and the perfect (here I invoke that rather sickening word,) “homemaker.” I suspect that Helen was as sick of her life as Ben was; he just expressed it better. Once in the work world, Helen gets a taste of just what it’s like to juggle parenthood with career demands, live with a judgmental teenager, spend hours on a ridiculous commute and come home too exhausted to do anything except sling take-out meals on the table for dinner.

 In spite of its flaws, this was a compulsive, addictive read which I finished in two sittings. While the ending left me scratching my head (back to Kevin’s response to The Privileges), some of the scenes and the characters were phenomenal. Jonathan Dee certainly has a knack for recreating the suffocation of upper-middle-class life with its markers of success, gleeful pettiness at failure and its delight in gossiping about those who’ve fallen off the middle-class wagon of respectability. There aren’t many likeable people here, and most of them are as sad and lost as Helen and Ben. One of my favourite characters was the rather bitter, deeply unhappy Bonifacio, hired by Ben–a hungry small-town lawyer who rents a space above a hardware store. He can’t hide just a sliver of glee at his client’s downfall:

When she looked over at Bonifacio, he wore a smirk like he was enjoying a bad TV show. How he must have hated guys like Ben, Helen thought–lawyers who rode off to Manhattan every morning while he climbed the stairs behind the hardware store and tried to act outraged over whatever sad grievance one of the locals might bring in.

So, not a perfect novel, but Jonathan Dee is certainly treading in the literary footsteps of Richard Yates with his themes of inertia, the dreary treadmill of routine, the slow death of romance and love, and the utter disenchantment with the American Dream.  Dee offers us a frightening, claustrophobic look at the American Dream which has somehow or another turned into the American Nightmare–Ben and Helen, initially at least, have everything we are supposed to strive for, and yet Dee shows us that this soulless existence is something no sane person would want, and as it turns out Ben and Helen don’t want it either. The conclusion leaves us with the uncomfortable, hollow feeling that there’s not much to replace our pathetic social goals and meaningless social status markers.

Review copy

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The Odd Women by George Gissing

In 2012, George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street made my Best-of-the-Year list, so in 2013 it was time to pick up The Odd Women, and after reading this remarkable novel which I can’t praise enough,  I can easily say that George Gissing has become a new favourite author. Published in 1893, in late Victorian England, The Odd Women examines ‘The Woman Question’–the shifting roles of women in a world of social change, and given the topic, it should come as no surprise that the novel concentrates on the lives of several women who make various choices–some traditional and some courageously non-traditional. Under examination is the societal expectation that women will marry and move from their father’s economic cloak of care to suitable husbands who can take over that role. But what happens if there is no husband–by fate or by choice? What happens to these Odd Women (and there’s a double meaning here) who remain single?

So many odd women–no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives.

The novel opens in 1872 with the family of a widowed Dr. Madden who has six daughters ranging from 19 to 5 years of age. Although Dr. Madden isn’t an affluent man, he has tried to ensure that his daughters receive an adequate education–a decision he sees as “the next best thing to saving money,” and the assumption is that, if for some reason he can’t support his daughters or they don’t marry, then they will be able to seek genteel employment as teachers, companions or governesses. As the novel continues and leaps forward to 1887, we see just how this ‘genteel’ employment decimates the Madden girls.

The odd womenThe Madden girls are middle class with a marginal education, so when they are forced to seek employment, they are not skilled enough to seek positions with the upper classes. Instead, Alice and Virginia Madden find themselves accepting live-in positions with people barely above their own social sphere, and these are jobs in which they are overworked and sometimes receive ‘board and care’ and no wages whatsoever. Humiliations pile on to humiliations, and years later,  in 1887, Alice and then Virginia, the latter who becomes an alcoholic, drift to a bleak London boarding house where they share a room. All their hopes and concerns rest on their youngest sibling, Monica, the beauty of the family, her health under threat, who works 6 exhausting days a week, typically 18 hours a day, as an underfed and overworked shop girl.

Enter Rhoda Nunn, a very determined young feminist “with zeal for womanhood militant,” who works at a business school which trains “young girls to work in offices,” owned by philanthropist, Miss Barfoot. Rhoda knew the Madden girls years earlier, and when she runs into them again in London, she’s shocked by what’s become of them, and she is determined to help the sisters rise out of their economic quagmire. Monica withdraws from the exhaustive, exploitive work as a shop girl and is enrolled at the school, but she’s courted by a much older, dour bachelor, Edmund  Widdowson who loves her with an unhealthy, possessive fixation.

While the novel opens with the Madden family, Rhoda Nunn is at the novel’s centre. Rhoda, an extremely attractive and self-possessed young woman, is determined not to marry and believes that she needs to set an example to the school’s female pupils. Rhoda is more far radical in her attitudes towards men and marriage than Miss Barfoot, and some of their differences float to the surface after a former pupil, a Miss Royston, a young woman who ran off with a married man and was subsequently abandoned, writes to Miss Barfoot for assistance. Rhoda harshly and coldly insists that Miss Royston not be allowed to return to continue her abandoned studies whereas Miss Barfoot has pity for their former pupil:

“Personal feeling is misleading you,” Rhoda pursued. “Miss Royston had a certain cleverness, I grant; but do you think I didn’t know that she would never become what you hoped? All her spare time was given to novel-reading. If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea we should have a chance of reforming women. The girl’s nature was corrupted by sentimentality, like that of all but every woman who is intelligent enough to read what is called the best fiction, but not intelligent enough to understand its vice. Love–love–love; a sickening sameness of vulgarity. What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won’t represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced. Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. There is the sexual instinct, of course but that is quite a different thing; the novelists don’t dare talk about that. “

Rhoda’s hard-line position comes under assault after she meets Miss Barfoot’s relative Everard Barfoot, a man of the world who is attracted to Rhoda and sets out to test her defiant declaration to abstain from any relationships with men. Barfoot has a bad reputation when it comes to women. Is that bad reputation deserved? Gissing is very clever about this aspect of this brilliant novel; he first introduces Barfoot as a bit of a cad, and then Barfoot later explains away what happened. But then later still, Barfoot gives his side of the story to his male friend, Mickelthwaite, and there’s something rather chilling about Barfoot’s cold delivery. Then there’s Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda–at times he’s genuinely intrigued by Rhoda’s radical feminism, but his cold, calculated seduction of Rhoda suggests that she represents a challenge more than anything else.

Marriage and male-female relationships are under scrutiny in the novel, and so Monica and Widdowson’s miserable, disastrous marriage becomes the perfect late Victorian example of just how wedlock corrupts both partners. Monica realizes too late that she’s trapped in a suffocating marriage. This was a marriage that was supposed to free her from degrading servitude, but Monica discovers there’s a terrible price to pay. The very traditional Widdowson assumes the patriarchal role, and he seems genuinely confused when Monica refuses to obey him. For her part, Monica is unable to grasp her husband’s frustration. Monica has spent time with feminists and thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to sally forth in London alone; her husband, however, contends that he’s there to ‘protect’ his wife, and that basically translates to not letting her out of his sight. Unfortunately, Widdowson’s efforts to control his wife do not stop there; he also demands that she read certain approved books, and he sees her refusal to bend as “rebellion.” Widdowson somehow always misses the point. He suspects the wrong people of being a bad influence and he sees a threat in the wrong man. But there’s fault in Monica’s view too. She married for security and material ease but discovers that’s no enough. Where’s the love and the romance? Clearly Monica is not ready emotionally or mentally to keep the bargain she made, and Gissing hints at Monica’s frame of mind through her selection of reading material.

Similarly there’s an element in Barfoot’s relationship with Rhoda that demands a type of submission–a bending of her will to his seductive powers. So much for male-female relationships. Miss Barfoot, not so radical as Rhoda, has a sliver of romance in her heart, and she accepts that marriage, for most women, is inevitable and perhaps a better choice than the life of a spinster. Miss Barfoot’s goal is to train ‘genteel’ (middle-class) young women for careers that offer a reasonable alternative to virtual shop or domestic slavery, but for those who opt for marriage, Gissing gives examples which show that wedlock is a corrupting institution that forces a destructive, forced and unnatural relationship. Gissing lands on the idea, however, that marriage is a questionable state for all parties involved with no one sex more of a victim than the other. Mr Barfoot, whose own brother is a victim of his wife’s capricious whims, also holds his friend Poppleton up as another example of a victim of an impossible marriage. Poor Poppleton now resides in a lunatic asylum  as a result of years spent under the same roof as his humourless, dragon of a wife. Then there’s Mr. Orchard “worn to skin and bones” who fled his wife when he became suicidal. Miss Barfoot, Everard Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn discuss these relationships one evening:

“Why will men marry fools?”

Barfoot was startled. He looked down in his plate smiling.

“A most sensible question,” said the hostess, with a laugh. “Why, indeed?”

“But a difficult one to answer,” remarked Everard , with his restrained smile. “Possibly, Miss Nunn, narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.”

“I should have thought,” replied Rhoda, elevating her eyebrows, “that to live alone was the less of two evils.”

Gissing seems to say that marriage, Victorian-era marriage at least, is an institution fraught with peril and difficulties–perhaps as Rhoda says, an institution best avoided, and it does not appear that one sex is to blame here. Marriage may claim its victims in The Odd Women, but Gissing offers us Micklethwaite and his middle-aged bride as a sort of consolation. After a seventeen-year engagement, Mickelthwaite can finally afford to marry (and blissfully so), and with this note of optimism, shrouded with bitter economic reality, Gissing’s novel lands firmly not against the vagaries of men or the narrow-mindedness of impossible wives, but on criticism of Victorian society and morality.

The Odd Women is also available FREE for the kindle.

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