Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Winifred Watson

“In one short day, at the first wink of temptation, she had not just fallen, but positively tumbled from grace.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, written in 1938 by Winifred Watson, has the effervescent, glam feel of its times, but rather sadly, for our titular heroine, poor downtrodden governess, Guinevere Pettigrew, her miserable life is drab as she drifts from post to post, subject to the vagaries of various temperamental employers. She’s never allowed to forget that her job is to be submissive, keep her head down and to adapt to the various obnoxious personalities of her employers. After years of living like this (and as it turns out being kicked about by two parents) Miss Pettigrew, with her “timid, defeated expression,” is a wreck of a human being. Whatever Guinevere Pettigrew could have been has been submerged by what she has become.

When the novel opens, Miss Pettigrew is desperate for work (again) and the employment agency sends her to a potential post with a certain Miss LaFosse. Miss LaFosse, Delysia, is a glamorous young nightclub singer whose life is a rotating door of men. There seems to be some initial misunderstanding when Miss LaFosse opens the door to Miss Pettigrew, and immediately there’s a crisis as Miss LaFosse, clad in a “silk, satin and lace negligee,” asks for Miss Pettigrew’s help in ejecting one man as another is expected imminently.

Miss Pettigrew finds herself dragged into the sort of life she’s only seen on the screen:

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify harry her every waking hour.

Over the course of a day, Miss Pettigrew steps into an entirely new existence. As she helps Miss LaFosse juggle men (some not very suitable at all) she discovers hidden talents. Soon, she’s knocking back the booze, fabricating alibis, helping two young women with their complicated love lives, acting various roles and even enjoying a make-over. Of course, what Miss Pettigrew doesn’t grasp is that through her lowly, subsumed role as a governess, she’s been acting all of her life and just didn’t realize it.

The great fun here is Miss Pettigrew’s ability to stretch into her new role. She finds that while she sees some of Miss Lafosse’s suitors are bad news, she too, a woman who’s never been kissed, would easily succumb to their tinsel charms.

“Oh dear!!” she thought. “These men. They’re wicked, but it doesn’t matter. They simply leave the good men standing still. […] It’s no use, we women just can’t help ourselves. When it comes to love we’re born adventurers.”

This wonderfully light frothy tale, with its non stop humour, examines sisterhood and the unmined depths of a woman who thinks life has passed her by. I have a fondness for books that explore circumstances in which people discover just what they’re capable of (which explains why I like crime books). The scenes of Miss Pettigrew knocking back the booze are hilarious.

“Sure you won’t have a whiskey?” he offered solicitously. “There’s sure to be some in the cupboard.”

“No thank you,” said Miss Pettigrew blandly. “I prefer them light in the morning.”

Her voice hinted at dark hours of intemperance in the evening.

Oh dear!”” she thought wildly. “it can’t possibly be me speaking like that. What’s come to me? What’s happening to me?”

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Temptation: Douglas Kennedy

When Douglas Kennedy’s novel Temptation opens, David Armitage is a struggling screen-writer. He’s had marginal success but doggedly hangs in there–all this made possible by his wife Lucy. She was an actress who landed a role in a sit-com pilot, and the role caused the couple to relocate from New York to LA. The sit-com never materalised. Lucy made a few commercials here and there, but finally with no money in the bank and bills to be paid, Lucy turned to telemarketing while David holds marginal hours at a book shop. They have a child, but things aren’t great:

But as the years accelerated–and we both started to cruise into our late thirties–we began to regard each other as our respective jailers.

But then David gets a call from his agent, Alison; someone is interested in David’s script. From here, things for David change rapidly. One success sails in on the heels of another. Soon there are new cars, a new house, new furniture, and then Lucy realises that soon there will be a new wife. …

Temptation arrives in form of Sally Birmingham, a “young executive” at Fox television. They meet for a business lunch and the speed at which David betrays and ditches Lucy is staggering. Next comes the bitter divorce, and soon Sally and David are the hottest couple in Hollywood. It’s clear that ambitious Sally sees David as career arm candy, so naturally his relationship with Sally hinges on his success–not that David, too caught up in his ballooning celebrity, understands that.

Dickhead David never shoulders the moral weight of his bad behaviour, and as his success continues, we know that Karma awaits…

It all unravels so beautifully beginning with a sleazy, big mouth broker named Roberto Barra, ‘Bobby’ who promises 100% return on investments within 6 months. Bobby’s aggressive, demeaning treatment of women is appalling, and yet at no point does David stop and think about Bobby’s moral behaviour and how perhaps Bobby’s ill-advised and disgusting attitude towards women may signal judgement issues. The red lights are flashing, but David is blind.

Hmmm. All I could think of was Thackeray’s Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond.

Then reclusive billionaire, film buff Philip Fleck invites David to his private island to discuss business and it’s all downhill from there.

A number of Douglas Kennedy books have been made into films: The Woman in the Fifth, The Big Picture (amazing) , The Dead Heart (the wildly insane Welcome to Woop Woop which is one of my all-time favourite films). Temptation is a slick, highly readable written novel and with its Faustian approach to the rise and fall of David Armitage (yes, we want to see him squirm), this book screams to be adapted too. Some of the character’s names drove me nuts: Bobby Barra, Brad Bruce and Philip Fleck–but perhaps Kennedy picked these names on purpose, modeling on the picaresque novel. Kennedy is particularly adept at creating the inner moral dilemma and how the journey from ignorance to acceptance of one’s flaws is costly, painful and yet ultimately strangely liberating.

 

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Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s marvellous novel Shelter in Place opens in November 2016, right after the presidential election. Childless couple, 56-year-old Eva and her wealth management advisor husband Bruce, are hosting a motley assortment of houseguests at their Connecticut home. The people we meet that night: Min Marable, decorator Jake Lovett, married book editors Aaron and Rachel Weisenstein, neighbour Grady and his cousin, recently separated Sandra comprise almost all the book’s characters, although a few more appear as the plot fans out.

Although it’s a “benevolent autumn sunset,” Eva’s mood, extreme distress at the prospect of Trump as president, eradicates the sense of peace and relaxation. A debate ensues about free speech with Eva announcing that she’s “possessed by this mad urge” to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump. Interestingly, once Eva starts the fireworks, she doesn’t actually go through with it, but instead tells her husband to do it. From this point, everyone jumps in with their opinions on this “thought experiment.” Min, who says she’s Eva’s best friend, (translation: sycophant and object of belittlingly criticism) defends Eva (as always) noting her Jewish background and concern about fascism. One of the houseguests concludes that Eva’s preposterous and toothless statement that she would do anything to defend democracy makes her a “teensy bit fascist.” Another debate ensues about “majority rule.”

This evening becomes the leaping point for the rest of the story. Eva, feeling that she can’t stand to remain in America for the inauguration party, leaves for a holiday in Venice, taking along mooching, much put upon journalist Min. Once in Venice, Eva decides to buy a palazzo apartment, and it’s the beginning of a real estate transaction nightmare and also the beginning of a deep rift between Bruce and Eva.

Shelter in Place, a comedy of manners, takes a spiky look at the affluent New Yorkers in Eva’s orbit.  Eva is a spoilt, vastly uninteresting, hollow, self-focused woman, one of the 1% cushioned by vast wealth and therefore the least likely strata of society to feel any societal turbulence. She becomes so consumed with repugnance at the thought of a Trump driven America, she decides to leave. While neurotic Eva calls Trump a “demon,” this dreadful woman (think of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives) terrorizes most of those in her circle. She loves to patronise people with the grandeur of her liberal, moral opinions–opinions that don’t hold up under scrutiny, so, for example, she’ll have an impoverished pet chef for a while until he “touched the third rail.” And then there’s Min: Eva will shove cookies and food at Min and then humiliate her for eating whenever the opportunity arises (and especially if there’s a third person as witness).

Quiet Bruce acknowledges that as a couple, he and Eva “have a system. She does the wanting and I do the paying.” As the deal for the Venice apartment becomes more complex and dodgy, Bruce, for the first time in his married life considers denying his wife’s whims, but at the slightest hint of Bruce’s resistance, Eva turns on the marital screws. She mouths platitudes about how politically she’s “refusing to do what everyone else is doing, which is either lapsing into this state of terrible ennui or putting all their energy into looking the other way.” So she garlands herself with noble status for bailing from the country while others don’t–and yet how many Americans can afford to go and buy an apartment in Venice just because they feel like it? (Or even a trailer in the Salton Sea?) And of course before long it becomes obvious that escape from Trump is just a narrative for Eva to get what she wants. Eva talks about political oppression and yet treats her servants and friends appallingly. Meanwhile, Bruce ponders the life and financial circumstances of his long-term secretary Kathy who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Kathy has been dumped by her husband (when he heard about the diagnosis), she’s drowning in debt and supports both of her impossibly selfish children. Kathy isn’t a martyr to duty; she’s a realist and in spite of her many troubles, she blames no one.

Shelter In Place, a very clever title, also refers to decorator Jake, who has emotionally ‘sheltered in place’ for decades following a tragedy. He finds it safer to engage in sexting with strangers than take a risk with real flesh and blood relationships. There’s are wonderful sections involving Jake and his partner Pablo, both decorators, each with a different aesthetic, attitudes, and motivations.

The point wasn’t to create a room that reflected their personalities. It was to create a room where they belonged.

It’s hard to relate to the privilege some of these characters enjoy–the millions they fling around and yet at the novel’s core we see humans struggling with their lives, finding excuses to bail. Ultimately Eva is a case study in a horrible human being: not ‘bad’ in a criminal sense, but a woman who’s been so indulged that she’s become a tyrant, holding everyone in her orbit in thrall, never called on her bullshit accounts of her past and present. Some of the funniest scenes involve her 3 Bedlington terriers–all named after characters from the novels of Henry James. It’s through these three dogs, we see Eva at her most intolerant worst, bitching at Bruce for walking the dogs with a neighbour who voted for Trump and then coming unglued from her perfect world when her dogs start peeing on the furniture.

One of my favourite characters is the perennially angry Aaron; fired from his job, he now simmers in the stew of failure. While he’s a liberal, he wants to take PC-ness and tear it out of society; so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it as a one-man wrecking ball. He attends a Lydia Davis book signing, although he can’t stand her work, claiming, as he holds up one of her books that the problem isn’t that young people don’t read but “what they read. Shit like this.” When told he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s “a man,” Aaron cuts loose:

Fine, then, Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s a Jerk-off. As is Jonathan Fucking Franzen, and Jonathan Fucking Lethem, and Jonathan Asshole Safran Foer. All of these fucking Jonathans, they’re total jerkoffs.

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

She is the embodiment of liberal piety at its most middlebrow and tendentious. Her novels are the beef ribs of fiction.

And:

Ninety percent of what gets published is worthless. With any luck, that’ll be the silver lining of this fucking election, that when writers start to feel oppressed again they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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The Burning Island: Jock Serong

Jock Serong’s historical novel The Burning Island is narrated by Eliza Grayling, a 19th century Australian woman who has left the prospects of marriage behind. But in spite of not being married (and no children), she’s weighed down by responsibility to her drunken, blind father Joshua, a hermit who lives with rage and a burning desire for revenge. One day, at the marketplace, Eliza realises she’s being followed by Srinivas a man who’s looking for her father. Srinivas makes a proposal to Joshua: he will outfit a ship for a voyage to recover or discover the truth about the Howrah, a ship that disappeared along with its crew and passengers. It seems a strange task for an elderly, blind, drunk infirm man, but Srinivas has a bitter tale to tell. He suspects that the Howrah has been captured and sunk by Figge, a sinister figure in the Sydney Cove shipwreck. Joshua, as a “young lieutenant working as an aide to Governor Hunter” investigated the shipwreck and came to believe that Figge was responsible for the deaths of many of the survivors. Figge escaped before he could be brought to trial but since then Figge “was a tumour” in Joshua’s soul.

Srinivas, another survivor from the Sydney Cove shipwreck, claims that Figge has dogged him relentlessly over the years and, further, that every bad thing that has occurred in his life has somehow been orchestrated by Figge–a man who lurks near in the background and yet never shows himself. Srinivas argues that Joshua will be able to sniff out the truth about the missing ship and also be able to identify Figge if necessary.

Of course there so much wrong with this plan, but Joshua who is already in self-destructive mode fueled by a single minded drive for revenge agrees to go, and Eliza choses to accompany him on the trip.

The Burning Island is a rip-roaring adventure tale, but it’s not non-stop action. A great deal of the book’s focus is on the sea voyage and Serong’s evocative writing brings the wonder of the voyage to life. As expected, animals do not fare well in this tale and some sections were hard to read. As with many historical novels, there are some anachronisms, and Eliza’s character is somewhat unconvincing. There’s a captain who dresses in women’s clothes and I found this ridiculous, although it is explained later, and there’s a sleazy doctor on board the ship who seems a blend of Svengali and vivisectionist. The Great Reveal is screamingly obvious but then one of the book’s subthemes in blindness–literal and figurative. Finally, the sufferings of the aborigines under the guise of the steamroller of progress in well integrated into the tale.

Preservation concerns the Sydney Cove shipwreck and Joshua Grayling.

Review copy

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The Less Dead: Denise Mina

In Denise Mina’s gritty crime novel, The Less Dead, single Glaswegian doctor Margo, following the death of her adoptive mother, seeks out her birth family, only to collide into a dark world of murder. Margo discovers a cache of letters from her birth mother’s sister but kept from her by her adoptive mother. Margo arranges a meeting with her long-lost relative, and after a few minutes spent in the company of her Aunt Nikki, it would seem that Margo was extremely lucky to have been adopted–even if that situation wasn’t perfect.

When people decide to go hunting for lost friends or relatives, there’s usually some impetus at work, and that is true in both Margo and Nikki’s case. Margo, who has just split for her long-term boyfriend (well, sort of) is pregnant, and with her personal life stagnating, she becomes curious about her past. In Nikki’s case, she wants to enlist Margo’s help in catching the man who murdered Margo’s mother decades earlier, a 19 -year-old sex worker named Susan.

While Margo wants to take the whole reunion thing slowly, and is interested in finding out about her birth mother, she is ill prepared to learn the ugly truth. It’s earth shattering to discover that she was the child of a heroin addict, and that her Aunt Nikki, who seems somewhat unbalanced, was also a heroin user.

Given the class divide, the meeting between Margo and Nikki does not go well. Nikki isn’t really interested in Margo as a person, she only wants to enlist her help in the hunt for Susan’s killer. Nikki insists that the murderer is a dirty cop. It’s just all too much for Margo, and she walks away. Naturally over the years, she’d imagined her birth family, but nothing she imagined prepared her for the truth.

Splintered. She imagined all of these alternative selves existed in parade worlds and these other lives have meant so much to her. They fostered possibilities and comforted her when things were miserable at home.

But once Margo is aware of her past, she can’t undo the knowledge, so it’s down the rabbit hole: soon she’s looking at news reports and even graphic crime scene photos. Margo’s interest in the case and her contact with Nikki stirs the slumbering past. Margo was unknowingly protected by class, education and in essence a new identity. All of those protections disappear once she steps into the nightmare of her mother’s murder.

The class divide between Margo and Nikki is well created, and since Margo is the spitting image of her mother, there’s a weird time warp effect as Nikki explains Glasgow’s terrible history of heroin use, and the murders of sex workers who were seen as easy targets by predators. There are parallel realities here: Nikki’s world in which women are slaughtered and no one cares, and Margo’s world where sex workers are far off in the hidden corners of society. There’s some great secondary characters here including author Jack Robertson, whose self-published book. Terror on the Streets argues that the murdered sex workers were victims of a serial killer which is contrary to the police claims. For crime fans, this is an entertaining read. Not gory, and the premise is off the beaten track.

Review copy

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Poor Angus: Robin Jenkins

“These artist types,” said Douglas, “are poison to women. I read that once.”

Poor Angus from Scottish author Robin Jenkins is an examination of the artistic life. Does the pursuit of art exclude the artist from moral obligations? Or is Art simply an excuse for selfishness? Painter Angus McAllister returns to the Hebridean island of his birth ostensibly to paint his masterpiece. He prefers to paint nudes and during the course of his modest career, he’s had many love affairs but has always managed to float away free of any entanglement. Angus “implied” that “being married would cripple him as an artist.” And, in truth, having a wife in tow, even if she were some sort of saint, would cramp Angus’s style. He can give a lot to a woman: attention (during the portrait phase), sex and romance (for a while anyway), and he’s the perfect (wild fling) antidote to the boring, stodgy, unfaithful husband.

There are two women who feature prominently in Angus’s past: the married Australian, good natured, boisterous redhead Nell and Fidelia “the most delectable of women,” part-Portuguese, and part Filipino. She is also married but is separated from her brothel owning husband.

So right away it’s established that Angus is one for the ladies, on his slippery terms, and he’s remained successfully unencumbered, always moving on when things become too serious or demanding. Both Nell and Fidelia were close calls in terms of more permanent involvement.

Angus, on his home turf, a hermit in a remote house on a remote island should be free of harassments but then Janet, a local barmaid who claims to have second sight, insists on moving in with him. She intends to have an affair with Angus to make her golf-obsessed, philandering boorish prig of a husband, Douglas, jealous. Angus isn’t comfortable with Janet moving in, but there are no other female prospects on the island, and she is beautiful. Plus there’s something about Janet–her determined willfulness that brooks no argument.

Angus is already set for domestic trouble but then the past converges upon him in the form of both of his former mistresses. Nell has run away from Bruce, her cheating, golf-loving husband, and Fidelia, with her child in tow, is on the run from her wealthy, powerful husband.

There’s a lot of humour here in Poor Angus: almost Shakespearean in a way, and most of the fun comes when the two abandoned husbands, Douglas and Bruce meet and immediately hit it off; after all they have so much in common. Both men are addicted to golf, but beyond the fun of the sport, it’s an easy way to access sex with female golf players. In spite of the fact the stuffy, self-righteous Douglas and the affable Bruce have been serially unfaithfully, they both blame their wives for running away.

The two abandoned husbands have dinner together and with Bruce loudly swearing his head off (“he’s an Australian, of course,”) they commiserate, dishonestly, about the vagaries of their wives and their respective golf handicaps.

“She’d got it into her head I didn’t want her any more. I guess I was doing a bit of fucking around. She was drinking too much and letting herself go to fat.”

The two old ladies were fairly enjoying their roast lamb.

“Her age, the doctor said. Menopausal stress. Poor Nell. Have you any kids, [Douglas] Maxwell?”

A few pages of Douglas and Maxwell, who unsurprisingly hit it off immediately, and we can see just why Nell and Janet were attracted to Angus as an antidote, but when aggrieved husbands and disgruntled wives converge on Angus’s retreat, the women suddenly see Angus’s horrible shortcomings as they wrestle with the knowledge that the antidote, hothouse nature of extra-marital affairs precludes judgement. Three very different misused women and four very different dickhead men. Douglas and Bruce hide their bad behaviour behind their golf, but is Angus so very different? Does he hide his bad behaviour behind Art? The scene is set for both comedy and disaster:

“All I want is to be left alone to get on with my painting. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Why can’t you all leave me alone?”
“You use people, Angus. They don’t like being used and then thrown away like paper hankies.”

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The Mystery of Henri Pick: David Foenkinos

“Writers are mad, everyone knows that. And ones who aren’t published … they must be even worse.”

In The Mystery of Henri Pick, Delphine, a young, ambitious book editor travels to the small town of Crozon to visit the bookshop that houses a library for rejected books. The library founded by bookshop owner Jean-Pierre Gourvec was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s novel, The Abortion:

Writers came from all over France to rid themselves of the fruits of their failure. It was a sort of literary pilgrimage. There was a symbolic value in travelling hundreds of miles to put an end to the frustrations of not being published. Their words were erased like sins.

Was the Crozon library a gimmick or a homage to those writers who slaved for years only to receive rejection after rejection? During their trip to the bookshop, Delphine and her boyfriend, Frederic, who wrote a book that failed miserably, discover a manuscript, The Last Hours of a Love Affair. The novel, authored by local pizza shop owner, the now deceased Henri Pick, is a marvel, and Delphine carries it back to Paris for publication.

A storm of controversy erupts in the publishing world, and most of it centers on Henri Pick. How could a man whose claim to fame was creating the Stalin pizza write this amazing book? His widow Madeleine and his daughter Josephine are perplexed. How could Henri have written this masterpiece without their knowledge? Just how well did they know Henri? Did he have a secret life?

The well-publicized discovery of the manuscript leads to unexpected complications as various residents of Crozon become embroiled in Henri Pick’s sudden, posthumous fame. And controversy erupts in the publishing world when someone declares the discovery a “farce.”

This delightfully frothy novel pokes fun at publishing industry and the way in which marketing can make or break a book. The ‘discovery’ of the book makes it a phenomenon and maybe it deserves to be but the media grabs onto the myth behind the novel and a publicity explosion ensues.

At one point, I thought the story would go in one direction, but it did not. The novel ultimately, for this reader, in its exploration of what makes a bestseller, became a little too coy and superficial, but in spite of this I still enjoyed the gentle comedy. After the last page, I thought this would make a great film, so it was no surprise to learn that there is a film starring Fabrice Luchini or that the book’s author David Foenkinos is a screenwriter.

Swiss authors are often the best when it comes to boredom and solitude.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Taylor

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (Part 3)

I have spent an entire lifetime unobtrusively making things easier for people and, over the years, I have developed a certain talent for it.”

What exactly is a ‘good woman?’ That’s the question I came away with after finishing Jane Stevenson’s Good Women. In this collection of 3 novellas, we see three very different women: In Light My Fire, Freda is great in bed but really… what was married architect David Laurence thinking when he tossed aside a perfectly decent wife and two children for Freda–a woman, who, let’s face it, screams trouble?

In Walking With Angels, middle-aged Wenda, saddled with a boring life and an even more boring husband turns to her constant companions: the angels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all she does is chat to them, but when she decides to start a business healing people, her husband attempts to intervene.

On the surface Wenda could be described as a ‘good woman,’ but that tag doesn’t fit by the time her story is finished.

So onto Garden Guerillas. .. Following the death of her husband Geoff, Alice still remains in their large 3 storey Georgian home in Kew Greens. Alice fell in love with the house forty years earlier. The house was in disrepair, and while Geoff didn’t want to buy it, Alice could not be dissuaded. They scrimped and scraped and it was some years before they could finally tackle repairs. Alice loves the house, but it’s the garden that’s her greatest treasure.

After Geoff’s death, Alice’s son, his wife and children, who also live in London, begin visiting a bit more. How sweet, right? No. The daughter-in law has her eyes on Alice’s house, and Alice catches her divvying up the bedrooms. After all, according to the d in law, the house is just ‘too much’ for Alice these days.

What ensues is an ugly episode all based on money. I sided with Alice and she behaved far better than I would have. Alice has to swallow some ugly facts: her son is weak, she’s seen as ‘in the way,’ and she will lose her magnificent garden.

While Alice’s son and d in law plot to get the house and shove Alice off to a flat, that’s not the last of the insults. Possibly the very worst thing you can say to a gardener is that the beautiful garden they slaved over takes care of itself. Well Alice has her revenge.

Of the three novellas, Garden Guerillas was my favourite. It’s a story of moving on but also not letting yourself be steamrolled by those who ‘love you’ so much…

And the descriptions of the garden. Surely Jane Stevenson must be a gardener?

It was the endless dance through time which drew me out into the garden every day; the constant recomposition of the picture as one element receded and another came forward. It was beautiful every single week, even in winter, but it was never beautiful in exactly the same way, I couldn’t paint worth a damn, as I discovered in my far-distant youth, but in that garden I had become an artist. Kew had taken me and taught me.

So what’s a good woman? There’s a commonality in all of these stories; despite the diverse settings and circumstances, these women triumph and survive. The ever-changing garden is a metaphor for life: one door closes and another opens in a “constant recomposition” way.

I had had plenty of practice in being taken for granted, but I drew the line at being eradicated.

Thanks again to The Gerts.

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Marlene: Philippe Djian

Philippe Djian’s novel Marlene centres on the relationship between two very different men: Dan and Richard, damaged combat veterans who return home in one piece, but still carry the shadow of war. Dan, a quiet loner, is aware of his problems–accepts some and tries to overcome others. He’s ok being alone, and prefers life that way. He’s a neatness freak and goes overboard with shouldering chores for his neighbours. The dentist next door, oblivious to his marital problems, takes advantage of Dan’s zeal for hedge trimming while the dentist’s wife offers herself, naked, through the window. Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you look at it) Dan passes up the temptation. He’s just interested in minding his own business and staying out of trouble. 

On the other hand, when the novel opens, Richard, who is having difficultly adjusting to civilian life, is in jail for a short stint. While he’s locked up, wife Nath, who’s chasing her lost youth and decades of disappointments, engages in an affair. Hardly her first but this man won’t get the message that it’s a fling. Richard and Nath’s teenage daughter, Mona, fights with her mother and Nath dumps her on Dan. 

This is not an ideal arrangement. Dan’s quiet life is disrupted and then it’s not appropriate for a teenage girl to living at his home. All kinds of trouble is heading Dan’s way even though he’s done his best to try to avoid it. He’s dragged into Richard’s messy home life, and the situation only gets worse with the arrival of Marlene, Nath’s sister. 

I’m a Philippe Djian fan. Elle is a fascinating read and my favourite of all the Djian novels I’ve read. Consequences is also recommended. I’ve also read Unforgivable and I would place Marlene at the bottom of the list.

Why?

Djian writes about messy characters with messy lives and Marlene is no exception. With this novel, however, there was a remoteness to the characters. While Dan was well-drawn, I never felt as though I got into the heads of the other characters. I also found Marlene, who is a walking disaster, annoying, and this is an entirely personal thing, but she’s pushy. Dan wants to be left alone and she pushes and pushes, gently, I’ll admit, but she still pushes. Then there’s Mona and I’m not sure why she was included to be honest. The novel is written in such a way that it was occasionally hard to follow who was doing what. No speech marks. Call me old fashioned but they help with dialogue. 

Nath sighed: her daughter was driving her bonkers. She no longer knew what to do with her; she felt as if she’d tried everything and had run out of steam.
He remained silent at the other end of the line. He knew all this.
Dan, I need a break, she moaned.
Outside, darkness was falling, and lights had gone on inside the surrounding houses. He was stuck. Fine, he said eventually. But you’d better be careful.
You’re not in my shoes. I’m just saying.

The novel opens the door into the lives of two damaged, seemingly doomed  men–one of whom may have a shot at redemption. I liked Dan but the others were forgettable. 

Review copy

Translated by Mark Polizotti

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The Big Door Prize: M.O. Walsh

After reading a series of crime novels, I was in the mood for something lighter, and so I turned to  the delightfully unusual premise of M.O. Walsh’s novel, The Big Door Prize.

The novel is set in the small town of Deerfield. Louisiana. Nothing much ever happens here and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. One day a machine which resembles a photo booth appears inside a local shop. You simply step inside, draw the curtain, use a q-tip for a cheek swab and then the machine spews out the results of “your potential in life, what your body and mind are capable of doing based on the science of DNA.” Soon all the residents of Deerfield are either using the machine or talking about it. There’s a disclaimer: “the company DNAMIX, is not liable for any stress your new potential may cause.”

It’s easy to see that the results from the machine could have far-reaching consequences, and that’s exactly what happens. How will people react to the results? Each generation has its own unique method of going-off-the-rails, but middle-age regrets, which are mainly the emphasis here, are arguably the most fascinating.

When the novel opens, teacher Douglas Hubbard has decided (without the machine’s help) that his fortieth birthday gift to himself should be a trombone. The purchase sparks fantasies which spin out into the future even before he tries to play it. He’s so absorbed in these flights of fantasy that he doesn’t realise that his wife, Cherilyn, is preoccupied with the results of the DNAMIX machine.

Use of the machine has a range of results: one woman decides to dump her job as a principal and launch into a career as a carpenter–the fact she”s never held a saw or a hammer in her life is not an impediment:

“Just one question, Pat,” he said. “Do you know anything at all in the big beeping fleeping world about carpentry?

Pat reached into either her breast or pants pocket and pulled out a pair of goggles. She held them up in the air like evidence. “I bought these over at the Rockery Ace yesterday,” she said. “So, I know about safety.”

Possibly the funniest sections of the book concern Cherilyn’s new identification as “royalty” (yes thanks to the machine) but for some reason this makes her turn away from various crafts and to internet sex.

What was her true calling? Making birdhouses out of Popsicle sticks? Crocheting Christmas stocking? What great places had she stamped on her passport? An entire life in Deerfield? Is that what she was meant for? Why not something bigger? Something grand? Wasn’t she about to turn forty as well?

Through a handful of characters, we see the consequences of the DNAMIX machine; the results make people discontent, take chances, take risks, and throw over their entire lives. The novel, while amusing, bogged down with a subplot that detracts from the story, and for this reader the tale floated on the surface of life while missing the opportunity for deeper observations. Perhaps I would have liked people to go a little crazier.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Walsh M O