The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

“Something clear and impenetrable as a pane of crystal seemed to cut him off from her, and from all that surrounded her. He had been to the country from which travellers return with another soul.”

I discovered Wharton many summers ago. I read several of her marvellous great novels and was annoyed that I hadn’t read her sooner. Since then, I’ve read her lesser novels from time and time, and then recently I stumbled upon a copy of The Children, tucked away in a corner of a shelf. There’s a problem when you’ve read ‘the best’ (or at least the acknowledged best) of an author; you expect everything else to be a disappointment.

The children

In The Children, 46-year-old American engineer Martin Boyne is sailing to Europe to join widow Rose Sellars, the woman he loves, who is in the Dolomites. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. She was stuck in an unhappy marriage, but now, following the death of her husband 7 months earlier, Rose is free. Martin has every intention of having a wonderful holiday, mostly spent with Rose, proposing and then finally settling down

In his homeless years that sense of her stability had appealed to him peculiarly: the way each time he returned, she had simply added a little more to herself, like a rose unfurling another petal.

Now their moment has come. Or has it?

In the port of Algiers, other passengers embark, and leaning over the deck, Martin spies a young woman who herds several young children. Looking at her face, he literally “gasps” and murmurs to himself  “Jove– if a fellow was younger.” He begins to count the children and decides that this girl “must have been married out of the nursery.” Over the course of the trip, he learns that this young girl, Judith Wheater, is the oldest child of old acquaintances: Cliffe Wheater, one of “the showiest New York millionaires,” and the former Joyce Mervin.  At one point, Martin was one of the young men who circled Joyce but she married Cliffe and his money instead. Martin is intrigued by 15-year old Judith–especially when he learns that Cliffe and Joyce married and divorced, married other (unsuitable) people and then subsequently patched things up and married each other again. Judith heads a troupe of 7 children which includes her brother Terry, who has frail health, several ‘steps’ and Chipstone, the latest child from the Wheater’s (re)union.

Cliffe and Joyce Wheater’s former spouses include a shifty Italian prince and an actress; two of the children are Italian and aren’t the Wheaters’ children at all. As the Wheater parents, part of the glittering social set, traverse Europe, the 7 children are moved from one location to another, rather like luggage, with a-too-malleable governess and various servants in tow.

During the sea voyage, Martin and Judith strike up a relationship, and when the situation between Cliffe and Joyce Wheater turns south (again), Judith turns to Martin for help. The children are about to be separated and sent off to various households, and Judith begs Martin to help her keep the children together. Martin has been enjoying a wonderful, peaceful reunion with Rose, but in the company of Judith and her siblings, Martin’s opinion and relationship with Rose shifts. …

But already, too, he was beginning to wonder how he was to fit Rose Sellars into the picture of his success. It was curious: when they were apart it was always her courage and her ardour that he felt: as soon as they came together again she seemed hemmed in by little restrictions and inhibitions.

Martin is a classic Wharton character whose actions sometimes undermine his security, his respectability, and certainly his future. Also as with Wharton characters, Martin doesn’t examine his (uncomfortable) murky motives too closely. Is Martin, who’s loved Rose from a distance, now looking for excuses to slip the yoke of domesticity? It’s one thing to love someone who is unavailable and quite another when the woman who is worshiped, the ‘perfect’ unattainable woman, is suddenly up for grabs. Marrying Rose means moving to New York and joining the society he despises. Plus now Rose is courting an elderly aunt who has promised her niece a legacy, and this is a relationship that repels Martin.

he had schooled himself to think that hat he most wanted was to see Rose Sellars again. Deep within himself he knew it was not so; at least, not certainly so. Life had given him hints of other things he might want equally, want even more

Then what of Rose? When we first see her through Martin’s eyes, she’s elegant, patient, calm, understanding, mature, but as Martin becomes more involved with the children, Rose’s disapproval alters how Martin (and we) see Rose. Her perfection slips.

All her life had been a series of adaptations, arrangements, shifting of lights, lowering of veils, pulling about of screens and curtains.

And then there’s Judith. … 15- years-old, an ill-educated girl who, due to the tawdry aspects of her parents’ lives, seems mature beyond her years, and yet her spelling reveals both her immaturity and the sad lack of a proper education. Is Judith as naive and innocent as she appears? Martin, a middle-aged bachelor who has avoided commitment his entire life, suddenly assumes the responsibility of 7 children. This is extreme behaviour, and it’s completely impractical. Does he agree to help because of his infatuation with Judith or is he deliberately sabotaging his relationship with Rose? Is Martin attached to the children partly because this is the family he never had? Is it a coincidence that Judith happens to be the daughter of a woman he once courted? Is he, in essence, trying to step back into the past? That’s for the reader to decide.

One of the memorable scenes in this memorable novel takes place when Rose’s lawyer, the much older Dobree, travels to Cortina to see her on the excuse of business. Dobree, Rose, Martin and the children go on a picnic, and there’s Martin staring at Judith’s sleeping face when he spies Dobree, also watching the girl. It’s classic Freudian projection:

As Boyne continued to observe him, Mr Dobree’s habitual pinkness turned to a red which suffused his temples and eyelids, so that his carefully brushed white hair looked like a sunlit cloud against an angry sky. But with whom was Mr. Dobree angry? Why, with himself, manifestly. His eyes still rested on the dreaming Judith; but the rest of his face looked as if every muscle were tightened in the effort to pull the eyes away. “He’s frightened–he’s frightened at himself,” Boyne thought, calling to mind –with a faint recoil from the reminder–that he also, once or twice, had been vaguely afraid of himself when he had looked too long at Judith.

On the (minor) down side of this novel, the children are annoying–especially the ‘steps’ who all sort of merge into each other. While the Italian children are described unpleasantly at times, I saw this as a reflection of the children’s unfortunate upbringing and lack of structure which became increasingly fragmented with each marriage and divorce. So Judith and Teddy, for example, had the benefit of at least some early structure while the younger children did not. One of the subtle questions asked by this novel is: should the children stay together? Obviously Judith runs the governess, not the other way around. The younger children are wild. Would they be better separated?

Wharton’s focus on the psychological aspects of Martin and Rose’s actions make this novel well worth reading. Martin is attracted to Judith but he can’t admit it to himself. At one point, he plies her with alcohol and cigarettes and then there’s a walk in the moonlight. Martin, who doesn’t examine his feelings for Judith, can’t say no to her, and that places his relationship with Rose is jeopardy. One of the themes of Wharton’s work is the individual in society, and here we see Martin, who has spent his entire career working across the globe. At several points in the novel, Martin is depicted as an outsider watching various social situations, questioning and longing for the choices he passed by. Marriage to Rose means settling down in New York, and as the prospect moves closer, it becomes unappealing.

Finally: the dream sequence towards the end of the book along with the book’s final scene … both are exquisite.

There’s another, excellent, review at:

Tredynas Days

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A German Officer in Occupied Paris: Ernst Jünger (The War Journals 1941-1945)

“Who will stand by us after these spectacles have finished?”

It wasn’t easy to read Ernst Jünger’s A German Officer in Occupied Paris. There’s the entire: “they were the bad side” aspect of things of course, but my difficulties … no my discomfort … from reading this book came from a different source. More of that later.

The lengthy, informative introduction from Elliot Neaman offers a summary of Jünger’s life and views. Ernst Jünger fought in WWI and was wounded 14 times. Following WWI, he wrote Storm of Steel (which I’ve never read and probably wouldn’t like), and was “one of Germany’s foremost authors of the war generation.” When WWII arrived, Jünger, in his mid 40s, joined his old company,  and in 1941, he served as a military censor in Paris. Not only did he read the letters home written by German soldiers, but he read “French newspapers and other publications for signs of insubordination.”  While performing that job, Jünger kept a journal, and it’s a rather peculiar read.  The book contains two journals “from his tour of duty in Paris, his sojourn in the Caucasus, and his visits and then homecoming to the house in Kirchorts.”

A German Officer

As I read the Paris entries, the title of Richard Attenborough’s film “Oh What a Lovely War,” kept coming into my head. Yes I suppose someone had to serve in Paris, the lucky buggers, while others were on the Eastern Front.  Jünger’s office was in the Hotel Majestic and he socialized with “intellectuals and artists across the political spectrum.” Jünger carried on several affairs and waxes on about beauty. We read about his dreams and what he was reading. Where was the war?? It was all a bit horrifying, and yes I read about how he sympathized with various people and knew about the plot to kill Hitler, but honestly, the journal left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I expected Jünger to bitch about Hitler (mention is made in the intro of how Jünger burned many personal papers), and Jünger seems too intelligent to be caught venting spleen on the pages of his diaries, and yet …. there’s something also repugnant here.

Like a God in France, Jünger operated on the edge of politics in Paris, rather like a butterfly fluttering among the resistors and collaborators. He didn’t trust the generals, who had taken a personal oath to Hitler, to be able to carry out a coup. Jean Cocteau later quipped: “Some people had dirty hands, some had clean hands, but Jünger had no hands.”

More than anything, the diary raised, for me at least, the question of moral culpability. Jünger “saw himself as part of the resistance to Hitler even though he believed that active opposition was pointless.” He refused many official posts under Hitler, and the intro goes into depth regarding Jünger’s involvement/knowledge of plots against Hitler.

I thought about The White Rose. Most of the members of White Rose were very young. Their courageous acts did not have the desired political results, so did they die for nothing? And yet when I read about Jünger, living in luxury, doing well and rubbing elbows with all sorts even as he did not approve of Hitler, well it sort of turned my stomach. At one point, Jünger references “charnel houses” and writes about “the monstrous atrocities perpetrated by the Security Service after entering Kiev. Trains were again mentioned that carried Jews into poison gas tunnels. Those are rumors, and I note them as such but extermination is certainly occurring on a huge scale.” And yet then Jünger immediately moves, bizarrely, into this WTF moment, denying individual mandate and responsibility, mourning how war has lost its  elegance and turned grubby.

I am overcome by a loathing for the uniforms, the epaulettes, the medals, the weapons, all the glamour I have loved so much. Ancient chivalry is dead; wars are waged by technicians. 

A new dark reality, a darker mood that can’t escape the scenes he faces, enters Jünger’s entries as he experiences life in Russia:

The deluge of sludge even penetrates the interiors of the buildings. In the morning, I was in a field hospital that rose from the center of a yellowish-brown morass. As I entered, the casket of a first lieutenant was being carried toward me.

Yesterday he succumbed to his sixth wound of the war. Back in Poland, he had sacrificed an eye.

The journals contain interesting sections, but Jünger’s self-censoring damages the read. If I read an eyewitness account from someone who lived through some horrific/incredible moment in history, I want details. But it’s impossible to tell what Jünger was really thinking, and so perhaps one tantalizing aspect of the book is psychological more than anything else. All this stuff is swirling around his life but we hear about the harmless social fluff for the most part. For example, he notes “In Charleville, I was a witness at a military tribunal. I used the opportunity to buy books, like novels by Gide and various works by Rimbaud.” I wanted to hear about the tribunal, but alas, it vanished into Jünger’s book buying.

Review copy

Translated by Thomas Hansen

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Sleep of Memory: Patrick Modiano

“For me, Paris is littered with ghosts.”

Back to Patrick Modiano for Sleep of Memory. In this novel, our narrator, now in his 70s, recalls people and events from his past. This is familiar Modiano territory with his fascination for disturbing shards of memory which emerge from the past. Sometimes these shards are cocooned in other memories–some blurred and impossible to fully retrieve while others form in a connect-the-dots way.

The book begins in a bookshop when a title, The Time of Encounters, catches the eye of the narrator. It’s one of those dizzying, goosebumps moments when the past suddenly emerges with the flash of memory. He recalls his relationships with a group of people saying “you never knew where some of those people might lead you. It was a slippery slope.”

 

Sleep of memory
The narrator recalls when, in the 60s, at age 20, he is acquainted with Martine Hayward, Geneviève Dalame, a secretary at Polydor Studios, and the older, mysterious, Madeleine Péraud. The latter, who is also known as “Doctor  Péraud,” “belonged to a ‘group’—a secret society where they practiced ‘magic.’ ”  The narrator visits Madeleine Péraud who quizzes him about his life and his acquaintances:

She asked good questions. the way an acupuncturist knows exactly where to place his needles.

The narrator is a “phantom student” enrolling in college to avoid military service in Algeria, and there are nebulous references to the narrator’s father and his knowledge of Black marketeers during WWII. So here are two quagmire moments in French history, and crime, which is a seminal feature in Modiano novels, is also present.  The plot is fragmentary but Modiano’s brilliance at describing memory, as always, is impressive and evocative.

Sometimes I seem to recall the cafe was named the Bar Vert; at other times this memory fades, like words you’ve just heard in a dream that eludes you when you are awake. 

I am always left wanting more with a Modiano novel, frustrated at the bare bones of the past which are occasionally illuminated by tantalizing memory, but I continue to be fascinated by his representation of memory: how memories submerge, are dormant and seem to disappear, yet certain memories seep back into our lives often unwanted. Modiano novels delve into pasts that can’t be quite fully remembered, pasts that aren’t fully understood–even decades later, and I can’t recall a writer who represents the elusiveness and vagaries of memory so well. Modiano scholars could spend a lifetime working through the mazes constructed in his books. How much is true? How much is fiction? Personally I prefer the languid nature, the dreaminess of his tales and don’t intend to become tangled in such details.  I read this at night, before bed, and the book’s hypnotic feel was accentuated by the approach of sleep.

“No doubt, as the years pass, you end up shedding all the weights you dragged behind you, and all the regrets.”

Is that true?

Translated by Mark Polizzotti

Review copy

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Looker: Laura Sims

In Looker, the debut novel from Laura Sims, our unnamed narrator fixates on a successful actress who lives with her husband and children in her brownstone neighbourhood. At first, I thought I was going to read a story about some crazy stalker who goes off the rails, but this is a very interior novel narrated by a bitterly unhappy (I could just as well say ‘bitter’) teacher whose husband Nathan,  has walked out.

looker

Everything in this woman’s trainwreck of a life is a toxic disaster: from her relationship to her neighbors, her envy that other women have children, to her painful vicious ruminations about her childlessness and IVF treatments. Her venom even extends to the cat, who becomes a chess piece in the divorce war. Nathan dumped his cat with the narrator, and even though she dislikes the cat, she’s not about to give Nathan the satisfaction of letting him have his cat back.

I return home, exhausted and emptied out. Fitting my key in the lock, a wave of absolute terror washes over me: this is where my phone and computer live. This is how all the poisonous others reach me, infect me, ruin my days. 

I’m not a therapist, so I’m not going to try and place terms on what is wrong with this woman, but she’s a mess. We can sympathize with people when they are unhappy, but when they are unhappy and want that unhappiness to spread to YOU, sympathy trickles and runs out the door….

With a first person narrator, we are placed in that person’s head. In the case of Looker, the narrator’s head feels as if it’s about to explode with hatred and rage and so the read is wearing and depressing.  This is marketed as a thriller and even a crime novel, and that’s unfortunate because the book draws a crowd that is bound to be disappointed. This is a psychological novel, and in its construction of a woman who needs HELP ASAP, I think it succeeds, however, that said, this isn’t an easy book to read as being inside this woman’s head is torturous. At one point, she says “here I am, back in my lonesome, loathsome reality.” And I couldn’t agree more. Finally for cat lovers, I’ll add a warning.

Review copy

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Binstead’s Safari: Rachel Ingalls

Oh, Stan. All the lousy things to say I’ve saved up for so many years, and now it’s too late.”

Middle-aged academic Stan Binstead travels to Africa with hopes of encountering and researching a mysterious lion cult which may or may not exist. His wife, Millie, insists on joining him–even though he does his best to dissuade her. Chronically unfaithful Stan feels that his wife is “dreary” and boring. He finds her company tedious:

I was foolish. I should have just left. I should have said: Take a vacation wherever you want to, as long as it’s a long way away from me.

In Stan’s view, his marriage is dead and he’s gathering the energy to ask for a divorce. Millie, who’s hoping for a second honeymoon,  is very much the subordinate ‘partner’ in this relationship, and Stan continually scripts her into various roles–all of them unflattering.

binsteads safari

The balance of power in the Binstead’s marriage begins to shift at their first stop, London. Stan, who goes off to meet a friend, dumps Millie, and she, finally realising that the trip isn’t going to mend her marriage, attends ballets, visits museums and thinks that London is “a wonderful town if you’re alone.” She begins to accept that being alone is better than always trying to please a man who makes it clear she’s a burden. Meanwhile Stan, still living with the script that Millie is waiting for crumbs of attention and affection, travels to Africa, little realising that his wife has begun to move away from their toxic relationship and is transforming into the person she would have been if she hadn’t met him.

What would you do without me? she thought. She’d never say it. Once at a party back home, they had heard their friend Sally Murchison ask her husband, Jerry, what he’d do without her and he had answered “Rejoice.”

Stan employs safari guides to take him to villages in search of the lion cult, but before they head out, Millie and Stan are swept up into local white society.  Adultery, murder and scandal seem to fester and then flourish in the wilds of Africa. Tourists murder other tourists, straying tourists are eaten, one woman goes stark raving bonkers, and some wealthy tourists bed-hop in an alarming fashion. As one seasoned guide notes: “It’s extraordinary the way people behave in a country that isn’t their own.” Meanwhile Millie, very much in her element in Africa, blossoms on the safari, and rather shockingly  (to both Stan and Millie) he no longer has the ability to make her feel inadequate:

A kind of dizziness moved across his senses, left and came again, sliding away and washing back over him. She shouldn’t be this way. She never was before. It had started in London. 

As the trip continues, stuffy Stan mulls over his past and his mistakes. As the Binsteads move deeper into lion country, Stan feels an increasing sense of impending doom. For once he’s not in control; for once he’s not admired or given special status due to his academic standing. Stan is largely clueless about the country, definitely clueless about what is going on with his wife, and certainly outflanked by the legendary hunter Simba Lewis.

Stan woke up thirsty when the sun was already fairly high and the day was growing hot. He looked at the others, at Millie in particular. It was increasingly odd to him–astonishing–that she, who always made a mess of everything, worried, and then made the worrying come true, had not put a foot wrong from the moment she’d found herself in foreign surroundings. Once she was away from home, she said the right words, did the right things, and was accepted by everyone. More than that-they all liked her, very much and straight away. Whereas he–they tolerated him. 

Binstead’s Safari is not predictable. The safari becomes a redemptive trek with the main characters embracing their fates as, once in the wilds of Africa, their well-honed domestic roles fall away, and both Stan and Millie become part of something mystical. As the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for–or in this case be careful of what you are looking for:

Binstead’s Safari is going to be republished by New Directions next month, so it seemed the perfect time to review my old copy. I have also read Mrs Caliban but preferred Binstead’s Safari.

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Happy All the Time: Laurie Colwin

Back in the 80s and early 90s, I read, and enjoyed a lot of stories written by Laurie Colwin, so when I picked up one of her novels Happy All the Time, I expected to really enjoy it.

This is the story of two male cousins, third cousins, but we’ll go with cousins,  Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy. They are very different, and yet good friends, and when the novel opens they are both in Cambridge. Vincent initially hoped to win a Nobel prize for physics while Guido intended to “write poetry in heroic couplets.” But practicality intervenes and Guido has a law degree, but disliked the work and returns as a graduate student of literature before taking over the “Morris family trust–the Magna Charta Foundation.” Vincent’s ambitions are also tempered; he’s fascinated by “sanitation engineering” but here they are wasting time as “they lolled around Cambridge and wondered whom they should marry.”

happy all the time

Both men have very different relationships with women. Vincent always tends to go for the same type: “vague blond girls who either were on the verge of engagement or had just left their husbands or were recovering from some grand passion or were just about to leave on an extended tour of Europe, or were in fact European and just about to return to their native land.” Guido has a much more difficult time negotiating male-female relationships.

Guido, the poet, obviously has a much more romanticized approach to relationships and he meets Holly in a museum and begins to pursue her. He takes everything seriously while Holly isn’t particularly expressive. Eventually they marry. Vincent, after a serious of lacklustre relationships later meets and marries prickly Misty.

The novel follows these relationships, and as the years pass, both men conclude that their women remain mysterious, unfathomable. Perhaps thirty years ago, Happy All the Time would have appealed more, but I never engaged with the lives of these affluent couples: yes this is a novel about marriage and the complications of male-female relationships, but these four float in a different society: a grating ozone of privilege. I’ve read plenty of novels about the well-to-do, but here I never engaged with the characters, and they never seemed to have much depth and seemed constructed as ‘types’ rather than flesh and blood people–particularly the males Guido and Vincent who are clueless, bland and uninteresting twits. Conclusion: I prefer Colwin’s short stories which are much darker.

Review copy

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A Working Mother: Agnes Owens

“You never realise how much you detest your kids until you take them somewhere.”

When A Working Mother opens, mother-of-two, Betty decides to return to work. It’s a decision based on need, and as Betty tells her husband Adam, “we need money. The kids need clothes, apart from the fact that we like to eat.” For the record, Adam doesn’t work and seems to be maladjusted, according to Betty, from his war experiences. Betty’s decision to get a job, while practical, just becomes another weapon in the arsenal of marital skirmishes. Their bitter marriage is full of recriminations, but there’s one thing Adam and Betty agree on: Booze. Drinking is their only shared interest, and their social life is composed of ditching the kids, going to the pub and boozing it up with Adam’s best friend, Brendan. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to learn that a great deal of Betty’s wages go towards alcohol.

a working mother

But back to Betty’s search for work. … She contacts the mysterious Mrs Rossi, the fortune-telling owner of an employment agency, and in spite of having no experience in the legal field, Betty is temporarily employed by an elderly lawyer, Mr Robson. Although there are several women in the typing pool, he favours Betty–perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he fondles her and discusses his book which is a study of “human behaviour in animals.” Mr Robson soon wants to know how the war affected Adam sexually, and then he offers Betty a permanent job. She’s invited to his home to do extra typing on the weekends.

Betty’s life (and story) is split between work where she hits Mr Robson up for money, her home life: fighting with Adam and ignoring the children, spending time with workmate Mai, and Betty’s surreptitious trysts with Brendan. Yes, he may be “backwards,” and have greasy hair, but Betty has chosen him for a lover. Perhaps access is the main reason for her choice. Betty is the driving force in this relationship, and naturally Mr Robson is fascinated by this aspect of Betty’s private life:

“Sorry I’m late,” I said to Mr. Robson, smoothing down my crumpled blouse. “I’ve had a terrible weekend.”

“Dear, dear,” he said. He was reaching up for a book on one of the sleeves called The Joys and Fears of Extra-marital Bliss.”

Gradually we see Betty is an unreliable narrator. On one hand, Adam is supposedly damaged by the war, but then she admits at one point, they married right after he was released from prison. Mai certainly seems to have a different opinion of Adam. And what about Mr Robson? Is he getting his thrills at Betty’s expense or is he being exploited?

The activities of this deluded old man made me want to puke. It seemed I had displayed my soul to him for a few paltry pounds. On the way home I calmed down. There was no harm done really. I would display a lot more than that if the price was right.

I’ve read a few books by Agnes Owens and thoroughly enjoyed them all. Betty is a wonderful narrator: tart, bitter, self-promoting–this is a woman who is having sex with her husband’s best friend, a youth with diminished capacity. She’s a neglectful, disinterested mother, a backstabbing, false friend, a worker who extorts from her employer, and as the story develops, she sinks into a seedy, possibly fabricated, version of events. Is she a victim or the instigator?

As for Mr. Robson, I have done nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that anyone can prove anyway, and as for Brendan, if I’ve done anything to be ashamed of it was more out of pity than anything else. Surely it is only fair that I leave all this confusion for a better life. After all, we’re only here for a few fleeting moments, as Adam often says. 

Darkly funny, this is a twisted look at subversive female behaviour. A Working Mother should appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Late in the Day: Tessa Hadley

“Isn’t it impossible, though, anyway, to love someone all the time?”

When Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day opens, Alexandr is married to Christine. They have an adult daughter together, Isobel, and Alexandr has a son, Sandy, from a previous marriage. Lydia and husband Zachary have a daughter, Grace, who is an art student in Glasgow. Alexandr and Zachary are long-time friends, and Christine and Lydia, in spite of being polar opposites, are also girlhood friends, but to add to the entanglement of these two couples. Lydia and Christine also babysat Alex’s son when he was married to his former wife.

Ok, so now we have that straight.

Late in the Day opens with the sudden, unexpected death of Zachary. Christine receives a phone call from Lydia and she dashes off to the hospital, scoops up Lydia and brings her home. We all grieve in different ways, and Lydia is in a state of shock when she makes the call to Christine, and yet … there’s something about Lydia that rings warning bells. Does Christine hear? Christine’s first instinct is to guess that Lydia “would be made more domineering somehow by the blow of Zachary’s death.”

Gregarious art gallery owner Zachary is dead when the book begins, but as the novel delves into the past, tangled relationships of these four people, we see him as a rather larger-than-life personality, so his death leaves a hole behind in the lives of the survivors.  Grace acknowledges that “of all of us, he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.”  With Zachary’s sudden death, Lydia seems at a loss to move on, and while this is perfectly natural given the circumstances, there’s something not quite right going on here. We learn how Lydia, as a young girl was fixated on Alex, but how he barely noticed her.  Eventually Alex married Christine while Zachary fell for Lydia.

While funeral arrangements are made, Lydia stays with Christine, and an uncomfortable sensation begins to build which begins with Lydia taking over so much space with her make-up. Lydia appears to be a high maintenance person which probably explains why Alex avoided her years earlier, but now there are undercurrents in Alex and Christine’s marriage, perhaps fueled by frustrated career ambitions, that open the way for turbulence.

Now Lydia set out her brushes and mirror and all the apparatus of her make-up and skin care on top of the chest of drawers: pots and tubes of cream, lipsticks and eye-shadows spilling from bags that were pretty curiosities in themselves, embroidered and patterned zip-bags, or pouches with tasselled silk drawstrings. She draped the mirror and the chair backs with her jewellery and scarves, and the room began to smell of her perfumes. Soon all the surfaces and the floor space were cluttered. 

I liked the premise of the novel, and it’s certainly well-written, but found it hard to care for the characters who seem uninteresting in spite of tantalizing details. Alex, for example, was a poet who gave up and went into teaching. He eventually made headmaster but decided to return to the classroom. Then there’s Christine who keeps her workroom locked and the key hidden. As the history of these four people is gradually revealed I found myself saying wondering what on earth Christine expected. But then perhaps the outcome wasn’t so ‘accidental’ after all.

The novel is strongest in its portrayal of marriage as a shifting, organic entity, and the trickiness of female friendship which seems to be laced with undercurrents of competition. Christine and Lydia have a shared history but little else in common. Lydia is a bird-of-paradise, and Christine is “used to being bruised by Lydia.” Here’s Christine talking to Lydia about marriage. Christine’s daughter, Isobel is about to leave for university and she anticipates the emptiness created by her daughter’s absence.

-Something’s over, though. I didn’t think it would be over so quickly. It felt so monumental and permanent, when it began. You’d think this was something a woman would feel, wouldn’t you, who had no life of her own and had invested too much in her children. But there it is. 

Review copy

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Midnight All Day: Hanif Kureishi

When it comes to writing about relationships, author Hanif Kureishi is unsparing.  Some of us might add the description cynical, but others might add pragmatic. Midnight All Day is a collection of short stories in which troubled relationships are at the fore. Some relationships are dying, some are just beginning, but regardless where the relationships place on the longevity scale, nothing is ever simple. Here’s a list of the stories:

Strangers When We Meet

Four Blue Chairs

That Was Then

Girl

Sucking Stones

A Meeting, At Last

Midnight All Day

The Umbrella

Morning in the Bowl of Night

The Penis

In Strangers When We Meet, Rob, an actor, is supposed to go on holiday with his older married mistress, Florence, but when her husband inconveniently (and at the last minute) decides to take the trip with her, all the plans are ruined. Rob finds himself in a small seaside town, booked into the same hotel as Florence and her husband. In fact Florence and Archie are in the room next door, and when the story opens, Rob has his ear to the wall trying to hear what is going on between Florence and her husband. It’s rather funny in a dark, twisted way, as Rob feels that the husband is the usurper, not him. Rob is, at first, really upset that his holiday is ruined, but seeing Florence with her husband somehow places her in a different light.

midnight all day

In Four Blue Chairs, a man and a woman who had an affair and subsequently left their partners decide to host their first dinner guest as a couple. Their decision to buy new chairs throws their relationship into question and also serves to show how the relationship will be conducted moving forward.

In That Was Then, Nick, a former pop journalist, now a married, respectable writer agrees to meet his former lover, Natasha. Nick is a bit worried about the meeting as Natasha is from his wild past:

We are unerring on our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something–to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead, or, worst of all, give us the impressions that they are not inappropriate, but almost right, thus hanging us in love’s limbo.

If you are a writer and yearn to be published, then Sucking Stones may be a difficult story to read. This is the tale of middle-aged, divorced Marcia, a teacher, who fits writing in with everything else–raising a child as a single parent, working, cooking, etc. After getting a short story published, she started a writers’ group, and its members are “all, somehow, thwarted,” in their writing careers. Marcia thinks that the other writers in the group make “crass mistakes” yet are “astonished and sour” when this is brought to their attention. Marcia “didn’t believe she was such a fool.”

One day Marcia meets a popular author at a book signing. The author invites Marcia to her home, so things are looking up for Marcia. Is someone finally taking her seriously?  It’s a painful encounter, but it’s worse when the author pops into Marcia’s home:

Marcia and Alec were having fish fingers and baked beans. Aurelia must have been close; Marcia had hardly cleaned the table, and Alec hadn’t finished throwing his toys behind the sofa, when Aurelia’s car drew up outside. 

At the door she handed Marcia another signed copy of her new novel, came in, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

What a beautiful boy,’ she said of Alec. ‘Fine hair–almost white.’

‘And how are you?’ asked Marcia

‘Tired. I’ve been doing readings and giving interviews, not only here but in Berlin and Barcelona. The French are making a film about me, and the Americans want me to make a film about my London.’

While Marcia struggles to find time to write, she wants her mother to pitch in caring for Alec. The contentious meetings between Marcia and her mother highlight their opposing needs:

‘What about me?’ said mother. ‘I haven’t even had a cup of tea today. Don’t I need time too?’

Marcia also has a strangely complicated yet no-strings relationship with Sandor, an underemployed Bulgarian who works as a porter. He’s content and happy with his circumstances, happy to read, drink and sleep with women. His contentment is in contrast to Marcia’s rather frazzled desires to write.

While I didn’t care for a couple of the stories: Girl and The Penis, I enjoyed the others immensely, and the collection is a good reminder of how much I like reading this author. In these stories we see how people are part of our lives but then we (or they) move on. Phases might be a better way of putting it–people are in certain phases of our lives but then things change.  Do we change? Do our tastes change? Do our needs change?  In Strangers When We Meet, for example, the story moves forward in time. Rob is now successful  and when he meets Florence again, she’s … a bit desperate. Ex spouses, ex lovers, yes they may hold a place in our past, but life is in a continual state of flux. Nothing is static.

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Filed under Fiction, Kureishi, Hanif

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy