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Elizabeth Taylor: The Grit and the Glamour of an Icon by Kate Andersen Brower

In an April 1962 open letter in Vatican City’s weekly newspaper Elizabeth was charged with Erotic vagrancy.”

I’ve always liked Elizabeth Taylor–and this is no doubt influenced by childhood memories of her in Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew. We didn’t go to the cinema often and these two films, lavish productions, have both stayed in my mind. Plus how could I forget her bold performance in Butterfield 8. What a film! She delivers an incredibly passionate performance.

Over the years I followed Elizabeth Taylor’s career along with her many marriages (8 total–twice to Richard Burton). As time went on, the stardom faded and my impression, mainly thanks to headlines, is that she became a kind of joke. The tabloids are cruel, but there was plenty of fodder: the relationships, the short-lived marriages the metamorphosis to Washington wife, the jewelry. …

The book begins with an overview of Elizabeth Taylor’s life and then her life story begins chronologically. Her parents’ marriage seemed a bit odd, and the author later mentioned that Elizabeth’s father, always in the background, may have had relationships with other men. This goes some way to explaining Elizabeth’s parents’ relationship and her mother, Sara Taylor’s past thwarted acting career explains the whole stage-mother drive.

Elizabeth was a very lucky girl in many ways but unlucky in others. She might have seemed to have had an enviable childhood, but it wasn’t a childhood as much as a pre-adulthood. Sara’s drive to make Elizabeth a child star ensured she didn’t have much of a childhood; her mother made career decisions, and the family relied on Elizabeth’s income. National Velvet was a huge role for Elizabeth, and it was for her childhood roles that Elizabeth was introduced to drugs. The most shocking thing I read here concerned the ready flow of pills given to the child stars of the day. Barbiturates and amphetamines all around:

so that they’d be bright and chirpy and another pill at lunchtime and then pills she was to take home so she could sleep in order to get up at five in the morning to go back to the studio.

The author delves into Elizabeth’s disastrous first marriage to Conrad Hilton. On their extended honeymoon, he kicked her in the stomach and she miscarried. Here is this beautiful woman, courted by millionaires, diamonds thrown at her, who ends up abused just like any other woman. There’s also mention of Howard Hughes who basically tried to buy Elizabeth from her parents. Loved the snippets about various attempts to scoop stories for the media. Fancy Andy Warhol sticking a tape recorder under the banquette Elizabeth was sitting on. Then there’s the publicist who hid a camera in her “elaborate updo” on the set of Cleopatra.

The author makes the point that Elizabeth’s emotions were strongly tied to her health, so we see how catastrophic events converted into horrendous health issues. Elizabeth’s relationships with a number of gay men is given a lot of attention, but I would have liked to have see more on her female friendships and her affair with Frank Sinatra. On the husbands, of course her 2 marriages to Burton are explored. I knew the relationship was rocky, but I had no idea that it was a Tsunami. And it was easy to see that her marriage to Eddie Fisher (husband #4) was a reflex action after the sudden death of Mike Todd (husband #3) in an airplane accident. As for the final husband, there is more to be found about her marriage to Larry Fortensky on Wikipedia. Also extensively covered is Elizabeth’s AIDS activism. The entire Michael Jackson stuff was mentioned but not explored. She was one of his defenders.

Reading a biography inevitably brings up the issue of the biographer’s ‘job.’ Should a biographer remain on the sidelines with no opinion? Should a biographer interpret and analyze? I once read a biography of bit-part actress Barbara Payton and it is one of the best biographies I have ever read. The biographer John O’Dowd interviewed so many people so that he had multiple versions of several segments of Barbara Payton’s life. These versions in essence act as analyses or explanations of events. People do not see things the same way. Look, if anyone dies, you can ask a dozen people what they thought of the dearly departed and you are going to get varying opinions about that person. Those varied opinions are not necessarily wrong, but they may be limited or situational. We are all multifaceted people. No one person shows all sides to everyone. Period.

Elizabeth survived in a savage industry, and she maintained a lifelong love for animals and jewelry. She managed to maintain independence from the studios and also kept her own opinions in spite of public pressure. In this bio, there are are very few negative opinions. It’s mostly chronological and a simple history. It’s easy to read, doesn’t wander all over the place, and the author never loses control of the narrative. Ultimately, I came away from the book with the impression that Elizabeth was a complex person. At one point, one of her sons says he “marvel[s] at my mother’s ability to snake-charm” her therapist. I enjoyed that section as it showed that what was taking place between therapist and Elizabeth was not as linear as it appeared.

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Exiles: Jane Harper

“We see what we expect to see.”

Jane Harper’s novel, Exiles, is set in the small town of Marralee, and it’s here that Federal Investigator (Financial Crimes) Aaron Falk returns for a christening. The christening is of the son of Aaron’s longtime friends Rita and Greg Raco, and it was originally supposed to take place a year earlier but was postponed. Last year, Kim Gillespie, a woman with deep roots to the Raco family, disappeared from the annual fair leaving her six week old daughter in a stroller. Kim’s shoe was found in the local reservoir but her body has not been discovered. Her disappearance and probable death is chalked up to suicide and post-natal depression. In some ways the theory fits; she was on medication for depression, but in other ways, it’s a narrative that doesn’t sit easily–especially with Zara, Kim’s teenage daughter from a decades long relationship with Charlie Raco, Greg’s brother. The christening was delayed due to Kim’s disappearance, so here we are a year later.

Falk finds himself sucked into the mystery of Kim’s disappearance. Zara hasn’t moved on, and she’s friends with another local teen, Joel who is mourning the death of his father, Dwayne a local accountant who was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few years before. While the adults in town accept that Kim committed suicide and that Dwayne was killed in a random hit-and-run accident, the two teens, Zara and Josh, are not satisfied. Falk initially dismisses Zara and Joel’s claims, but there are some uncomfortable coincidences and some things that just don’t add up. Both Kim and Dwayne died during festival time. Both Dwayne, and it’s assumed Kim ended up in the reservoir. It took 5 months to find Dwayne’s body, but Kim’s body has never been found. The teenagers are unhappy with how both investigations have been handled and so they discuss their concerns with Falk. Falk never knew Dwayne or Kim but he met Gemma, Dwayne’s widow (Joel’s stepmum) some time back, and while there were sparks, Gemma turned Falk down.

Maralee is a close-knit town where most of the residents grew up together. When Kim left Charlie Raco after several decades of an on-and-off again relationship, she moved to Adelaide and there married Rowan, another Marralee refugee. It’s not exactly that the residents of Marralee picked Charlie over Kim, but Kim drifted away, and all her former friends lost touch.

This is a superior crime novel which explores the aftermath of two different and yet possibly connected crimes. The author excels at conveying the ripple effects of crime–the vast space left by violent death. Many of Kim’s former friends feel guilty about the way they lost touch with Kim in light of what seems to be her suspected suicide, and perhaps that guilt allows them to accept the narrative of suicide. It’s festival time once again; there’s an appeal launched to the fair crowd for any additional information about Kim’s disappearance. The juxtaposition of the fun-seeking festival-goers is set against the daunting theory that Kim, depressed and unable to bear life any longer, abandoned her new baby, exited the festival grounds and leapt into the reservoir. It’s a sobering thought.

Jane Harper doesn’t write cheap thrills here. This is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel which avoids surprises, shock elements and plodding police work. Instead, there’s Falk slowly chewing away at the various possibilities regarding Kim’s disappearance which he aligns with known or hypothetical scenarios. Perhaps because he’s not related to the Racos and perhaps because he is not officially on the case, he is able to ruminate on the niggling doubts about Kim and Dwayne’s cases–doubts which gnaw away at the edges of his mind. There’s something wrong, but Falk can’t pinpoint this deeply embedded feeling that he’s missing something.

With the track ahead clear once more, they walked on, the lights from the rides throwing bright colors onto their faces. Falk turned back to Raco and had opened his mouth when the words simply disappeared. It happened without warning as, in a dormant part of his mind, something stirred. Whatever it was shifted, heavy and stubborn, only to resettle awkwardly. It left behind a mild but distinctly uncomfortable sensation, as though Falk had forgotten something he really needed to remember. He blinked in confusion. What had triggered that?

For those who have read other Harper novels, these are several repeat characters, but it not necessary to read the previous two Falk novels before reading Exiles. I listened to the audio version which was read by Stephen Shanahan.

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Hotel Splendide: Ludwig Bemelmans (1941)

During the 1920s, Ludwig Bemelmans worked in the Ritz-Carlton hotel, and this memoir is an amusing record of the years spent there. In Hotel Splendide, our narrator begins his hotel career as a busboy and works his way up, finally becoming a waiter. The hotel, not as ‘splendide’ as it was once, has a range of guests and has its own hierarchy and culture. Monsieur Victor is the eagle-eyed maître d’hôtel and Mespoulets is a waiter. Mespoulets and the narrator, Ludwig, are co-conspirators assigned to war against the hotel’s worst guests who are seated a “draughty corner” between two doors.

Monsieur Victor used our tables as a sort of penal colony to which he sent guests who were notorious cranks, people who had forgotten to tip him over a long period of time and needed a reminder, undesirables who looked out of place in better sections of the dining room, and guests who were known to linger for hours over an order of hors d’oeuvres and a glass of milk while well-paying guests had to stand at the door waiting for a table.

In this restaurant version of Siberia, these ‘special guests’ are given the Mespoulets Treatment:

Rarely did any guest who was seated at one of our tables leave the hotel with a desire to come back again. If there was any broken glass around the dining-room, it was always in our spinach. The occupants of Tables Nos. 81, 82, and 86 shifted in their chairs, stared at the pantry door, looked around and made signs of distress at other waiters and captains while they waited for their food. When the food finally came, it was cold and was often not what had been ordered. While Mespoulets explained what the unordered food was, telling in detail how it was made and what the ingredients were, and offered hollow excuses, he dribbled mayonnaise, soup and mint sauce over the guests, upset the coffee, and sometime even managed to break a plate or two. I helped him as best I could.

Exactly how the staff treate the guests makes for very funny reading. In addition a variety of guests, some very hard to please, appear on these pages, including the “very rich” morbidly obese Madame Lawrance Potter Dreyspool and her equally large husband who “traveled with her as a sort of companion-butler.” But not all guests are obnoxious. There’s the beautiful, gracious Mrs Prideau, a great favourite with the staff. In her presence, Mr. Victor always “did a small ballet–he backed away from her table, making three deep bows.” One waiter, Fenile, is in love with Mrs Prideaux and always gets under her table with a footstool.

After a “waiters’ mutiny” the narrator is promoted from lowly busy boy and finds himself waiting on his own set of Undesirable Tables. Mespoluets cautions his protegee: “don’t be an actor or a waiter. It’s the most awful occupation in the world. The abuse I have taken,” and he recommends that Ludwig become a cartoonist. As it so happens, there is a cartoonist staying at the hotel…

This is an amusing memoir, but there is one moment of animal cruelty so I caution readers against that.

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Reef Road: Deborah Goodrich Royce

“It was easy to cross the next barrier in an ever-collapsing string of them.”

Deborah Goodrich Royce’s novel, Reef Road, begins in 2020 with the discovery of a severed human hand that washes up in Palm Beach Florida. From that point, the novel splits into two storylines: one is told by “the wife” Linda Alonso and “the writer” Noelle. Middle-aged Noelle lives a lonely life in Florida and her life is overshadowed (stained) by the 1948 unsolved brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl (also called Noelle). Noelle, the writer’s mother, was permanently damaged by the brutal murder of her friend, and that damage ricocheted to her daughter, Noelle, subsequently named after the murder. So here are these two women: Linda and Noelle. How are they connected?

Linda Alonso lives in an upscale neighborhood with her Argentinean husband, Miguel, and two small children. We know almost immediately that Linda is unhappy in her marriage, and Miguel, as portrayed, is a controlling perfectionist–the sort or person who makes you grit your teeth as you wait for the criticism to fall. At first, Noelle seems just interested in Linda, but over the course of the book, it becomes obvious that this interest is a full-blown obsession.

These two women connect over crime–past and present–when Miguel and the two children disappear. Miguel’s car is found at Miami International airport, and there is evidence that he absconded with the children to Argentina. The lockdown has just began, and with flight restrictions due to COVID, Linda cannot travel to search for her children.

While the idea of this slow-burn novel is intriguing, the two stories which connect in inventive and intriguing ways feel strangely apart. This may be due to the long sections from Noelle regarding the details of the 1948 murder, which was, by the way, based on the very real murder of the author’s mother’s friend. It may be due to some essential information withheld from the plot. With the double use of the name Noelle, there were unclear moments. I liked how the author used COVID in the plot, and I liked the way these two storylines finally collided. The vicious murder of Noelle left scars in the lives of those connected to the crime, and the author cleverly conveys that sense of damage.

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Black Money: Ross Macdonald (1966)

“I didn’t like the purposeful look in her eye, and I began to regret the bottle of pink champagne. She took it from my hands as if she planned to break it over the prow of an affair.”

Black Money is the 13th book in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. This tale brings the private detective to a tennis club in the upscale Southern California college town of Montevista, where he’s employed by Peter Jamieson, the bulimic son of a local wealthy man. Jamieson hires Archer to ‘save’ his ex-fiancée, Virginia Fablon. Virginia, after jilting Peter, has taken up with the charismatic Francis Martell. On the surface Virginia’s decision to dump Peter in favor of Martell doesn’t seem so odd. Virginia is a lover of all things French, and Martell is educated, handsome and sophisticated–unlike Peter who spends most of the time stuffing himself:

He looked like money about three generations removed from its source. Though he couldn’t have been out of his early twenties, his face was puffy and apologetic, the face of a middle-aged boy. Under his carefully tailored Ivy League suit, he wore a layer of fat like easily penetrable armor.

Martell is a man of mystery; he claims to be both wealthy and in hiding from De Gaulle. Peter doesn’t buy the story, and so Archer begins digging for the truth. It seems that Martell recently arrived in town with a Bentley and a 6 figure deposit made from a Panamanian bank. His references used to get into the local tennis club are suspect. Martell also becomes positively violent at the idea that someone might take his photograph. Archer suspects that Martell isn’t the French aristocrat he claims to be, and soon Archer connects Martell to the suicide (supposedly) of Virginia’s father years before.

In the course of his investigation, Archer meets a widow with secrets, a doctor with a secret vice, an over-worked French professor, and his frisky much younger discontented wife who is looking for a way out of her kitchen-life:

Though she had a strokeable looking back, my hands were careful not to wander. The easy ones were nearly always trouble: frigid or nympho, scitzy or commercial or alcoholic, sometimes all 5 at once. Their nicely wrapped gifts of themselves often turned out to be homemade bombs or fudge with arsenic in it.

When the novel began, I initially thought it lacked the punch of many of the other titles I have read so far, but as the book continued, the plot grew on me. Ultimately, Black Money is my favorite in the series so far. It shows a more mature Archer. Cynical yes, but a touch of humor to his barbed observations as he roots through this snobbish college town where claiming to be a Frenchman apparently opens all doors. The emotional layers of the story are poignant, and the crimes–in terms of moral responsibility–are complex.

A few years ago, there was talk of the Coen bros. making a film of Black Money, but so far that hasn’t happened. And that’s a shame.

She was rough. They get that way sometimes when they marry too young and trap themselves in a kitchen, wake up in a kitchen and wake up ten years later wondering where the world is.

 

 

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It’s a Wrap: 2022

I read a lot of books in 2022. Due to time constraints (and sometimes having nothing to say) I did not review them all. Looking back over my reading year, here are the best books I read in 2022–not the best books published in 2022, but just the best ones I read in no particular order:

1. Remembrance of Things Past: Marcel Proust v1-3 I’ve no idea how many times I have read references to those famous madeleines. As a reader, you come across quotes or extracts, and sometimes those quotes are all too frequent. By that I mean the quotes become commonplace, and that’s certainly what happened to me. In spite of the fact I have owned these volumes since the 90s, I had no impulse to read Proust’s monumental masterpiece–not because it was long, but because in some weird way it had become familiar. Plus there are always so many other books.

But inspired by other bloggers, and a short story referencing the delay in reading Proust and which emphasized Time’s Wingèd  Chariot, I knew further delay was out of the question. So 2022 was the year to get started. After finishing the first 3 volumes: I am glad I delayed Proust for years. I’m in a place now to appreciate his wisdom. And yes, these novels are amazing.

2. High Priest of California: Charles Willeford.

Used car salesman, Russell Haxby, just wants to get laid. He’s a practiced sleazy predator and soon picks up a woman, Alyce, in a cheap dance hall. Russell goes back to her place, and finds out she has a husband. Well, he can’t let this schmock get in his way can he? It’s a grimy, complicated journey to bed Alyce, but as always with Willeford, entertaining as hell.

3. This Sweet Sickness: Patricia Highsmith

Chemist David is in love with Annabelle. He takes a job he dislikes because it pays 25k a year and with that salary, he expects to marry Annabelle. When the novel opens, Annabelle has married another man, but David does not accept the marriage and fully expects her to come to her senses and leave her husband. BUT until that happens, he has created a different identity, bought a house in that name and spends weekends there alone fantasizing about his future life with Annabelle. Things begin to fall apart when David presses his suit, and he descends into madness.

4. My Phantoms/First Love : Gwendoline Riley

This author was new to me. When I started to compile the Best-of list, my first impulse was to add My Phantoms . But then I thought perhaps First Love was the better novel. They are thematically connected, and My Phantoms, in my final analysis is a more painful read but possesses firmer structure. So they both are on the list. I really liked the way the author describes the dominant (not necessarily correct) narrative of the lives of the mothers in both books.

5. The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

In this novel, a therapist who conducted torture sessions ON and FOR the government, leaves his job and his marriage, buys a house and waits for his life to catch up to him. He spends his days walking circuits on the pathway in his back garden, and his plan to keep a low profile fails thanks to nosy neighbours, and a bunch of yobos. The Miranda contains Nicholson’s signature theme of obsession. Written with Nicholson’s usual light touch and wry humour.

6. Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

During the first wave of the COVID pandemic, Lucy’s self-focused ex-husband William, whisks her off to Maine with the idea that they will sit out the worst of it, far from New York. Strout recreates the surreal days of watching the news and the New York death count, along with the idea that for many during COVID, life seemed to be on hold. I dislike William (Oh, William) so I didn’t buy for one minute that he was changing into the sort of human being who cared about anyone except himself.

7. Cheri and the End of Cheri: Colette

Two slim novels cover the life of Chéri, his relationship with the much-older former courtesan, Léa, and his arranged marriage to a young innocent girl. Fabulous.

8. O Caledonia: Elspeth Barker

This was the surprise book of the year. I love a good gothic tale and O Caledonia and its amazingly evocative images put me in a decaying Scottish castle with a dysfunctional family. We know right from the first page that something horrible has happened–the suspense comes from the why and the how.

9. An Old Man’s Love: Anthony Trollope.

Going back over 2022, I’m shocked, shocked (channeling Casablanca) to see that I only read TWO Trollopes this year… No doubt this tragedy occurred because I concentrated on Proust, but in 2023, there will be more Trollope. An Old Man’s Love was a reread. Coincidentally, just before starting this I read something about wards and wardships under the Tudors, so I was sensitive to the idea of ward-marriage coercion when I began the book. The plot is simple: Mary, a young orphaned girl is ‘taken in’ by Whittlestaff, an older man, a friend of her late father’s. After being disappointed in love, Whittlestaff is a confirmed bachelor, or he thinks he is, but he falls in love with Mary and proposes. She loved another, but that man, penniless, disappeared, but Mary thinks of him constantly. She doesn’t love Whittlestaff, but she is in a very awkward position. She can accept or refuse. But if she refuses, she can hardly stay in his house. Whittlestaff seems deliberately obtuse when it comes to Mary’s position. Under a great deal of pressure, Mary accepts, and then the man she loves returns. …

10. The Finishing School: Muriel Spark.

What a wicked sense of humour Spark has. The Finishing School is not some first rate boarding school but a second-rate shady venture run by a married couple, Nina and Rowland. Nina does most of the work because Rowland is supposed to be finishing his masterpiece. A very talented student says he’s a writing a novel, and this sparks a chain of wickedly funny events.

11. Of Human Bondage: W Somerset Maugham.

A powerhouse of a novel–the story of how a young man, orphaned and raised by his dreary, self-righteous uncle breaks finally breaks free of the crippling bonds of family, the burden of being born with a club foot, and the worst of all– a toxic relationship– love (obsession with a prostitute). Brilliant.

12.Bleak House: Dickens

Bleak House was a reread for me and as always with re-reads I am curious to see how the book held up and also if my attitudes towards it had altered in any way. This is the story of an orphaned girl who is employed by a middle-aged bachelor to assist with his wards, another pair of orphans. The whole plot spins on the legendary law case: Jarndyce vs Jarndyce–a case which has endured for decades. It has ruined many people and caused others to impale themselves on false hopes. The world here is full of opportunists ready to feed off the carcasses of anyone remotely involved in the lawsuit. Sub plots abound. There are many memorable characters here: Lady Dedlock, a woman with a horrible secret, bloodsucker Harold Skimpole, and Mrs Jellyby who neglects her own children abominably while throwing herself into efforts to raise money for children in Africa. Ahhh telescopic philanthropy at its best.

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Chéri and The End of Chéri: Colette

Colette’s Chéri opens in 1912, in pre-World War I Paris, yet given the setting and the characters, we could be in a 19th century novel. Chéri, whose unglamorous real name is Fred, is the only son of a former courtesan, Charlotte Peloux. Chéri was raised in the demi-monde world of women, which probably goes a long way to explaining his behaviour. When the novel opens, Chéri is in the bedroom of yet another retired courtesan, Léa. Unlike the usual fate of the tragic, worn out courtesan, Léa has done very well for herself. She lives in luxury. Chéri is in Léa’s boudoir, playing with, and demanding her pearl necklace as “it looks just as good on me as it does on you, even better!”

In front of the rose-colored curtains suffused with sunlight, he was dancing, all black, like a graceful devil with an inferno at his back. When he drew away toward the bed, he turned all white again from his silk pajamas to his doeskin babouches. […]

He stood, facing a full-length mirror that was mounted on the wall between the two windows, and gazed at his image: that of a very beautiful, very young man, neither tall nor short, his hair tinged with blue like the plumage of a blackbird. He opened his pajama top to reveal an olive-hued, firmly muscled chest, rounded like a shield, and an identical pink spark played on his teeth, on the whites of his dark eyes, and on the pearl of the necklace.

At this point, he seems like a gigolo, fresh flesh for Léa, “a well-heeled courtesan,” whose work days, at age 49, are over. Chéri certainly acts like a gigolo, a boy-toy, lounging around in an opulent boudoir. He’s spoiled, bores easily, playing with, and demanding jewels, but there’s more to Chéri than meets the eye. He’s intelligent, has a slight miserly touch and has invested his money wisely.

Six years ago, Léa ‘saved’ Chéri. She scraped him up from a wastrel life of debauchery, fed him, petted him, recuperated his health through training with a boxer, and gradually his health returned They’ve had an “affair” or as Léa calls it “an adoption” since then. Léa, sharing her life and her bed with Chéri, is the envy of all of her female friends.

Chéri and Léa’s lives are about to change dramatically, and so the book’s opening scene between Léa and Chéri is a sort of farewell. Chéri is be married in an arranged match to Edmée, the 18-year-old daughter of yet another one of Chéris mother’s circle. There’s a meeting at the Peloux house with Chéri, his mother, Edmée and her mother, and, curiously, Léa in attendance. Edmée has led a sheltered life, and she seems terrified yet resigned as she looks with “unaffected dread” at the mention of the wedding. “Léa wasn’t the least but mistaken about the bewildered, defeated look” in Edmée’s eyes. But just as Chéri has hidden depths so does Edmée. She knows just how to handle Chéri, mainly by shrinking and minimizing his role in her life.

These two short novels follow the life of Chéri and his relationships. Chéri and Léa were inseparable for 6 years, but once Chéri leaves for his honeymoon, Léa’s supposed to smile and sail on. All her female friends are watching her with the acid hope that she will collapse with grief and that of course will spoil her well-preserved looks.

At first I expected a sort of love story, but no, this is a tale of finding one’s place in the world, having purpose and adjusting to change. The second novel, The End of Chéri, finds Chéri a WWI veteran who returns to find a world in which he is superfluous. Everyone, even Léa has adapted to the change.

Review copy. Translated by Paul Eprile.

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Odd Girl Out: Elizabeth Jane Howard

In Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel Odd Girl Out, there are references to the decade-long marriage of Anne and Edmund Cornhill as an “island.” That may seem a peculiar term to use when describing a marriage, but in this case it’s appropriate. Edmund is an estate agent based in London, and Anne maintains their lovely country home (along with the help of a house cleaner.) To Anne, Edmund’s “chief attraction” is his “predictability: to many this might equate to dullness,” but Anne appreciates Edmund’s steady character after enduring a turbulent, emotionally draining first marriage which ended in divorce. Edmund likes the way Anne “always contrived to be rational about any sacrificing attitude he called upon her to make.”

It would seem to be an idyllic existence, yet I disliked Edmund from the first:

He never let her get up in the mornings until he had either set out for London, or otherwise begun his day.

What is this: wife in a box?

A crisis erupts in the Cornhill’s marriage when Arabella, Edmund’s stepsister arrives post abortion to stay with the couple. Arabella is the daughter of Clara, Edmund’s wealthy serial monogamist mother, a woman who drifts in luxury across Europe sometimes via yacht from castle to castle and who changes her husbands frequently. Arabella has spent her life with a chain of stepfathers and has an exotic yet unenviable upbringing. Anne feels protective of Arabella, yet her presence in their home is undeniably disruptive. There are some funny scenes between Edmund and his boss Sir William who insists on taking Edmund to lunch and there, due to his hearing loss and battiness, he loudly quizzes Edmund about his sex life which embarrasses Edmund but which provides free entertainment for other diners.

Anne, who has built her life around Edmund’s fantasy existence without realizing it, is living in a cocoon. Perhaps she needed a cocoon after her first marriage. :

She was someone who continually felt that she was on the brink of order in her life, and that when she actually embarked upon it, her life would, so to speak, start afresh in a more dynamic and significant manner.

The sexually uninhibited Arabella is a hodge-podge of wobbly morality, and she openly admits to Edmund “I haven’t got any serious principles–only amateur ones.” Arabella complains a lot about her life, and it’s easy to feel some sympathy for her after a few glimpses of her vain, self-focused mother, a woman who “after eighteen months with anybody [is] like a rogue elephant in velvet.” Arabella doesn’t examine life deeply (she is young) and has no grasp of consequences when it comes to how her actions affect others. She simply has too much money, which she tends to throw at problems to make them go away, and the money partially cocoons her from those consequences–unlike poor, tragic Janet who is stuck in poverty with sickly children and a whiny, pathetic, vain philandering husband who blames his failed career on his wife and children. Janet’s problems sink everyone else’s issues.

I didn’t enjoy the novel, and it was fairly easy to see where the plot where taking me. The characters were rather uninteresting (I wanted to kick some bottoms-Not Janet’s though) and the book’s conclusion is implausible.

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The Far Side of the Dollar: Ross Macdonald

In The Far Side of the Dollar, the 12th novel in the Lew Archer series, Archer is called to Laguna Perdida, a pricey, drab reform school, by Dr Sponti. Sponti hires Archer to find a runaway, Tom Hillman, a teen who was recently sent to the school by his affluent parents. Sponti, hoping to squash any scandal, wants the boy found, but the plot thickens when Archer learns that the Hillmans have received a demand for $25,000 for Tom’s safe return. The Hillmans aren’t the easiest people to deal with, and Archer senses that there is more to the story than he is being told. He’s particularly interested in the reason why the Hillmans sent Tom to the reform school. Archer, looking for answers, follows the trail back into the past, and along the way he runs into some very different families: all of them unhappy (in their own way as Tolstoy notes).

Tom appears to be a kidnap victim in the hands of an opportunistic couple: Carol and a tough guy named Harley. Archer tracks the shady couple to a run-down motel: Dack’s Auto Court, and there he finds Carol beaten to death….

The Far Side of the Dollar is not as cynical as many of the other novels in the series. There’s an undercurrent of lost boys and broken families. Some of the boys at Laguna Perdida are initially hostile to Archer’s questions but then one teen asks the detective, poignantly, if he is a father. Archer finds himself offering fatherly advice to Tom’s teenage neighbour, Stella, a wonderful young girl who promises to grow into a wonderful woman, and there are several times he recommends professional help for families and marriages in trouble. There are many broken families here: one family broken by a religious nutcase who believes in beating his children until they come to their senses, one marriage broken by infidelity, and another broken by a man’s longing for a son.

The novel is not as cynical and world-weary as its predecessors, but Archer is seen very much as an outsider as usual. This time he’s an outsider without a wife and children–which may be a good thing considering all the versions of broken families he sees in this book. Also a love interest is introduced, so there’s a note of optimism in spite of the body count and the wretched families. It’s written with Macdonald’s terrific, yet seemingly simple sense of atmosphere and description:

It was August, and it shouldn’t have been raining. Perhaps rain was to strong a word for the drizzle that blurred the landscape and kept my windshield wipers going. I was driving south, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

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The Guermantes Way: Proust

It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. Were we to meet a brigand on the road, we might manage to make him conscious of his own personal interest if not our plight. But to ask pity of our body is like talking to an octopus, for which our words can have no more meaning than the sound of the sea, and with which we should be terrified to find ourselves condemned to live.

In Volume One of Remembrance of Things Past, Proust describes ‘the Guermantes Way as a geographical phenomenon, a particular path along a river, but in Proust’s third volume the phrase ‘The Guermantes Way’ takes on new meaning. Proust’s narrator is now a young man in society. His health is still fragile, but in spite of this, he maintains his friendship with Saint-Loup, leads an active social life, suffers a major loss, and finally meets his goddess: the elegant Duchesse de Guermantes, but as is often the case, reality does not meet expectations.

Our narrator is maturing, and a number of incidents contribute to his process of understanding the world and human deficiencies. He now lives close to the Guermantes family, and these days we would probably call him a stalker. He has admired the Duchesse de Guermantes from afar for years and considers her to be a fascinating woman. He discovers the routines of the Duchesse and manages to ‘accidentally’ bump into this ultra elegant woman daily but this doesn’t spark an acquaintance, and if anything, the Duchesse seems annoyed by the constant sight of narrator. He goes to visit the Duchesse’s nephew, Robert Saint-Loup, and tries to rope Saint-Loup into an endeavor to meet the Duchesse, the leader of “the Faubourg Saint-Germain” set.

I was genuinely in love with Mme. de Guermantes. The greatest happiness that I could have asked of God would have been that He should overwhelm her under every imaginable calamity, and that ruined, despised, stripped of all the privileges that divided her from me, having no longer any home of her own or people who would condescend to speak to her, she should come to me for refuge. I imagined her doing so.

The narrator’s beloved grandmother dies in a very painful sequence of the novel, and the narrator, ever the observer, details his grandmother’s final illness, her valiant attempts to recover after a stroke in the park, and the behaviour of some of their circle in the face of the grandmother’s death. He notes the hypocrisy of the Duc de Guermantes who comes to pay his respects to the family. The Duke is so enamoured with his own generosity in visiting the narrator’s home, that he is oblivious to his mother’s distress and forever afterwards labels her as a sort of looney.

So much happens in this wonderful book–it was slow to start but once underway, I was hooked. Proust’s descriptions of evenings spent in society are delightfully detailed, and it’s easy to imagine that we are right there in the room with him. Proust manages to convey the boredom, the stuffiness, and the tedium of spending hours in this, the highest, Parisian society, and paradoxically while nauseating boredom infuses these scenes, Proust’s detailed descriptions of this rarefied life are fascinating. The Guermantes, husband and wife, are central here. Large portions of the novel relate details of the Duchesse’s salons in which she rules the roost and showers the company with bitchy comments about various people in society. It’s a circle jerk of admiration with visitors cooing at the Duchesse’s expertise on everything and tittering at the Duchesse’s nastiness (hoping the nastiness doesn’t come their way). She is the Queen of Society. There are rumours of a divorce between this golden couple and we get a good look at the toxic marriage. The Duc admires his wife as a sort of valuable trophy, acknowledging her premier place in society, but he has a constant flow of mistresses, and the married pair delights in verbally ripping apart the old mistresses as they fade behind newer acquisitions.

One subplot concerns Rachel, the mistress of Robert Saint-Loup. Saint-Loup has praised Rachel to the narrator, so when he finally meets her, he is shocked to recognize her as a coarse prostitute he once passed over:

I saw that what had appeared to be not worth twenty francs when it was offered to me in a brothel

He could have had sex with Rachel for 20 francs but Saint-Loup is spending over 100,000 francs a year to maintain her. One could argue that the 100k francs a year is for exclusivity but there are no such promises here. Rachel, however, is beyond price to Saint-Loup and he’s well on his way to bankrupting himself on Rachel as have other men in the past. To patch up a row, Saint-Loup buys her a 30,000 franc necklace. The relationship between Saint-Loup and Rachel is awful. He’s tortured with suspicion and jealousy, and Rachel stokes the flames by flirting shamelessly with other men in Saint-Loup’s presence. The narrator goes out to dinner with Saint-Loup and Rachel, and he gets a front row seat witnessing how Rachel manipulates and tortures Saint-Loup.

Snobbery pervades every aspect of life in this world especially in the salons of the ‘cream’ of Parisian society. The fierce boundaries of society, the totem poles of social hierarchy, are savagely protected by the highest members with those slightly lower begging and dreaming of invitations to the ‘important’ homes. It’s pathetically funny how one set of visitors must not be allowed to bump into another set–almost as if there’s some fear of class contamination. The backdrop to these salon evenings is the Dreyfus trial which is the dominant topic of conversation.

While the narrator is a keen, peerless observer, finds he is horribly disappointed in the shallow reality of the Duchesse de Guermantes, he also has many other maturing experiences which he, true to his nature, analyses scrupulously. Proust’s philosophical observations permeate the plot: most of them are nuggets of amazing wisdom, and a few show Proust’s own snobbery and attitudes. For example at one point the narrator talks about Rachel’s hands and how she eats clumsily but “recovered her dexterity only when making love with that touching prescience in women who love the male body so intensely,” and thus Proust’s male vanity surfaces.

In one section, Albertine visits the narrator and they have sex in his bedroom. He is aware that he no longer loves Albertine; he’s matured and moved on, and a few pages later he has the nerve to ask Albertine to select the course for a dinner for another woman. The other woman, incidentally is Saint-Loup’s new mistress. The eccentric (mad as a march hare) Baron de Charlus, the brother of the Duc de Guermantes makes a few appearances. He is homosexual and seeks out the narrator’s company, offering to mentor him in society. A few people throw out hints warning about Charlus, but the narrator is too naïve to understand. He misguidedly (and unsuspectingly) accepts an invitation to visit Charlus at home and sits in the ‘wrong’ chair. Subsequently Charlus spews venom and accusations at the astonished and confused young visitor who is humiliated in front of the servants.

Towards the end of the book, the narrator, leaving the Duc and the Duchesse de Guermantes, runs into a sickly-looking Swann. In the first volume, Swann, an iconic romantic figure, was a vigorous man who scandalized his family by marrying his mistress, but now Swann is dying. Swann tells the Duc and the Duchesse that he has just a few months to live and the Duc in his usual crass way diminishes Swann’s statement with a discussion of the Duchesse’s shoes and her petty ailments. It was clear before this poignant scene that the Faubourg Saint-German society is superficial but with this casual cruelty, the superficiality sinks to a new low.

It is the wicked deception of love that it begins by making us dwell not upon a woman in the outside world but upon a doll inside our head, the only woman who is always available in fact, the only one we shall ever possess, whom the arbitrary nature of memory, almost as absolute as that of the imagination, may have made as different from the real woman as the real Balbec had been from the Balbec I imagined- a dummy creation that little by little, to our own detriment, we shall force the real woman to resemble.

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