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Temples of Delight: Barbara Trapido

In Barbara Trapido’s novel, Temples of Delight, Alice Pilling, the only daughter of affluent, loving parents attends a dreary girls’ school which provides a dull, mediocre education. The arrival of a new girl, Veronica Bernadette or Jem, as she calls herself, alters Alice’s world irrevocably. A mediocre education can produce mediocre minds, and so none of the pupils question any of the nonsense taught in the curriculum. But Jem, handed a biography of Oliver Cromwell and told to read it, hides The Leopard inside the biography’s covers, and does so right under the nose of her unsuspecting teacher. Jem, it seems, was booted from her last, convent, school, and it doesn’t take long for the subversive Jem to disrupt classes, much to Alice’s delight. On day one, the subject in class is the Norman Conquest, and one girl asks “how did we get back to being English again?” According to the teacher, Miss Aldridge, “we soon turned them [the Normans] into good Englishmen.”

“Excuse me, Miss Aldridge ,” Jem said, and she looked up from the Lampedusa. “Would you say that during the Roman occupation we all became Italians?”

Miss Aldridge frowned with displeasure. She was close to retirement by then and belonged to a generation of Englishwomen not overkeen on foreigners, in general, though Alice thought she had once detected a certain romanticism in Miss Aldridge’s attitude toward Bedouin Arabs. Italians were definitely among her least favourite foreigners and tradition had it among some of the girls that she had had her bottom pinched while on a package holiday in Sorrento. Alice’s imagination had privately elaborated upon this myth, so that she believed Miss Aldridge to have resorted to her armor-plated corsetry as a precaution against a sudden airdrop of Italians on Surrey.

“The Ancient Romans were not Italians, Veronica,” Miss Aldridge said. “Dear me, no! They were a highly disciplined and very hygienic people.”

Jem describes her father as an eccentric who “busies himself in the summerhouse,” her mother as a glamourous Frenchwoman, and her sisters as bohemians. Alice, a periodic stammerer is smitten with Jem, and when Flora, Alice’s former best friend, returns to school after the death of her father, she finds her friendship with Alice co-opted. (There’s a riotous back story section involving Alice and Flora’s family at a restaurant.) Jem’s presence unleashes rivalry between the girls, and the rivalry explodes over Jem’s novel, a bodice-ripper extraordinaire/sensation novel called My Last Duchess. Jem disappears and Alice never quite gets over the loss of her mercurial friend.

As a young woman, Alice, introverted and subdued, attends Oxford, and always the memory of Jem hovers over Alice’s life. At Oxford, she meets the smug, insufferable schoolmaster, Roland, who patiently patronizes Alice, and who forms a reductive image of her as a stammering virgin who needs “coaxing” out of her “funny” ways. Other people in Alice’s life serve as a contrast to Roland’s smug world view, but it’s a visit “up North” that brings a crisis.

Temples of Delight reminded of Elizabeth Jolley in terms of the humour and the eccentric characters. I was gleefully delighted by the wild, outrageous beginning sections with Jem and I liked the middle section with Alice and Roland. The ending, with its religious stuff, for this reader was disappointing. Perhaps part of the issue is that Jem is such a glittering character, the novel suffers from her absence.

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Swann’s Way: Proust

I’ve had a few false starts with Proust, but this year (2022) I was determined to begin Remembrance of Things Past. This goal was motivated by the short story Time Lost by Elizabeth Berridge. The story is told by a niece whose aunt says she is “leaving him [Proust] for my deathbed.” The aunt imagines herself “drift[ing] off” to the words of Proust. It’s a great image, no argument there, but that’s not what happens. When it comes to her deathbed, Proust is the last thing on the aunt’s mind. The story is a cautionary tale, ‘don’t put good things off.’ I needed no more, so in January I started the first volume.

I am obviously not an expert on Proust; no doubt there are many PhD’s out there on Proust, so here I am just a reader. First: if you have been putting off Proust: don’t. Second: if you want to read Proust because you think you should, then read him for the delights that await you. I am not going to rehash the plot. Over the years I’ve heard the madeleines reference so many times, that in a sense Proust became distilled down to that, and that’s a shame. The madeleines were a tiny part sliver of the whole idea of memory. Huge chunks of the book dwell on the elusiveness of memory and time: how the past can be ‘hidden’ in a material object.

The book opens with the narrator as a boy. Swann’s Way is essentially the childhood of the narrator, so we read about his family, his friends, his relations, his childhood holiday, influences. Snobbery and bourgeois values are weaved through the many relationships here. A significant character is Aunt Léonie who, after the death of her husband, retreated into invalidism. Even though she rarely emerges from her bedroom, she is nonetheless a tyrant. Friends and acquaintances are ‘dropped’ if they don’t show the carefully measured respect for her invalidism, and her loyal, fiercely protective servant, Françoise, simmers with resentment and jealousy when her employer pays attention to Eulalie, a servant who visits occasionally.

The Swanns dominate the novel: Monsieur Swann is referred to repeatedly as a somewhat problematic person, socially, (his “unfortunate” marriage) and over time his relationship with Odette, a courtesan, is detailed. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intense description of obsession. Well, I’ll back up and say that Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is also incredibly intense on the subject. The sections with M. Swann were some of my favourites. Swann is a woman chaser. He visits houses of friends and when he does this, his hosts often wonder why he is such a frequent visitor, but it’s always because he’s pursuing one of the female servants. The references to Swann create a sort of mystique in the narrator’s eyes, and this mystique only increases when he eventually meets and loves, Swann’s daughter, Gilberte….

The narrator is an only child, and his fragile health sometimes constrained his desires. He develops a love of reading which is an intensely emotional experience. He notes “these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur often in a whole lifetime. These were the events that took place in the book I was reading.”

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life, the heart changes, that is our worst misfortune, but we learn of it only from reading or from imagination, for in reality, its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual, even if we are able to distinguish successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.

The narrator’s life is highly, leisurely, detailed. Many of the characters are so intensely described that it’s almost as if we know them. My copy is heavily marked with notes, and I can’t possibly include all the profound quotes that I chewed over repeatedly as I read the book. I should add here that I listened to this on audio (plus have physical copy), and for me audio was a very successful way to tackle Proust. I’ve read many Modiano novels, and Modiano also tackles the subject of memory. It’s not fair to compare him to Proust, but after reading Proust, I can’t help but conclude that Modiano presents a light version of memory. Also I read/listened along with Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past by Patrick Alexander. The book helped tremendously. Special thanks to Patrick Alexander for mentioning the Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition. You can watch a sort clip here:

Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition

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The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”

Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:

There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.

Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.

Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.

While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?

Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.

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The Younger Wife: Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth’s domestic suspense novel, The Younger Wife, begins with the wedding of Melbourne-based heart surgeon, Stephen Aston, a man in his 60s and Heather, a 30-something interior designer. It’s a big wedding, with Stephen’s two daughters, Tully and Rachel in attendance. The groom is old enough to be the bride’s father … well it’s an old story. But wait … there’s something really odd about this wedding. Stephen’s ex-wife, Pamela, is also a guest. Stephen insists that even though Pamela and he are divorced, she should attend as she’s still family. Pamela, by the way, is living in a care home with dementia. Backstory: Heather was hired for home renovations by Stephen and Pamela when they were still married. Shortly after Stephen met Heather, he put Pamela in a care home. A month after moving Pamela into the care home, he filed for divorce and announced his upcoming marriage to Heather. Alarm bells were going off in my head with this information. And I’m not the only one. Most of the guests feel uneasy about Pamela’s presence, and this unease is proved warranted when something goes horribly wrong. …

The novel segues to a restaurant dinner organized by Stephen. He invites his daughters Tully and Rachel and, there he introduces Heather as his fiancée. Tully and Heather are floored. They are still adjusting to the relocation of their mother to a nursing home, and they had no idea their dad was even dating. Tully’s first reaction to Heather is to assume she’s going to “destroy their lives.” Rachel plays a cooler hand, but both young women struggle to adjust to the news.

Under different circumstances, Rachel might have felt pleasure at this meeting. For example, if her father had started dating someone after mum died. A nice widow named Beryl, perhaps

The story moves from Stephen’s announcement up to the wedding. While both Rachel and Tully try to adjust to the news that they are shortly to have a young stepmum, both young women face other challenges in their lives. Rachel, who runs a bakery business from her home, discovers mysterious contents in her mother’s hot water bottle. Tully, who lives in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Melbourne, faces an uncertain future. Both sisters have ‘issues;’ Rachel, who doesn’t date, has never dated, tends to eat her feelings, and Tully has picked up a nasty little habit since she was 11. Rachel, unsettled by the news of the wedding combined with the contents of the water bottle, tries to ask her mother some questions, but it’s a roll of the dice when it comes to whether or not Pamela will recognize her children. As events roll on, Rachel and Tully begin to question every thing they know about their parents.

All the characters have secrets, and all of those secrets will be uncovered by the time the book ends. The story unfolds through the voices of an (initially) unnamed woman, Heather, Tully and Rachel. The Younger Wife is a page turner. I liked the relationship between the very different sisters. Yet while this story is highly readable, I had some issues with a couple of things. 1) Tully’s husband, Sonny, makes a MAJOR mistake (no spoilers) but Tully basically shrugs and that’s that. Of course, underneath Tully’s acceptance and nonchalance, it’s NOT ok, and this is evident by her later stressed out, self-destructive behaviour. Sonny is appalled by his wife’s behaviour, and Tully waits for the lightening to fall. But wait…. Sonny isn’t called to account for his actions.

2) Another issue I had was with the character of Heather. The choices she makes after one particular incident pushed credulity over the edge. Can’t say more than that without spoilers. One’s past makes one more vulnerable in certain situations and to certain relationships, I get that, and I agree, BUT when the evidence is irrefutable … c’mon. What sort of idiot accepts PILLS after YOU KNOW what the truth is? Heather’s behaviour makes her … well either NOT a credible character or not the sharpest tool in the toolbox (yes even taking her past into consideration.) Still, in spite of these flaws, I liked the way the author showed that the ideal family is sometimes rotten to the core. It takes being inside that family to know the truth.

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Latchkey Ladies: Marjorie Grant (1921)

“Latchkey ladies, letting themselves in and out of dismal rooms, being independent and hating it. All very well for people with gifts and professions, artists or writers, but for us, the ordinary ones…”

Marjorie Grant’s Latchkey Ladies examines the lives of several young women in London at the end of WWI. In this world of social flux, these young women lead dreary working lives with only the possibility of dull marriages as the alternative. The book includes an extensive, informative introduction by Sarah LeFanu, and since it includes information regarding the plot, readers may want to not read this until finishing the novel.

The novel opens at the Mimosa Club which hosts a number of single women, of varied ages, for meals. The founder Miss Templeton originally intended that the club would provide “simple comforts,” to young working women, but found that older women also wanted membership. The disapproving, snobbish kill-joy Mrs Bridson, who sits in judgment on the young women every evening, feels that “war-work girls should be excluded in favour of the elderly and well born.” Mrs Bridson particularly disapproves of vivacious Maquita Gilroy, a government clerk, while Mrs. Bridson’s long-suffering companion, Miss Spicer, is much more tolerant of the young women.

The opening sequence in which a group of young women discuss the various hardships they face in the working world, presents the arguments for and against being one of the “latchkey ladies,” devoid of family or male support. The young women have “moments when independence seemed the most forlorn ambition in the world.” It’s hard to make ends meet. The rooms they live in are shabby and depressing. One girl, Lynette, thinks living at home is preferable, but Maquita argues otherwise. Anne reasons that “independence. The pleasure of earning money. The desire to escape interference” is one great benefit of leaving home, but that “the latchkey claims us, and we become slaves of the key!”

Anne Carey is the novel’s central figure. At 24, she’s engaged to a lieutenant in the army but she finds him boring. One night at a party she meets a married man, Philip Dampier, and they begin an affair. …. The novel explores the lifestyles of these young women, and the various life choices they face. Apart from Anne and Maquita, there are a handful of other young women, including Sophy Garden, and a young actress called Petunia. Possessing a latchkey indicates independence but it comes at a cost.

Through the lives of these young working girls, Latchkey Ladies records the seismic shift taking place in British society. They are a whole new generation of women working instead of getting married or staying at home with family. The war offers additional work opportunities for these young women. Between 1914-1918, more than a million women joined the work force and filled the gaps left by men at war. They may have filled those jobs but they were typically paid half the wages, and this is reflected in the drab, dreary lives of these young working women. Anne has two maiden aunts and two brothers but some of her acquaintances come from still-living parents, and this means they have other choices. There’s the underlying idea that maintaining one’s independence is wearying, and like runners who tire in the race, some of the young women drop off, give up and marry.

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The Last Chronicle of Barset: Anthony Trollope (part II)

One of Trollope’s greatest female characters is Signora Neroni who appears in Barchester Towers. The daughter of the Reverend Stanhope, Madeline Neroni went off the rails in Italy when she ran away with a penniless Italian with “oily manners.” Things went horribly wrong and Madeline Neroni returned to her father’s house crippled. Many women would have returned shame-faced, but not Madeline who capitalizes on her handicap. What a woman! She has a way of fascinating men–think a cobra–and in Barchester Towers she seduces the scourge of Barchester, the nasty, slimy Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain, to behave inappropriately in public and make a declaration of love. Of course, once Madeline has captured Slope’s heart, she shows him how worthless it is. It was with great regret that I said farewell to Signora Neroni.

When I arrived at The Last Chronicle of Barset, it was then with sheer delight to discover some other femme fatales–bad women who behave badly. The painter Conway Dalrymple has a dalliance with a married woman, Mrs Dobbs Broughton. Dalrymple and Mrs Dobbs Broughton spend a little too much time together alone, and her husband doesn’t like it. She decides nobly to “give up” Dalrymple and introduces him to the wealthy Miss Van Siever, a potential bride. Mrs Dobbs Broughton brings Miss Van Siever and Dalrymple together frequently under the auspices of portrait painting, and in her mind she creates a romantic drama in which she stars as the tragic heroine. Mrs Dobbs Broughton “used to tell herself, as she did so, that she was like Isaac, piling the fagots for her own sacrifice.” Mrs Dobbs Broughton is slated to have her own moment of tragedy, but that drama doesn’t involve love.

Johnny Eames, who has had bad luck with women (The Small House at Allington) runs into Madalina Demolines a woman who is on the hunt for a husband, and who doesn’t play by the rules. The painter Conway Dalrymple, who has his own problems with women, warns Johnny about Madalina:

“If you don’t take care, young man,” said his friend, “you will find yourself in a scrape with your Madalina.”

“What sort of scrape?”

“As you walk away from Porchester Terrace some fine day, you will have to congratulate yourself on having made a successful overture towards matrimony.”

“You don’t think I am such a fool as that comes to?”

“Other men as wise as you have done the same sort of thing. Miss Demolines is very clever, and I daresay you find it amusing.”

John knows that Madalina likes “playful intrigue,” as she drops dark hints about various women, but he never sees Madalina’s actions as potentially harmful or dangerous. John, as we know from The Small House at Allington, befriends women, enjoys their amusing company, but then finds himself much closer to the path of matrimony than he intended. There’s not much of a learning curve for John when it comes to women.

The moth who flutters around the light knows that he is being burned, and yet he cannot fly away from it. When Madalina had begun to talk to him about women in general, and then about herself,–even one so liable to the disturbance of violent emotions,–might yet be as true and honest as the sun, he knew he that he ought to get up and make his escape. he did not exactly know how the catastrophe would come, but he was quite sure that if he remained there he would be called upon in some way for a declaration of his sentiments.

Poor John is outgunned when it comes to women. Trollope explores the idea of men being trapped into making declarations of marriage, and many of his novels include proud bachelors who have steered clear of the iceberg of matrimony. Madalina can’t match Signora Neroni for wit, strategy and malicious humour, but Madalina’s role in the novel added a great deal of unexpected humour.

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The Prince: Dinitia Smith

It seems bold when an author retells a great classic and places it in a modern setting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Happened to Anna K? by Irina Reyn works (even though I didn’t expect it to), but, for this reader, Dinitia Smith’s The Prince, a retelling of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, does not.

The Prince opens in Manhattan with the signing of a pre-nup and an awkward meeting between Federico, the Italian Prince, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, the very wealthy Henry Woodward. Penniless Federico, who has looks and a meaningless title to recommend him, is about to marry Henry’s only daughter, Emily. Arriving for the wedding from Italy, with a plane ticket courtesy of Emily, is Christina, a friend Emily met in boarding school. Christina, unbeknownst to Emily (and Henry) had a romantic/sexual relationship with Federico. They broke up suddenly when Christina began demanding more from Federico. He was busy loafing and playing in a band “earning a pittance from gigs here and there.” Federico is almost 30, and nearly a year into his relationship with Christina when she starts talking about marriage and a child. Federico “saw an eternity before him, committed to an absolute thing, a marriage. He was practically a child himself. He didn’t have the means to provide for a family, he had no idea what he was going to do in life.” Christina sees Federico hesitate and throws him out.

Federico bounces to Jean Gavron, Henry Woodward’s art advisor, to cry on her shoulder, and Jean points out that Federico probably “just don’t care enough” about Christina to grow up. It’s Jean who introduces Federico to Emily, and suddenly he’s accepting a job that’s smoothly arranged for him in Manhattan and getting married to the very wealthy Emily. Federico is attracted to many things about Emily, but of course these same things begin to grate after a while:

Emily’s lack of knowledge about worldly things, her indifference to them, astonished Federico. Perhaps it was a kind of efficiency of her part because she didn’t have to understand.

Emily and Federico have a child together. Federico quits his job which just emphasizes his kept-man status and ups his uselessness, and then Christina shows back on the scene and quickly huddles with Henry. Next thing you know, Christina is Federico’s new mother-in-law. Ouch!

The plot with its modern setting had a lot of potential. For this reader, Federico and Christina are a couple of good-looking gold diggers who latch on to the money. One intriguing thing is Federico’s resentment of his wife’s relationship with her father, and eventually Christina’s resentment of Emily. But we never get much of a chance to speculate about motivation here as the novel is all tell–thoughts and feelings are fed to us:

Emily didn’t trust anyone to babysit, Federico felt indispensable. He had an important and vital task as husband and father.

And:

Why could she at least not be pretty, not be an eager lover, or be a wife who wouldn’t sleep with her husband? That would justify it. Why couldn’t she be sarcastic or unkind? If she were somehow “bad,” it would make what he was doing all right. She was none of those things, and it deepened his agony.

There’s a listlessness to the superficial characters as they move through their roles towards the limp ending. For all this taboo claustrophobic passion, drama and tacky behaviour, a few flying saucepans (or tiaras) would have been nice. Marriage to titled European nobility was a thing back in the Gilded Age, but here the fact that Federico is a prince doesn’t have quite the same connotation, and thus it’s practically meaningless.

My opinion of the book seems to be in the minority.

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Ocean State: Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State is the story of a murder, the sort of ugly thing that makes the headlines: Angel and Birdy, two teenage girls in Rhode Island, are involved with the same boy: Myles. Angel and Myles have been an item for a while, but Myles strays with Birdy which leads to a tragic outcome. Framing the murder are the lives of Angel’s sister, 13-year-old Marie and her single mother, Carol. Carol has a bad history with men, and her two daughters, Angel and Marie have long identified relationship patterns that remain oblivious to Carol.

Carol and her daughters lead a tenuous poverty-stricken existence in an Ashaway, Rhode Island duplex, and according to Marie:

My mother’s talent was finding new boyfriends and new places for us to live.

Ashaway is a small community, and everyone seems to know everyone else. Birdy lives in Hopkinton, and both girls come from a working-class, hardscrabble family. Myles, however, comes from an affluent family, and college is in his future. There’s the implication that Birdy and Angel compete for Myles partly because of his status. He represents all they will never have. Carol’s life of a succession of loser men may have contributed to the murder of Birdy–perhaps Carol’s failures reinforce Angel’s violent need to kill her rival. Marie’s first person narrative reveals a great deal about the impermanence of her mother’s relationships:

My mother’s boyfriends tried to be sweet, but they were strangers. Sometimes they paid our rent and sometimes we split it. When they broke up with my mother–suddenly, drunkenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep–we would have to move again. Like her, we were always rooting for things to work out, far beyond where we should have. Our father was gone, and our mother couldn’t stop wanting to be in love. “I swear this is the last time,” she’d say, dead sober, and a month later she’d bring home another loser. They seemed to be getting younger and scruffier, which Angel thought was a bad sign.

The novel passes between first person and third person narrative. Myles, a central figure, remains a murky character, and it’s unclear why he participated in the murder. Even though we know on the first page that a murder has occurred and that Angel “helped kill another girl,” the story is slow to start. About 3/4 of this sad, depressing book is the lead-up to the crime and then the rest is the fallout. In spite of the serious topic, with characters set on a collision path that will end in murder, the story is not compelling, and it’s unclear what point the novel is trying to make. Interestingly, Marie, who seems to be the most sensitive one here, is the one most damaged by the crime. This was a senseless crime, and that senselessness stains the novel too.

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The Barbarous Coast: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 6) 1956

“Jerkiness isn’t as respectable as it used to be, even in LA. which is why they had to build Vegas.”

In Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast, Lew Archer tangles with organized crime and decadent Hollywood. Archer is called to the exclusive Channel Club on Malibu Beach by nervous middle-aged club manager, Clarence Bassett. Bassett is being threatened by George Wall, a young married man, who is looking for his missing wife, Hester and claims that Bassett knows where she is.

Before Archer even meets Bassett, he runs into George Wall trying to crash the club in a desperate attempt to talk to Bassett who refuses to see the very upset husband. Archer also meets Tony Torres, ex-fighter and now the gateman at the Channel Club.

The job to protect Bassett turns into a job to find Hester–after all the two things are connected. Hester was part of a diving show, and at one point dove with Gabrielle Torres (daughter of Tony) and her cousin Manuel. Gabrielle was murdered a year ago–found shot dead on the beach, and Manuel, once a boxer too, is now banned from the profession and has served a jail sentence. Life seems to be looking up for Manuel; he’s now an actor calling himself Lance and works for a gangster named Carl Stern. Tony Torres used to be close to his nephew and now has nothing to do with him. According to Tony:

A boy gets ants in his pants, you can’t hire no exterminator for that.

Archer’s investigations are often circular, and this one is no exception. Archer senses that Gabrielle’s unsolved murder is connected to Hester’s disappearance, and as usual, Archer’s instincts are correct. There’s a tawdry, rancid stench of shop-worn glamour to the Hollywood crowd in these pages. On one level, there are these young people, the ones with the looks, Hester, Gabrielle and Lance and then there’s the moneyed crowd pulling the strings, gangster Carl Stern, producer Simon Graf and his certifiable wife Isobel, who bounces in and out of institutions. Then there’s Bassett who hosts the rich and famous while nervously trying to keep them happy, entertained and the drinks flowing.

This is probably my least favourite Archer novel so far. We don’t get much of Archer’s philosophy (always enjoyable) and the tale lacks the usual moodiness. I didn’t buy the murder wrap-up. Many of the characters are flat, but Tony Torres is well-created, and Bassett was fun. This is a story of moral corruption and how the pretty and the young who have their looks, their youth, and their bodies to sell, are exploited as playthings by the rich and famous. All of this moral corruption is laced with the trappings of Hollywood and supported by organized crime. Naturally, the young and beautiful end up dead or kicked to the curb when their attractions fade or pall.

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The Golden Couple: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

In Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s domestic thriller, Marissa and Matthew Bishop are The Golden Couple; to outsiders they are enviable. Matthew is a good-looking buff lawyer, and Marissa owns an upscale boutique. Matthew and Marissa have one child together and live in an affluent Washington suburb. The book starts rolling when Marissa seeks counseling from Avery Chambers, a “maverick” therapist who has lost her license (red flag, anyone?) and as the book rolls on, we discover just why she lost her license. Avery’s unorthodox protocol consists of 10 sessions; it’s a sort of shock therapy but without the electricity. In the first session, which, according to Avery, always includes a confession, Marissa confesses to infidelity. Usually each session brings more clarity to Avery’s understanding of her clients’ marriage, but in this case, the more sessions that take place, Avery finds it harder and harder to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the Bishops’ marriage.

To Avery, Marissa’s view of her marriage isn’t quite real–it’s more of a “curated Instagram” version of life. Matthew seems to love his wife, and although stunned by Marissa’s confession of adultery, he’s willing to work things through. So if things were normal, Avery would conduct her 10 sessions, the rot of the Bishop’s marriage would be revealed and turned over like a compost heap, and then the repair and healing would begin. Hypothetically, that is.

However, there are several complications afoot. Avery is threatened by a mega-pharmaceutical company for her role in a whistleblower event, plus she’s recently widowed and is still dealing with the finality of that situation. Then there’s Matthew who maintains some sort of a relationship with the perfect, blonde Natalie, a former girlfriend. She’s now divorced, flitting in and out of his life, and has more than a passing interest in Matthew. Then there’s Marissa, a woman who is fractured and is unravelling fast but who remains unsure why she isn’t happy in her marriage. Weird things are happening–several stalkers, a bouquet of flowers sent anonymously to Marissa, a nosy employee at Marissa’s boutique who spies on her boss, a mystery assailant and an old fling of Avery’s who shows up and starts snooping. ….

The story goes back and forth with chapters told by Marissa and Avery. This is a tense page turner; at first I thought since Avery was a therapist who lost her license, this was going to be a ‘when therapists go wrong’ book, but no. Avery feels freed by her lack of license, free to engage in therapy that doesn’t follow the rules–therapy that’s invasive. The authors fold out layers and secrets, so that it’s clear that many characters are not quite what they appear to be. I guessed the dark, core secret at the heart of the book, but I enjoyed the ride. Regular readers of this blog know I have a soft spot for therapist novels, and The Golden Couple, a domestic thriller (woman in danger in upscale suburbia) had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. In non-nonsense strong-minded Avery, I can see a series character here; she’s the most interesting character in the book (Marissa is wimpy) and in Avery’s chapters, more and more information rolls out, until we see what makes this woman tick. You don’t screw with Avery.

(And I highly recommend The Woman Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a lively, entertaining series which pokes fun of this genre–hitting all the tropes with just the right pitch.)

review copy

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