Category Archives: Fiction

Imperfect Women: Araminta Hall

Araminta Hall’s novel, Imperfect Women, a tale of murder, female friendship and the splintered lives made by the pressure of choices, is told through the eyes of three very different women: Eleanor, Mary and Nancy, friends who met in University and have stayed close for decades. Their lives have taken very different paths: Eleanor works for a charity organization and on the surface seems to have the career every women wants. But when it comes to her personal life, she has no long-term relationships and no children. Nancy, the beauty of the bunch, is married to human rights lawyer, Robert. They have a gorgeous London home, a child in university, and to all outside appearances, the perfect marriage. Yet Nancy also feels like a bit of a loser. She didn’t have the great career she expected, and she had a difficult time adjusting to having a child. And that brings us to Mary who is an earth goddess type. She’s married to self-focused academic Howard, has children and lives in domestic chaos. These three women feel imperfect and inadequate in various ways for the choices they’ve made.

Imperfect women

The novel opens with a call to Eleanor in the middle of the night from Nancy’s husband, Robert. Nancy didn’t return home after having dinner with Eleanor at a restaurant. Eleanor joins Robert as they wait for Nancy’s return, but only the police arrive to break the news that Nancy has been found dead.

In the wake of the murder, it’s revealed that Nancy was having an affair with a married man. Eleanor knew of the affair but only in scant detail while Robert says he suspected the affair. When Eleanor tells the police that Nancy had tried repeatedly to break off the affair, the mystery lover becomes the prime suspect in Nancy’s murder.

The story unfolds through 3 narrative voices: Eleanor, Nancy and then Mary. Through these alternating voices, we see how these three very different women struggle with their fractured identities through career, marriage, children. Eleanor has a great career but no personal life, and even though she doesn’t want children, she’s confronted frequently with this very personal decision:

“You know, I’m getting to that age where everyone asks me if I have kids, and when I say I don’t, they actually ask me why not, or if I want them  which they would never, ever do to a man. And there’s this kind of judgment behind the question that I’m not fulfilling my womanly duties by becoming a mother. And then I work with lots of women who have children and they’re constantly feeling guilty and definitely being judged by the same people who judge me for not having them, or you for not working.”

Nancy has a good husband and marriage but having a child led to disaster and estrangement from Robert. She feels deeply lacking because she never had the career everyone expected her to have. And as for Mary, she has centered herself on the family. Her home life is bitter and chaotic and she’s become a doormat for her selfish controlling husband. Mary seems happy, but to her two friends, she’s wasted. None of these women ended up with the lives they expected to have.

Women, Eleanor thought, carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much so it weighs them down and stops them from ever achieving quite everything they should. She knew also that a man faced with the true extent of a woman’s guilt only ever really thinks she is mad, she could hear it already in Robert’s tone. Madness, neurosis, heightened emotions, are all such easy monikers to apply to women.

While this is a crime book, the plot explores the fallout from the crime, and the impact on Nancy’s friends and family. But much more than that, it examines how women betray women. There’s always been a subtle animosity directed towards Nancy from her friends due to her looks and marriage, so when she turned to Eleanor for help, Eleanor was impatient as she felt that Nancy’s issues were self manufactured and slight. Yes men betray women, but perhaps betrayals from other women are worse. Just as there are cracks in long-term marriages, there are cracks in long-term friendships. Years create divisions and low-level resentments. It all comes down to that-mile-in-my-moccasins thing.

I liked this book quite a bit. By the time Mary’s section rolled around I had guessed the perp, so this section seemed long-drawn out until it arrived at the obvious. But apart from that, the way in which the author peels back levels of guilt and dissatisfaction in the lives of these three women adds depth to the tale.

Review copy

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Family Matters: Elizabeth Berridge

Elizabeth Berridge’s foreword in Family Matters, a collection of 16 stories, is strong stuff:

There is no substitute for the family. It is society’s first teething ring, man’s proving ground. When repudiated it still leaves its strengthening mark; when it does the rejecting, the outcast is damaged. Within its confines, devils and angels rage together, emotions creep underfoot like wet rot, or flourish like Russian ivy. It is the world in microcosm, the nursery of tyrants, the no-man’s land of suffering, a place and a time, a rehearsal for silent parlour murder. 

These stories focus on different aspects of family life, and it should come as no surprise, thanks to that excerpt from the foreword, that these relationships are often toxic. While the stories dissect various relationships, several of the stories examine the life of widows as they ‘move on.’ Some of the stories are from the 40s while others were published closer to the time of this book’s publication (1979)

Here’s a breakdown of the stories: 

Idolatry in the Afternoon

Breakthrough

Between the Tides

Time Lost

Mr. Saunders

Growing Up

The Beacon

Lullaby

The Story of Stanley Brent

Subject of a Sermon

The Notebooks

The Prisoner

Tell it to a stranger

Breath of Whose Being?

Under the Hammer

Nightcap

Of course with this many stories, I have some favourites. Idolatry in the Afternoon is the tale of 86-year-old Great-aunt Esmé who is visited by William and Kate.  Great-aunt Esmé tells the story of her Uncle Claud, a man who rented a little house in which he discreetly entertained his mistresses. But discretion falls by the wayside when Esmé overhears the servants gossiping about Claud, a divorce and takes note of the statement: “I never thought it counted as adultery if you did it in the afternoon.” This bit of information, not understood by Esmé and her sister Lila, disastrously slips out at the church bazaar tea. 

But the story is more than a memory; it’s also William’s smary, superficial  relationship to his Great-aunt, and Kate’s discomfort and feeling of exclusion when William and Esmé chat. 

Comfortably, Great-aunt Esmé switched off her lamp and composed herself for sleep. Well  they were all gone now, and she was the only one left. Kate was a little like Lila, kind but judging. She wouldn’t approve of the end of the story. And that young scallywag William –well, he didn’t want to hear old women’s tales. Men became bored so quickly, and then they went away … no she wouldn’t tell them.

What a fuss! By tomorrow she’s have forgotten it, anyway. Another bit of cargo dropped overboard to lighten the boat on its lonely journey over a darkening sea. 

In Breakthrough, a recent widow, Mrs. Jameson, is downsizing and moving into a flat. This means that she needs to get rid of many precious family possessions. Her pregnant daughter, Tessa, is supposed to be helping, but Tessa barely manages to hide her impatience. There’s little affection between the two women, and Mrs. Jameson, who relied on her husband for a great deal of support, isn’t coping well with widowhood. There’s resentment brewing in Tessa, and when her mother reaches out for emotional support, Tessa takes the opportunity to strike. 

Time Lost is a cautionary tale. Pat visits Aunt Tazie in Wales every summer. Although there are other nieces, Pat and Tazie have a special relationship. Pat loves visiting Aunt Tazie as ” we were both great readers, the two of us.” So there’s a meeting ground where they read together and squabble over various fictional characters. At one point, Pat asks Aunt Tazie if she’s read Proust:

At once, she blushed, like a child stealing jam, and said in a whisper, “Oh I long to read Proust! I’ve promised myself Proust for years … but I’m leaving him till last, like a bonne bouche.” She gave me a hesitant look, “I’m saving him up for my deathbed, my dear. What a beautiful way to drift off.”

“It will have to be a long deathbed, then Aunt Tazie.”

Life has a way of playing tricks with our plans, and so it is with Tazie with her “longed-for, saved-up pleasure of this last bonne bouche, this Madeleine which had also turned to sawdust in her mouth.”

Mr Saunders is the story of an inmate in a mental home. The narrator’s Uncle Albert is the superintendent and Mr. Saunders, a long-term patient, and an artisan, has become a sort of hospital mascot. He’s allowed a great deal of freedom with Uncle Albert’s permission. …

Under the Hammer is another great favourite. There’s an estate sale afoot at Glanbadarn, and sensible Bella Linton can’t resist going to the sale. Bella is the daughter of a “previous” vicar and the widow of the local doctor. Her father was great friends with the old squire, also known as the Colonel. Bella’s father, the vicar marries again after the death of his first wife, and Bella finds herself with a stepmother and a step sister, Phoebe. Phoebe eventually marries the squire’s son, but now she is a widow too, and she’s shedding the great house that belonged to her husband’s family for many generations. To Bella, the house has many wonderful memories, and Phoebe’s decision to sell it along with its hordes of treasures of the past, seems like sacrilege.

Bella leaned against the big window that looked into the courtyard at the back of the house, then aside at her young step-sister. Young? She had always considered her to be so, and now she saw that age had not withered so much as preserved her. Now her skin showed a certain dryness, as if it might suddenly flake off. Hers was not a body to sag into old age and death; it would explode into dust, each particle dancing with its owner’s infuriating vivacity.

All the village is gathered to bid for items that will look incongruous in their modest homes. Some desire a slice of memory from the great house and others cannot hide their glee at acquiring an item owned by the Rushby-Knightons.  Bella finds that the visit to the house stirs resentment at her stepsister but more than that, she remembers how “always she had left Glanbadarn Hall with more than she came: a bunch of roses, a basket of peaches from the hothouse, asparagus, black grapes.” And then Bella commits an unpremeditated act that she did not think she was capable of. 

The 16 stories showcase the author’s range and talent at dissecting the power of memory and magnifying the complex dark corners of human relationships. We seek companionship, love, friendship and yet all those things often twist with a bitter sting, for in long-term relationships we so often cannot resist evening the score. Here Elizabeth Berridge shows women who are adjusting to being alone, women who confront their pasts, a lonely spinster on holiday, a mother whose charitable occupations alienate her son, a strange triangle which occurs between a married couple and a single male friend, a spinster who becomes attached to a German POW, a widow who prevaricates over the sale of her late husband’s papers, two sisters who meet a clairvoyant, and a rancid moment in a decades long marriage. There was only one story I disliked and that was Lullaby

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Villa of Delirium: Adrian Goetz

Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read biographies, autobiographies, survivors’ accounts, histories and fiction concerning WWII and the Holocaust, but the sheer destructive drive of the Nazis continues to yield new material. Those jackboots trammeled millions underfoot. And while we mourn artists, there are also the regular people who didn’t leave much behind in the way of landmarks of history. Just ashes and dust. 

Villa of delirium

Adrian Goetz’s Villa of Delirium joins the ranks of books that illustrate the wanton destruction that took place in Europe during WWII. This fiction book concerns the wealthy French Jewish Reinach family. I had no idea these were ‘real’ people, a wealthy family who built a replica of a Greek palace in the French Riviera in the 1900s. The villa, which took over 6 years to finish, is close to Chateau Amicitia, the home of Monsieur Eiffel. The arrival of the Reinachs and the construction of the villa, from 1902-1908, is the focus of local gossip and attention.  When it comes to the locals’ attitude to the Reinachs, the class divide marries with brewing antisemitism.

The Reinach family is composed of Theodore, his wife Fanny, their children, and there are visits from Theodore’s brothers Salomon and Joseph. Into this rarefied atmosphere where classical education is valued above all else, Achilles, a Greek/Corsican boy, the son of a maid and a gardener, becomes the sort of adopted mascot for the family. He’s 15 when he first meets the Reinachs in 1902, and when the novel opens, it’s 1956. Grace Kelly is about to marry the Prince of Monaco, and Achilles, now in his 70s, returns to the villa where his memories pour forth in the decaying, abandoned villa.

I was there when the Nazis came to arrest Julien Reinach, one of Theodore’s sons., who I had known since childhood.

[…]

He was in the library translating Gaius, the classical author of works about the laws of ancient Rome, when he was arrested. The Croix de Guerre he had been awarded after the 1914 war offered him no protection from the French police. 

While the plot construct, which focuses on loss, is somewhat weak and artificial, this slow-to-unfold story told through the eyes of Achilles succeeds best in its examination of the loss of a family of scholars. Their ivory tower pursuit of education, and the way in which they were destroyed, makes the family seem almost like museum pieces. Stamped out (although some survived) under those jackboots. 

At the end of the book, the author includes several sources for those who wish to read more about Villa Kérylos

Review copy

Translated by Natasha Lehrer

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The Old Lovegood Girls: Gail Godwin

In 1958, Feron Hood arrives at the Lovegood Junior College for Girls courtesy of her Uncle Rowan, a lawyer, a man everyone knows and loves. The dean and the dorm mistress make the careful decision to place the troubled newcomer in a dorm room with Merry Jellicoe. The dean surmises, correctly, that Feron, “had been subjected to a wider range of life’s misadventures than our typical Lovegood girl,” and that she “needs a positive, steadying influence.” The two girls could not have a more dissimilar background. Merry is the much-loved protected daughter of wealthy tobacco farmers, and Feron’s mother was an alcoholic who may or who may not have been murdered by her abusive second husband–a man who turned his violence onto Feron after her mother’s death.

Old lovegood girls

So here are these two girls: one whose past is behind a closed door and the other whose natural, sunny optimism cannot grasp how ugly life can be. The two girls hit it off immediately–perhaps because they both bring different characteristics to the table. Feron asks:

Was a person like Merry born with openheartedness, or was it seeded and grown year after year, by the people who had raised her to choose the generous and the true, themselves building on some rich soil of forebears?

But what if you had been raised by disappointed people who were always telling you they had expected a better life than this, who had withdrawn into themselves and took shortcuts with truth when it served their needs?

If one escaped those influences, was it possible to put on a good disposition, like a costume, and practice and practice until no one, except yourself, knew what you had been like before?

Feron and Merry both write creative assignments for English and while they support each other’s writing, there’s an edge of competitiveness from Feron; everything seems to come so easily to Merry. Their life together at Old Lovegood is cut tragically short when Merry fails to return to school after a holiday. The novel follows the trajectory of the two women’s lives, their successes, their losses, their writing, and their shared acquaintances. While they were each other’s best friends in college, strangely they do not keep in constant touch. It’s a friendship that has monumental significance for both of these women with each one acting as a touchstone for the other.

While the novel seems padded at times with the inclusion of various fictional works, and the interminable church service attended by Merry, I enjoyed the rest of the novel. The relationship between Merry and Feron is intriguing and a little odd. Even though the story revolves around these two women, we never really get that close. These two characters hold each other (and the reader) at a distance with (most) major traumatic events arriving via catch-up. It’s almost as though the connection is so deep that they don’t need to keep in touch–that each woman holds a luminous place ( a “reference aura” as Feron calls it) in their respective lives, and yet it’s a friendship fraught with some darker, realistic elements. Feron, a damaged woman who turns her dark past into her books, is the main character here with modest, kind Merry, who once seemed to be the person whose life you would envy,  in the background. The inclusion of some wonderful secondary characters (typical in a good Southern novel IMO) add a great deal to the panorama of the lives of these two women.  An engaging tale of female friendship, and how tragedy and life impact the creative experience.

review copy

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The Imposter: Damon Galgut

“Maybe the soul of South Africa wasn’t a poet; maybe it was a crooked property developer, obsessed with cheap fittings.”

South African Adam Napier’s life is a mess. He’s left youth behind, and in the new political landscape, he’s lost his job and then his house in Johannesburg. Adam’s younger brother, Cape Town property developer Gavin, who has a made a bundle on shady deals, invites Adam to stay, and then offers him a job.

There was an irony in this. Until just a few years ago, Adam had been the staid, dependable, predictable one, while Gavin was financially straitened and directionless. Now they seemed to have changed places. But their history went back further and deeper than that and it didn’t take Adam long to sense that Gavin was using his weakened state to try and settle some obscure moral score.

Adam turns away from Gavin’s offer sensing, quite correctly, that the job will involve moral compromise and submitting to his brother’s patronage. Rejecting a lucrative career as a carpetbagger, Adam impulsively decides he’s “after something else.” He wants to return to writing poetry–he’d published a book of poetry years earlier; “he saw his way forward clearly in that moment.” 

the imposter

Somewhat surprisingly Gavin offers Adam the use of a dilapidated house he owns in the boonies. Adam accepts. At first he’s optimistic, but this mood is rapidly replaced by despair. Alone in this tiny, crude house, surrounded by hostile, tenuous weeds and a barren landscape, Adam’s mind implodes. He’s stuck in a special sort of hell where time has no meaning. “The world shrank very quickly to the size of the house,” and he is forced to face his failures: 

He was trapped somewhere that was nowhere, in which the light was too blindingly stark, and in which it was always Sunday afternoon.

Adam deep in the slough of despair, meets two people: a neighbour, a white man, living in hiding, and waiting for his past to arrive. His incongruously neat garden appears to defy the laws of nature, and he makes some strange, tentative approaches to Adam. The second person Adam meets is Canning, a former schoolmate. While Adam has no memory of Canning whatsoever, Canning refers to an incident which he claims ‘saved’ his life.

Canning is a very wealthy man, and he invites Adam to his home, Gondwana, a vast inherited game farm. Adam is stunned by its beauty:

They make a sharp turn, and then everything is different. A cleft opens in the side of the mountains, a long sward of green that glows brilliantly against the dark stone. There is the smell and feel of water. And then the sight of it–a flickering glimpse of a river through trees. The vegetation is vivid and dense, rising in vertical waves. It is shocking, all this verdant profusion, after the epic emptiness they’ve been driving through. It’s like a tropical island that has been towed in from somewhere else and moored incongruously here. 

At first the meeting with Canning appears to offer Adam a lifeline. He is a frequent guest at Gondwana, enjoying the luxuries of a life he could not afford, and he meets Canning’s black wife: an emotionless cipher named Baby. She seems to have little in common with her husband–although Canning was clearly smitten enough to abandon his first wife and children for Baby. Every artist needs a muse, and unfortunately Adam is strangely attracted to Baby in a very self-destructive way. 

While Adam left Cape Town to avoid the pursuit of money and its corrupting tentacles, ironically, he finds himself embroiled in an even bigger mess with Canning. Canning is a weak man, haunted and twisted by hatred for his father. Weak men don’t make direct strikes; they go for the underhanded choice and then quibble and whine about it later, and that’s exactly what happens with Canning. 

I’ve read a few Damon Galgut novels and this is my favorite so far. His novels present these moral dilemmas: idealism vs. pragmatism, idealism vs. survival, but even beyond that, as a writer somehow the moral quagmires of Galgut’s plots draw the reader in to the labyrinthine of our darkest motivations. Who is the impostor here? At one point Adam, ashamed of his squalid home gives his neighbour’s address as his own–a minuscule decision which has monumental ramifications both literally and morally. In this novel, no one is what they seem, they are all impostors on some level or another. But perhaps Adam, idealistic Adam, is the worst impostor of all. 

This book will make my best-of-year list. 

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Castle Skull: John Dickson Carr (1931)

John Dickson Carr’s moody crime novel Castle Skull, as its title indicates, has an extraordinary setting. It’s an extremely visual novel which creates a doom-laden atmosphere even before we see the first corpse. The novel features the author’s series character, Henri Bencolin while the book’s splendid narrator is Bencolin’s friend, writer Jeff Marle. It’s largely thanks to the strong narration and Marle’s canny observations, that the story succeeds so well. The intro from Martin Edwards mentions that the creepy Castle Skull may be based on the twin castles “The Hostile Brothers,” in Germany’s Rhine Valley.

Castle skull

The book opens in a Paris restaurant where the wealthy Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay meets Henri Bencolin. Also at the memorable meeting is the narrator Jeff Marle. Marle recounts the meeting in retrospect, and we know from hints dropped, that death awaits D’Aunay. The meeting, set against the light, noise and life of a busy restaurant, is the last glimpse we see of normality, for after this everything sinks into the dark macabre. 

D’Aunay requested the meeting with “the celebrated juge d’instruction of the Seine” with employment in mind. D’Aunay explains that the task, if Bencolin accepts (and how can he resist?) “will be the strangest affair you have ever handled.” D’Aunay explains that his friend, the wealthy magician, Maleger, owner of the Castle Skull (Schloss Schadel) died while traveling on the train from Mainz to Coblenz. He was alone in a first-class compartment, and somehow his body ended up in the Rhine. Although there was “no possibility of foul play,” how Maleger fell from the train cannot be adequately explained.

But the plot thickens: Maleger’s heirs are D’Aunay and another friend, English actor Myron Alison. But now Myron is dead: shot three times in the chest, doused in gasoline and then ignited. His blazing body was seen running about on the battlements of Castle Skull.

So now D’Aunay is the sole heir, and he’s understandably nervous. He invites Bencolin (Jeff Marle goes along for the ride) to Myron Alison’s home, now occupied by his sister “the Duchess.” Myron’s home faces Castle Skull. Bencolin’s task is to discover who murdered Myron Alison

“I couldn’t refuse this case, Jeff,” he observed. “It’s bad. That’s the point: it’s worse than anybody suspects. You heard what he said about the body of Maleger–does it mean anything to you?”

I said, “There’s the obvious theory that Maleger’s death was a fake, arranged by himself.”

“Yes.” Still he stood motionless, staring after the car. “I only wish it were as simple as that. No; I think it’s worse than that, Jeff, and more devilish. More devilish…”

Castle Skull is dreadful, imposing and memorable. It’s the perfect home for someone who dabbled in the macabre.

The name is not a fancy. Its central portion is so weirdly constructed that the entire facade resembles a great death’s head, with eyes, nose, and ragged jaw, But there are two towers, one on each side of the skull, which are rather like huge ears; so that the devilish thing, while it smiles, seems also to be listening, It is set high on a crag, with its face thrust out of the black pines. Below it is a sheer drop to the waters of the river.

There’s a lively set of characters here–some of whom seem immediately suspicious, and the unusual setting adds a great deal to the plot. There’s the typical long explanation at the end which is common with the genre, but it is darker than most I’ve read from this period. 

Review copy

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Friend: Paek Nam-nyong

Many people in the city neither knew the location of the Superior Court nor knew of its existence. Those who aided by the law or lived in a harmonious family had no reason to come here.”

Judge Jeong Jin Wu is presented with a divorce petition, and he’s “upset with having to deal with another family’s misery.” He’s in the wrong business then, because he’s seeing divorce cases, and that includes a lot of misery. But hey, wasn’t that why divorce was invented: so that spouses (mostly men) couldn’t have their unwanted mates locked up in loony bins, dungeons or murdered? So IMO divorce may not be the worst option out there.

Friend

33-year-old Chae Sun Hee is petitioning for a divorce. She’s a celebrity, a professional singer, the lead mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. She’s been married for almost ten years and has one son with her husband, 35-year-old Lee Soek Chun, who is 35 and works in a factory as a lathe operator. Now of course because I live in America, I see the reason for the divorce right there: it’s The Custom of the Country. You move up.

But this is North Korea in the 80s, so Chae Sun Hee must explain to the judge why she wants a divorce. Her reasons are vague; she states that she “can’t live like this anymore,” and that their “personalities are completely different.” According to Chae Sun Hee, it’s a “loveless marriage” loaded with “silent treatment” and nagging, but then comes something else, the biggie: “it’s embarrassing to be seen in public with him.”

After Chae Sun Hee leaves, the judge receives a strange phone call from Chae Rim, a chairman from the Provincial Industrial Technology Commission Board. He urges the judge to grant Chae Sun Hee her divorce and at first the judge is (naively) puzzled as to why this man would interfere. But then he recalls that Chae Rim divorced his wife, and what a shameful affair that was. The wife, who’d slaved pitifully for her husband as he moved up in the world, was a “country bumpkin.” It was a case that the judge never forgot.

Jeong Jin Wu was still bitter about that incident and felt that the divorce litigation should be dismissed. He wanted to punish Chae Rim for his violent and insolent personality, but he knew that the court would not approve of sentencing someone based on personality. 

The judge begins to do some background research on the divorce case which includes visiting the -not-so-happy home, and he ends up bringing the couple’s child home. Here we see the judge’s own compromised marriage. The judge and his wife lead separate lives, and although there’s no disparity of social position between them, they share very little and have grown apart. 

Written in a simple, unadorned style, this was an interesting, rather sad read; there was so much here that was familiar–husbands and wives getting sick of each another, the suffering of the children of divorce, and then so much that was.. well North Korean. The very specific divorce case morphs into considerations of love and marriage in general. Human nature doesn’t change but the laws of the land shape behavior, and we see that here, along with the power and, paradoxically, the powerlessness of a judge. 

Review copy

Translated by Immanuel Kim

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The Blessing: Nancy Mitford (1951)

“I  wish I understood Americans,” said Charles-Edouard. “They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.” 

The delights and hazards of marrying out of one’s culture are explored with style and wit in Nancy Mitford’s light, entertaining novel, The Blessing. The introduction to my copy states that this is the author’s most “personal” novel as it “explains in barely veiled terms” why her love affair with a “womanising Frenchman” lasted for over 30 years. 

When the book opens, it’s WWII and Grace Allingham receives a visitor to her father’s county home. The visitor is Charles-Edouard, a man who met Hughie, Gracie’s fiancé in Cairo. While he could bring tidings, instead Charles-Edouard starts paying attention to Grace. A month later, he proposes, Grace accepts, they marry, and two weeks later, Charles-Edouard returns to Cairo. The war rages on, and it’s 7 years before Charles-Edouard returns to Grace, and by this time, they have a child named Sigismond, the ‘blessing’ in the title.

The blessing

It’s easy to see that there will be problems ahead. Grace’s father wasn’t keen on his daughter “marrying a Frog.” He guesses that Charles-Edouard will not be a faithful husband, and senses that his daughter, who is blissfully happy at the family country estate tending goats, is ill-equipped for life in French society: “she would be a lamb among wolves.”  Trouble immediately begins, although the pliant Grace doesn’t see it, when the day after Charles-Edouard returns from the war, he whisks his wife and son off to France, with no notice whatsoever, to his family’s country estate, Bellandargues in Provençal. She meets his grandmother, the Marquise, his Tante Régine, and his grandmother’s lover, an elderly man who sports a pale green wig. Through this initial introduction, she learns, but fails to absorb, that lovers are openly accepted, not hidden away–at least not in Charles-Eduoard’s circle. Charles-Edouard’s family give Grace the once-over, decide she’s lovely, but that there will be problems ahead ahead–mainly due to extra-marital affairs. 

Charles-Edouard’s family think “the English are very eccentric,” and that “they are half mad, a country of enormous, fair mad atheists.” They can’t understand what “induced” him “to marry an Englishwoman–these English with their terrible jealousy.” For when it comes to infidelity:

It is quite different for a Frenchwoman, she has ways and means of defending herself. First of all she is on her own ground, and then she has all the interest, the satisfaction, of making life impossible for her rival. Instead of sad repining her thoughts are concentrated on plot and counterplot, the laying of traps and springing of mines. Paris divides into two camps, she has to consider most carefully what forces she can put in the field, she must sum up the enemy strength, and prepare her stratagem.

Then Grace is whisked off to Paris–just as she was getting used to the French country estate (belatedly she learns that her husband hates country life), and it’s here, mingling at dinner parties and soirees in Paris, we find Grace mostly out of her depth–especially when she realises there are a string of other women in Charles-Edouard’s life. …

Several nations are skewered here. From child-rearing, marriage, adultery, diet, the fun comes from the clash of cultures. There are a couple of English ladies Charles-Edouard decides are lesbians: “Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?” And then there’s Grace’s old school friend, Caroline; Charles-Edouard doesn’t get the schoolgirl crush thing, and insists on calling her a lesbian too. Caroline is now married to an obnoxious, loud, know-it-all American, Hector Dexter who, unfailing tells everyone around the dinner table exactly what’s wrong with their respective countries. France is, according to Dexter, suffering from “a malaise, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness,” while England, “this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down.” And of course, Dexter also thinks that Americans have superior morals when it comes to marriage and adultery:

We, in the States, are entirely opposed to physical relations between the sexes outside the cadre of married life. Now in the States, it is usual for the male to marry at least four, or three times. He marries straight from college in order to canalize his sexual desires, he marries a second time with more material ends in view–maybe the sister or the daughter of his employer–and much later on, when he has reached the full stature of his maturity, he finds his life’s mate and marries her. Finally  it may be, though it does not always happen, that when he has raised this last family with his life’s mate and when she has ceased to feel an entire concentrated interest in him, but is sublimating her sexual instincts into other channels such as card games and literature, he may satisfy a longing, sometimes more paternal than sexual, for some younger element in his home, by marrying the friend of one of his children, or as has occurred in certain cases known to me personally, one of his grandchildren. 

Grace ultimately is attracted to Charles-Edouard because he isn’t English. With him, she avoided a “dull” safe English marriage. Charles-Edouard may be charming, but he has an escape clause for the marriage if it doesn’t work out, and then at one point, we see a callous side when he plots to ruin a carpet Grace makes as he doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, it dawns on Grace “that she was, perhaps, more in love than he was.”

But since the title is The Blessing, the story goes beyond the troubled marriage to Sigismond. Charles-Edouard doesn’t like the British Nanny’s influence, and he wants his son to emulate Napoleon rather than Garth, a British cartoon character. Nanny doesn’t understand what a bidet is: “what is that guitar shaped vase for?” and bemoans the French diet:

Course upon course of nasty greasy stuff smelling of garlic.

In time Nanny finds another British nanny in Paris, and “the two nannies clung to each other like drowning men.” Sigismond grasps that the cultural values and expectations of behaviour from each parent are different, so he learns to manipulate the situation between the estranged couple to his advantage.

The ending was a little too Disney for me. Overly optimistic IMO but no doubt the ending reflected the author’s decisions. This book is a light, amusing treat which delights in Grace’s painful awakening as she realises that when she married outside of her culture, she was unaware that French values would be so different. Of course, the elephant in the room is that no … what’s normal in Charles-Edouard’s aristocratic family is not the standard for the rest of France. Grace did not know the man she married. Frenchman or not. 

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The Wife-Stalker: Liv Constantine

The Wife Stalker, a domestic thriller from the writing team Liv Constantine (sisters Lynne and Valerie) is told through two alternating voices: Piper, the drop-dead gorgeous owner of the Phoenix Recovery Centre and the dumpy, clingy Joanna. The action takes place (mostly) in Westport, Connecticut. We know almost immediately that there is something wrong in Joanna’s life with high-powered, affluent attorney Leo Drakos and two young children Stelli and Evie.  Leo is obviously depressed but we don’t know why. His latest case sends him to the Phoenix Recovery Centre which has recently been purchased by fresh transplant from California, Piper Reynard. The lovely Piper sets her eyes on Leo and it’s just a matter of days before they are cooking up excuses to spend time together.

It doesn’t take long for Joanna to sniff a rat, and a little recon confirms her suspicions. When Joanna leaves to nurse her unpleasant mother who has broken her leg, Leo immediately takes advantage of her absence to have Joanna’s belongings delivered to her mother’s home. Yes it’s finito, baby.

The Wife stalker

The competing chapters unfold with a very nasty Piper who modifies her temper with truly nauseating mantras.

As we heal. we are reborn. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

(gag)

Manipulative Piper has drawn a screen over her past, and she swiftly explodes into Leo’s life, scheming her next step. Her past includes some experiences with a stepchild, and that didn’t end well. She tries with the stepkids and while Evie accepts Piper, Stelli does not.  This leads to a lot of teeth-gritting from Piper as she forces smiles and says everything is alright. The children are told their mother is in heaven, blah blah, but that doesn’t help Stelli much, especially when Piper starts redecorating the family home, threatens to fire the long-term live-in nanny, and what’s up with those smoothies that include “special vitamins” for Stelli?

With Piper taking over, Joanna, from a distance, digs into Piper’s past and she finds a lot of dirt. ….

This is a highly readable book. At times, when we are inside Piper’s head, it reads like a bad romance novel which is ok, as this is how Piper thinks. I got the cuckoo-for-coco-puffs vibe from BOTH female characters. Two psycho competing female characters; yeah, I’m down with that. Joanna seems off the rails, stuck in the past. She’s overweight, unhappy and unfulfilled. Drop-dead-gorgeous Piper is evil, manipulative and rather nasty to Stelli. It apparently comes as a SHOCK to her that the children, step-children that is, come first once again. Imagine that. There’s nothing like sick children to thrown a piss-pot all over a planned night of erotic lingerie sex. 

While I was reading this, there were things, holes in the narrative, that bothered me. Why is Joanna’s attorney so useless? Why is her therapist like a broken record? Why can’t Joanna see the children AT ALL? Why are there no repercussions regarding the story that the childrens’ mother is dead… up in heaven… wouldn’t that spring back on Piper and Leo?

At the end of the novel, all those questions are answered. Authors withhold information. I know that. But in this instance, it was over the top. And when all the cards were on the table, I was really annoyed by the book. It was one of those Gone-Girl deceptions that instead of revealing additional information that filled in the gaps, showed how thoroughly manipulated you were, as the reader. If you’re ok with that, then you may enjoy the book.  I seem to have a minority opinion.

I enjoyed The Last Mrs Parrish which was great fun. But this one … not so much. 

Review copy

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The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Shriver Lionel