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The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”

A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial. 

The Dutch House.

Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.

My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.

“Crazy how?”

“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”

Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.

The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.

To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.

But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.

The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way.  Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens. 

Review copy. 

 

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Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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The Body of Jonah Boyd: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s The Body of Jonah Boyd is narrated by Judith “Denny” Denham, a secretary who’s having an affair with her psychology professor boss, Dr. Ernest Wright. It’s the 60s and the story is told in retrospect thirty years later by Denny, and while it’s her story, it’s also the story of the Wright family.

It’s sticky enough that Denny is having an affair (one in a long series of affairs) with her married boss, but the entanglement doesn’t stop there. Nancy Wright, Ernest’s wife, “found” Denny at the hairdresser’s and insists on inviting her home as a “four-hand partner” for the piano. The idea is that Denny is supposed to replace Nancy’s former piano partner and best friend Anne. Denny accepts and so begins her relationship with the Wright family. Denny is frequently a guest at the Wrights’ home, and her invitation to Thanksgiving is secured. On weekends, Ernest and Denny often scurry up to his office above the garage for some gropey sex, while Nancy and the Wright children: Mark, Daphne and Ben are in other parts of the house. Denny doesn’t have a problem with all these complications and claims to keep her relationships with Nancy and Ernest cleanly separate, stating that “my friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband.”  But is that true?

When Thanksgiving 1969 rolls around, the Wrights’ oldest child, Mark is a draft dodger in Canada, and that’s the Thanksgiving that Nancy’s best friend, Anne and her second husband, Jonah Boyd come to visit.

Denny, whose role was to replace Anne at the piano, has heard so many nauseatingly positive things about Anne that the reality is a shock.

Anne was wearing a wool coat that had been torn near the pocket and then clumsily restitched, and she carried an enormous, shapeless handbag. She had shaggy red hair that was graying at the roots, nicotine-stained teeth, a thick middle. Also her eye makeup was smudged in a way that suggested she had been weeping. 

All at once, a sensation of misplaced triumph welled up in me. This Anne was a far cry from the willowy creature Nancy had described. Certainly they could never have shared clothes! I admit, my rival’s sordid demeanor–not to mention the expression of concern and disappointment that claimed Nancy’s face as she gave Anne the once-over–sparked in me an unexpected confidence, and I shook Anne’s hand heartily. 

There are obvious marital problems between Jonah and Anne, and while Anne seethes and drinks too much, Jonah sets out to charm everyone. The fact that he succeeds so easily seems to bother Anne, and so she airs some of the marital dirty laundry. It’s not a particularly pleasant evening–especially when, after Jonah gives a reading of his soon-to-be-published novel, teenager Ben insists on reading some of his angst-ridden poetry.

It’s an evening to remember, and as Denny narrates the story we learn about the terrible things that subsequently happened to several of the people who attended Thanksgiving that evening. Years pass and then Denny runs into Ben again. …

Every story must begin somewhere and end somewhere. The author (or the narrator) takes a cookie cutter to life and offers readers just that piece. A large portion of Denny’s time must have existed outside of the Wrights but it seems that they are the most important part of her life. And what a tangled relationship she has with this family. At times she seems to wish herself Nancy’s daughter, and she admits “yearning” “to have been Daphne.” But when you put that in the context of Denny’s affair with Ernest, it seems rather incestuous–especially when there are a few times she sees her affair with Ernest as a sort of revenge against Nancy’s slights. Then there is another time Denny admits that she’s “besotted” with Nancy.  The Wrights seem to have various “needs” for Nancy too, so the relationship between Nancy and the Wrights isn’t a one-way street.

This was a reread. I was struck this time by Ernest’s philosophy to life. Ernest believes that “what people get, most of the time, is what they want,” and this philosophy seems to work itself into the later relationship between Danny and Ben. I wasn’t as convinced by the character of Denny this time around. This is a young woman who has a series of affairs with married men, yet asks nothing from them. Given her feelings about various members of the Wright family, somehow she seems  needy and not the cool I-need-my-space serial mistress type.

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Stay Up With Hugo Best: Erin Somers

Aspiring comic June Bloom is a writer’s assistant on the late night talk show Stay Up with Hugo Best. The long standing show has stayed the course for years, but now Best is retiring, rather unexpectedly. There will be a new host who “would hire his own writers, and those writers would hire their own assistant.” It’s been a long hard climb for June, and now she’s unemployed and broke.

Stay Up with Hugo Best

June goes to a bar to do a stand-up routine and runs into Best who is is part of the small audience. The evening ends with Best inviting June to his house in Connecticut, “No funny business,” promises Best. Given that 65 year old Best has a reputation as a womanizer–specifically there’s one incident which involved an underage girl, that “dogged him forever,” we expect hanky panky (at least attempted) with perhaps some humorous barbs (thanks to the cover) shooting back and forth. Best is an icon to June; the comic who made her think she could have a career in comedy too:

My crush had been a minicollison of forces, a science fair Krakatau. The double whammy of loving him and also wanting to be him.

Initially the novel has a lot of energy, and the plot seems full of possibilities. June is too curious to reject Best’s offer, and author Erin Somers wisely avoids the cliches we might expect from the weekend in Connecticut scenario.

Part of the book was brilliant. Best’s life turns out to be as muddled, sad and unglamorous as only the life of an aging comic can be. Some of the book’s best, funniest scenes take place at the home of obnoxious “shock jock” Roman Doyle and his surprisingly unconventional wife, Gypsy. June isn’t eager to be at Roman’s party, but she is interested to meet his wife. June admits that “the thought that someone could stand him [Roman] intrigued her.”

I was disappointed by the gray restraint of the place. Where were the vulgar classical touches, the marble nymphs and cherubs in repose? Even shock jocks had taste these days. You had to go to Los Angeles to see anything truly vulgar anymore. 

One of the themes is the TV persona vs the real human being. For some reason, we seem more shocked when comics turn out to be alcoholic, druggies, and or depressive failures. After all, that humour and disposition they project has to come from somewhere right? Perhaps we need to see that some people manage to use humour as a buoy to float above  life’s crushing defeats and disappointments, converting them into humour. If they can do it, perhaps we can:

In theory, it made sense that there would be some separation between the two. That the real guy would have depths the TV persona didn’t. But I felt sure that there were people out there who were exactly what they seemed to be, people you could pin down immediately. For instance, the moment they grabbed your ass in the workplace, which was something Roman had done to me. 

It’s clear that comedy, as a business, is a grueling career. “Writer’s contracts were renewed every thirteen weeks.” Imagine the pressure of trying to keep up the humour when you are under the gun with no idea where the next pay check will come from? It’s no wonder some comics seem to grow more desperate as they age.

What starts as a funny novel becomes rather sad and grim as it becomes clear that June must learn some degrading, humiliating lessons and that her idol Hugo Best must topple from his exalted position. The book is being adapted to film and IMO there’s every possibility that the film may work better than the book. It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just rather depressing given that we are June’s audience for a lesson that’s painful to read about. By the time the book has concluded it’s harder to say who is more winceworthy figure: washed out Hugo Best who was dealt an excellent hand but still managed to trash his life, or June Bloom who had plenty of warning signs and should know better.

Review copy

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Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

“Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology.”

I saw the miniseries version of Olive Kitteridge, based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout, and this is one of the rare instances that I’m glad I saw the screen version first. The wonderful actress Frances Mcdormand (always entertaining to watch) gave an incredible performance as Olive. A great many adjectives come to mind when I think about Olive. She’s caustic, domineering, and outspoken. Definitely eccentric, she’s the sort of person who provokes a strong reaction. The novel is a series of interconnecting stories; sometimes Olive’s a main character, and other times she’s in the background barely mentioned. Some of the stories are told from Olive’s perspective while others feature the lives of other residents in the town of Crosby, Maine. One of book’s underlying themes is mental illness; there are several characters in the book who show various signs of mental illness, and then there’s Olive. Is the jury out on the mental state of this main character?

Olive kitteridge

So who is Olive Kitteridge? In Elizabeth Strout’s novel, we see Olive, a retired math teacher, who lives in the town of Crosby, Maine where everyone seems to know everyone else.  Olive is a difficult woman. Respected by some, she intimidates others. She has many admirable qualities: she’s intelligent, capable, and confident, but to her family, she’s frequently monstrous because she’s so formidable and domineering. Yet at the same time, she’s capable of incredible sensitivity, but it seems easier for Olive to show kindness and compassion to strangers than to her husband and only child, Christopher.

The novel opens with Pharmacy which is an introduction to Olive’s sweet husband, Henry who works in a pharmacy in the next town. Henry is a steady, kind, considerate gentle man, and we get a view of Henry and his life with Olive when his long-term employee dies and he employs a very naive young newlywed, Denise. Denise is sweet and rather helpless, and at one point, when tragedy strikes, Henry steps into Denise’s life to help her. Olive warns him that “People are never as helpless as you think they are.” 

Pharmacy shows the Kitteridges’ married life with Henry often hesitant to show affection to his prickly wife due to “a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” Olive isn’t easy to live with and her outbursts are unpredictable. One day, for example, Henry rather “uncharacteristically” complains when Olive refuses to accompany her husband to church:

“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit her fury’s door flung open, “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking. Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! and you—.” She grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick and tired of it,” she said calmly. “Sick to death.”

In A Little Burst, Christopher finally marries (he’s 38 years-old) and Olive tries to accept  his bossy wife, Suzanne. By the end of the wedding day, Olive loathes her new daughter-in-law. The marriage takes place in Maine, and it’s a humiliating experience for Olive who can’t understand why on earth her son is marrying this woman–but it’s quite obvious that Suzanne is another version of Olive: so Christopher, in essence is marrying his mother. In later chapters, we track Christopher’s marriage and relationships.

In Tulips, Olive makes the mistake of visiting Louise Larkin, a woman Olive used to work with. It’s a strange meeting, and a rare occasion when Olive finds herself outplayed.

Olive is at her best with people outside of any intimate relationships. Living damages and bruises, so we see various characters who ‘cope’ (or not) with an array of tragedies and disasters. Olive’s past led to a wall–a wall of toughness which will not allow tenderness or a moment of weakness. It’s easy to see why she married Henry even though she thinks he’s “irritating” and has a “steadfast way of remaining naive, as though life were just what a Sears catalogue told you it was: everyone standing around smiling.” 

The book is full of memorable characters, but, of course, the ‘star’ here is Olive. Would we want to know Olive? Would we want to be related to Olive? In creating of Olive, author Elizabeth Strout, with compassion and sensitivity, shows the many facets of one very complicated personality.

Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and ” little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well, a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really. 

 

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Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis (1929)

Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth is another look at that fascinating figure in literature: the American Abroad, and this time it’s 50-year-old car manufacturer, Sam Dodsworth. In this novel which contrasts American and European values and manners, Dodsworth’s business sells to a larger competitor, and feeling at loose ends, he is persuaded to take an extended holiday to Europe by his wife, Fran. The book opens with a short chapter depicting Dodsworth as a young man courting Fran who has just returned from a year in Europe with a veneer of European sophistication. The first chapter is important as it lays a foundation for the story to come. When Sam’s business sells, Fran, leaps at the opportunity to travel. According to her, the small mid-western town of Zenith, a place they’ve “drained everything from,” offers nothing in comparison to the proposed delights of Europe.

Dodsworth, ambitious and driven, is an extremely successful, well-liked man and yet somehow, his wife always manages to diminish him. It’s clear that a trip to Europe will make Dodsworth, very much a home-body, feel like a fish out-of-water. And at first this seems to be true. Trouble begins for Dodsworth quite quickly in the novel when Fran begins a flirtation on board the liner sailing to London. The flirtation becomes one of a series of relationships Fran, a vain, shallow, selfish, pretentious woman, has with various European men.

Dodsworth and Fran, now in middle age (although Fran is quite a bit younger) are depicted as suffering their own crises. Dodsworth’s identity has long been tied to his automobile company, and so he’s cast adrift when he sells his business. Fran, on the other hand, is frantically trying to escape from her age. From almost the moment she raises the idea of a prolonged European sojourn, the desire is connected to the key, transparent revelation that European men admire older women and appreciate them. Then there’s the way she hides the fact that she’s a grandmother.

One theme in the novel is the topic of American snobbery (yes snobbery is alive and well in America!) We meet several ex-pat Americans, and it’s fashionable, possibly even essential in the company of these ex-pats to denigrate Americans and American culture. This is somehow part of the separation of ‘those’ Americans from other Americans who either want to, or imagine that they can blend in with the locals. Fran is insufferable. As the wife of a Zenith car manufacturer, she was a big fish in a small pond. She ruled the roost, and Sam was fine with that as she had a limited, constricted role. Unleashed in Europe, Fran’s snobbery embarrasses Sam repeatedly, and he discovers that in her new environment, Fran’s worst characteristics emerge. In the marital relationship, she’s in the wrong repeatedly, but with “a genius for keeping herself superior,” she flips the cards and turns herself into a victim who is always trying to ‘help’ Sam learn how to behave. It’s no surprise that genuinely nice people drop Fran so that ultimately she’s surrounded by European versions of her nasty self.

But really this is Dodsworth’s story and the tale of his growth as a human being. At first he doesn’t want to travel to Europe, but he goes along with Fran’s desires. Sam very quickly learns that he’s an unwanted presence at Fran’s side, but he opens himself to experience and all that Europe has to offer while Fran intrigues, flirts (possibly misreads signals), and plays the coy innocent with various men. Then when things with Fran become untenable, Sam returns to America. He toys with an ambition to become involved in building a community but when Fran’s telegrams (demanding more money) become alarming he returns to Europe–which, to his surprise, he liked more than he expected. The man who never wanted to leave Zenith discovers that while he still loves his country, the American way of life is different from the European way of life; the values are different.

Do you know, I had the feeling of leisure in France and England. I felt there as though people made their jobs work for them; they didn’t give up their lives to working for their jobs. And I felt as though there was such a devil of a lot to learn about the world that we’re too busy to learn here. 

One striking aspect of Dodsworth is how prohibition looms prominently in the novel. On returning to New York in the Aquitania, Dodsworth can’t wait to set foot back on American soil, and he and fellow American passenger, Ross Ireland exchange comments about how much they missed and love America. Reality hits when Dodsworth is caught smuggling booze into the country and then, facing a dry evening, he decides to call his bootlegger. The hustle and bustle of American life, while it was longed for in Paris, soon grates on Dodsworth.

He realized that this capital, barbaric with gold and marble, provided every human necessity save a place, a cafe or a plaza or a not-too-lady-like tea-shop, in which he could sit and be human.

This is a slow, imperfect novel, and it took me quite a while to finish it–not to mention that it took me 28 years to pick it up and start reading it. Dodsworth isn’t exactly an exciting or witty fellow. There are some racial slurs and at one point, Dodsworth threatens to spank Fran–a threat that has not aged well. Sam and Fran’s inequitable relationship would have seemed a little unbelievable if not for the first chapter which sets the scene for Sam seen as socially inferior by Fran, but even so I had to remind myself of that first chapter from time to time. And Fran’s whole European trip as a teenager brings up the issue of European exposure as a sort of tainting experience since Fran comes home to Zenith with an inflated idea of herself and then more than 20 years later prances around Europe acting as if she knows everything and can speak French like a native. There are some marvellous, marvellous moments here–at one point, Sam’s friend Tubs comes to Paris with his plump wife, Matey, in tow and when Sam takes them to a posh restaurant, Tubs’ behaviour is horribly embarrassing. He calls the poor waiter a Frog and asks if he “sprechen Sie pretty good English.”

And here’s a final quote as an example why this novel is well worth reading in spite of its flaws 90 years after its first publication.

We boast of scientific investigation, and yet we’re the only supposedly civilized country in the world where thousands of supposedly sane citizens will listen to an illiterate clodhopping preacher or politician setting himself up as an authority on biology and attacking evolution. 

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Vacuum in the Dark: Jen Beagin

“I’m definitely fucked up enough to be a therapist.”

Vacuum in the Dark from Jen Beagin is the follow-up novel to Pretend I’m Dead, but it can be read as a standalone. Pretend I’m Dead was the author’s debut novel; it introduces 24-year-old Mona, who cleans houses for a living. In this novel, Mona falls in love with a man she calls Mr Disgusting, and moves to Taos, New Mexico. When Vacuum in the Dark opens, Mona is cleaning the home of Rose, a blind therapist when she discovers a piece of poo, masquerading as soap, sitting on the side of a sink.

Vacuum in the dark

Mona’s cleaning lady observations were brilliant and brilliantly funny. Cleaners get to see a side of their employers that is invisible to others, and the author capitalises on Mona’s employment, making observations, while Mona engages in “clandestine photography.” 

People were like vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.

Even before Mona starts finding poo strategically placed in Rose’s home, it’s already evident that Mona’s life is strange. She’s surrounded by Strange. Perhaps this explains why she has conversation with NPR’s Terry Gross in her head. “Terry was simply a sober and inquistive voice,” who argues for rational behavior in Mona’s otherwise looney-environment. The weirdness in Mona’s life also extends to her home. She rents half a house while the other half is rented by an older married couple who “made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas.”

Then there’s Rose and her household. Rose owns a dog named Dinner, has a hostile teenage daughter, and a husband who makes coffins. The Big Question lurking under Mona’s daily routine is: who is responsible for the poo?

Here’s Mona talking to Rose after describing a photograph she has just found:

“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.

“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”

“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you  … in a accident?”

“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”

Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.

“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.

“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”

“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”

“Not now, ” Mona whispered back.

“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t sexual too.” 

Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?” 

“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.

Mona looked toward the front door, Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it. 

Opening a novel with a description of grabbing fecal matter is a bold way to begin, and it’s also an off-putting start. I almost gave up right then and there but very quickly found myself engaged by Mona’s engaging narrative voice. Some authors have a talent for creating genuine voices, voices that appeal and compel us to read on, and in this novel, Beagin gives us a marvellous, original voice. Some things really worked in this subversive novel, while others did not. Sex scenes in novels don’t add a lot for this reader, and some of the lines grated: “I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.” But that said, I’m glad I stuck with this.

Vacuum in the Dark may appeal to fans of Ottessa Moshfegh

Review copy

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The Children: Edith Wharton (1928)

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

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

The children

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

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

Now their moment has come. Or has it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s another, excellent, review at:

Tredynas Days

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Looker: Laura Sims

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

looker

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

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

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

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

Review copy

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