Tag Archives: British fiction

Good Women: Jane Stevenson (Part 3)

I have spent an entire lifetime unobtrusively making things easier for people and, over the years, I have developed a certain talent for it.”

What exactly is a ‘good woman?’ That’s the question I came away with after finishing Jane Stevenson’s Good Women. In this collection of 3 novellas, we see three very different women: In Light My Fire, Freda is great in bed but really… what was married architect David Laurence thinking when he tossed aside a perfectly decent wife and two children for Freda–a woman, who, let’s face it, screams trouble?

In Walking With Angels, middle-aged Wenda, saddled with a boring life and an even more boring husband turns to her constant companions: the angels. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when all she does is chat to them, but when she decides to start a business healing people, her husband attempts to intervene.

On the surface Wenda could be described as a ‘good woman,’ but that tag doesn’t fit by the time her story is finished.

So onto Garden Guerillas. .. Following the death of her husband Geoff, Alice still remains in their large 3 storey Georgian home in Kew Greens. Alice fell in love with the house forty years earlier. The house was in disrepair, and while Geoff didn’t want to buy it, Alice could not be dissuaded. They scrimped and scraped and it was some years before they could finally tackle repairs. Alice loves the house, but it’s the garden that’s her greatest treasure.

After Geoff’s death, Alice’s son, his wife and children, who also live in London, begin visiting a bit more. How sweet, right? No. The daughter-in law has her eyes on Alice’s house, and Alice catches her divvying up the bedrooms. After all, according to the d in law, the house is just ‘too much’ for Alice these days.

What ensues is an ugly episode all based on money. I sided with Alice and she behaved far better than I would have. Alice has to swallow some ugly facts: her son is weak, she’s seen as ‘in the way,’ and she will lose her magnificent garden.

While Alice’s son and d in law plot to get the house and shove Alice off to a flat, that’s not the last of the insults. Possibly the very worst thing you can say to a gardener is that the beautiful garden they slaved over takes care of itself. Well Alice has her revenge.

Of the three novellas, Garden Guerillas was my favourite. It’s a story of moving on but also not letting yourself be steamrolled by those who ‘love you’ so much…

And the descriptions of the garden. Surely Jane Stevenson must be a gardener?

It was the endless dance through time which drew me out into the garden every day; the constant recomposition of the picture as one element receded and another came forward. It was beautiful every single week, even in winter, but it was never beautiful in exactly the same way, I couldn’t paint worth a damn, as I discovered in my far-distant youth, but in that garden I had become an artist. Kew had taken me and taught me.

So what’s a good woman? There’s a commonality in all of these stories; despite the diverse settings and circumstances, these women triumph and survive. The ever-changing garden is a metaphor for life: one door closes and another opens in a “constant recomposition” way.

I had had plenty of practice in being taken for granted, but I drew the line at being eradicated.

Thanks again to The Gerts.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (part 2)

Jane Stevenson’s Good Women contains 3 novellas, and each of these tales centres on three very different female protagonists. After finishing the book, which is quite marvelous BTW (thank you Gerts), I thought about what it meant to be a good woman–what the author intended.

The first novella Light My Fire is the story of a married architect who abandons wife and children after beginning an affair with a “sex bomb.”  Freda is a lot of things: a rapacious sex partner, a high-maintenance woman, not too bright etc etc. (although her native cunning and primo self-preservation kick in when necessary). She is NOT by any stretch of the imagination a ‘good woman’ unless you are just counting sex, and, in this case, her sex appeal is a death trap. 

So onto the second story, Walking With Angels. Middle-aged Wenda, who works part-time at a chemist, is married to lumpish Derek. It’s a dull marriage and a dull, predictable life, with evenings spent watching the telly as they eat their meals on trays. Wenda starts seeing angels, and she says they communicate with her. She keeps this to herself, but then when the opportunity arises, she heals a coworker. 

Wenda is a peculiar woman, easy to underestimate; she’s no doubt quite bonkers, and while she has the trappings of being a ‘good woman’–immaculate housewife, cook, good housekeeper etc., there are transgressive elements under the surface. When she finds violent porn on her husband’s computer, she uses her discovery as leverage, and then there are some sexual details of Wenda and Derek’s courtship. …

Back in the olden days, it’s women were the spiritual ones. Then the men put a stop to it because their noses were out of joint. They reckoned women had too much power, you see and then cause they couldn’t connect with the Chi energy themselves, they made up all this stuff about hellfire to keep us in our place. It’s all there in history. I’ve read about it. 

The coworker pushes Wenda to use her ‘gift.’ Again, like Freda, Wenda isn’t too bright. She doesn’t grasp that her ‘gift’ has become a money-making opportunity, not for Wenda, but for the mini-industry that springs up around her, pushing her to become a ‘professional.’ And while Freda has her strong sense of self-preservation to protect her, Wenda has her angels to tell her how to proceed. As Wenda pursues her true calling as a healer, developing cards, a jewelry line, and even aromatherapy oils, Derek, who’s in charge of the finances, decides to put his foot down. Good luck with that.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson

It’s a good rule of thumb not to get involved with a woman you meet while she’s masturbating on a train, but when it comes to Freda Constantine, successful architect, David Laurence opts for self-destruction or maybe it’s just excitement or the constant sex. Both David and Freda are on the Edinburgh train when their uncontrollable sexual desire leads to an affair. The affair leads to a break up of two marriages with David leaving a perfectly good wife and two daughters. David’s career, which had been bolstered by his Scottish wife’s connections, also suffers. But nothing is keeping David from Freda. He says “she felt like the woman I was meant to have.”

Good Women

Light My Fire, the first of three sharply funny novellas in Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, charts the trajectory of David’s catastrophic relationship with Freda. There’s a sort of madness here, and David’s obsession with Freda is marked by a need for possession–even though he knows she’s trouble–even though he knows “she was a woman you couldn’t trust if you couldn’t see her.” 

At least there weren’t any kids on the other side. I was so obsessed with Freda I’d’ve carried on regardless even if she’d been a mother of ten, but the Fredas of this world, thank god, are strictly ornamental, like those strange toys you’re not supposed to give to children. A perfumed garden, not a fertile field. She’d never wanted kids, she told me, to my unspeakable relief. I’ve got a couple of pals who’ve settled into this grotesque pattern of finding someone new around the time that the current wife’s just about got number two potty trained , and starting all over again. What a carry-on. There must be some kind of death wish involved–fifteen or twenty years of pampers and sleepless nights, it’s a thought to freeze the blood. 

Knowing that he will have to impress “high-maintenance” Freda in a big way if he wants to keep her, David buys a wreck of a 16th century house “in the middle of nowhere.” At first she’s impressed as it’s “practically a castle.” But then she sees inside…

Oh the wonderful scenes at Scottish Christmas party There’s a point at which men’s envy of another man’s sizzling hot new wife turns to amusement:

I could see people I knew glancing at her and then at me. Cool, amused glances.

Light My Fire is wickedly funny in its portrayal of a man who destroys his life in order to possess a woman who is nothing but trouble. David knows Freda is selfish, self-serving, grasping and not particularly bright, but all these negatives are wiped out by his need to sew up her sexual exclusivity. The passionate affair boils down to two wildly disparate people, whose tastes, goals and ambitions are worlds apart, and that’s ok for a while … until reality sets in.  

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this book. Another post (or two) on the rest of the book to follow ….

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Weatherley Parade: Richmal Crompton (1944)

Yes, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) wrote those Just William books, but she also wrote a host of adult novels. Crossing genre and audience boundaries can be hazardous to both the author’s career and the readers’ expectations, so when I first came across a few of her novels (for adults) I wondered how good they would be. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Steffan Green, a story of village life in the 30s, so onto Weatherley Parade–a book which had lingered in my TBR  room stack for far too long.

The word ‘parade’ evokes a celebration, but if there’s any celebration here, then it must be the celebration of survival. The book opens in 1902 with the return of Arthur Weatherley from the second Boar War. Although Queen Victoria died the year before, somehow the ending of the Boer War seemed to slam the door on the era, so here we have the Weatherley family about to enter a different age. Since the novel follows several generations of this family into the 20th century, we know we are going to head into some difficult times.

Arthur Weatherley arrives home a broken man; he’s now an invalid and will remain so for the rest of his life. In his absence, his much younger responsible second wife, Helena, has managed their stately county home, their baby Billy and Arthur’s 2 children from a former marriage: Clive and Anthea. Even though the 3 children are young, already the eldest 2 have formed the characters which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Clive is ‘perfect’–a sober little adult in the body of a 15-year-old. He’s even tempered and meticulous. Clive has many of his father’s characteristics, but while Arthur Weatherley could be called an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, a product of his age, Clive is a prig. But there’s more than just fustiness afoot here. There’s no warmth, no shred of humanity or compassion. He’s an automaton. Eventually he marries and proceeds to micromanage his young, naive wife. If he micromanaged her with sarcasm or anger, she’d probably fight back, but he micromanages her with a smile, under the guise of ‘teaching’ her. 

On the top of the bureau was a little pile of books that Lindsay had brought from the Library the day before. He looked at them with a kindly smile.

“No trash, I hope, darling?”

“No,” said Lindsay. “They’re all from the list you gave me.”

Anthea Weatherley, on the other hand, is nothing like her brother. She’s vain, superficial and hell bent on being the centre of attention. “Already the bright–too bright–eyes were darting round in search of further conquests.”

Other characters include: Arthur’s sister, Lilian, a youngish woman when the book opens, whose many engagements to various men have all ended abruptly. Lilian is on the wild side; she smokes and drinks, and her private life causes Arthur a great deal of anguish. Lilian won’t settle down, and over the course of several decades she restlessly careens from one cause to another, burning her bridges as she goes.

Another significant character is Clive’s best friend Ronnie–the son of the local vicar. Ronnie is neglected and treated badly by his father who is unhealthily fixated on his paralyzed daughter, Flora. She may be immobile but she’s a tyrant masquerading as an angel:

You’re a very brave little girl,” said Miss Clorinda. 

“Well, I can’t be anything else,” said Flora, “so I might as well be brave.”

The Vicar’s hand went to the pocket where he kept the notebook in which he recorded his angel’s more notable sayings, then, as he remembered where he was, withdrew. He could put it down later … Flora’s sharp eyes had seen and understood the movement. If he forgot to put it down later, she would remind him. He didn’t often forget, but when he did she reminded him.

Ronnie accepts Clive’s patronage as he’s several years younger than Clive, but as the years pass, Ronnie, no longer wants a friendship with someone who acts like his schoolmaster, and he grows apart from Clive.

The novel’s strongest aspect is the examination of character as these people age and interact. Many of the relationships here are built on exploitation of one sort or another. When people are nasty, then their behaviour is at least somewhat transparent, so manipulation with kid gloves under the guise of ‘caring’ is especially toxic.

Will wild Aunt Lilian ever find happiness? It’s arguable that she can’t fit into the role defined for her by the standards of the day (marriage and children). Will she grow through the Suffragette movement or it this just another of her phases?

And what of Anthea as she ages? Some of the novels best scenes concern her middle aged attention seeking behaviour which her kind, supportive (doting) husband, accepts as normal.

There’s some tragedy here as peoples’ lives fall apart. Adults blunder and a child pays the  heavy price. Society changes a great deal over the years 1902-1940, and these changes free some of the characters. The novel begins with women not expected to get an education as “a girl’s place is at home both before and after marriage, ” and divorce is considered perfectly scandalous. We pass through WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Civil War, the growth of Socialism, the rise of Nazi Germany, and eventually WWII. Incredibly few characters become casualties given these events, and instead people more or less build their own tragic fates. While the Weatherley children grow up and move away, the story still revolves around the house and the family. This is a gentle read, even while it reinforces the idea that character is fate.  

 

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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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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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Home Thoughts: Tim Parks

“And the people,” he went on, “who crave company are always moving about to get it, or to get a more satisfying version of it, while the people who like to be left alone are always moving about to escape it. It all keeps society in motion and generates a sort of dynamic tension.”

In Home Thoughts from Tim Parks, Julia, a 33-year old Londoner, dumps her job and her married lover for a new life teaching English in Italy. Through a series of letters from various characters, an image of Julia’s life emerges. As she settles into the somewhat miserable, incestuous British ex-pat community, dramas erupt including domestic squabbles, infidelities and backstabbing manoeuvres from various members of the British faculty as they claw to keep their jobs. 

Home thoughts

So a fresh start for Julia who thought her life was stale, but once in Italy, things almost immediately start to go wrong. Her secure job in London has been exchanged for an position that comes with a rapidly approaching expiration date. Her best friend Dinah is exchanged for the militant feminist, highly organized (read exhausting) Flossy who puts herself and Julia on diets with weekly weigh-ins. And then not long after Julia arrives, she becomes involved with Italo-Canadian Sandro–a “smary” sly, opportunistic, Lothario who, although he specializes in poaching married women, is perfectly willing to sleep his way to the top. 

The gym walls were all mirrors so that the chrome of weights and work-out machines seemed to stretch away in all directions. Likewise the bodies of the women doing their exercises. For although the exercise class was open to all, there was a tendency for the men to stay on the weights and leave the aerobic jumping about to the women. Thus, heaving in front of his mirror (mens sana in corpore sano), Sandro could watch not only the attractive flexing of his own muscles, but also the scissoring open and closed of fifteen pairs of legs

Initially, Julia doesn’t realise that “it was herself she had wanted to leave in leaving England.”

She had wanted a metamorphosis. Yet everybody back home had appeared rather to have liked that old caterpillar. […] And so when she had wanted the serial to end, to change her part, they had all protested.

Yet isn’t there a part of Julia that is dismayed when she realises that everyone in England is surviving, possibly even thriving, without her?  Julia writes to her friend, Dinah, brother, and her mother who “seems to be going backwards in time and is now cruising her way through an especially prudish patch of the 1880s.” While Julia ‘let’s go’ of certain aspects of her life in England, easily abandoning her ailing mother, for example, she obsesses on her past with married lover Lenny. She writes long, reproachful letters to Lenny–the man she supposedly left England to avoid. Some of the funniest letters are written by an outraged and disgusted Flossy as she sees women, “slave[s] to traditional conditioning,” continually fall into bed with worthless men. Somehow or another hyper-responsible Flossy always gets the raw end of the deal–from being stuck watching small children while women meets lovers, listening to the plumber lecture her about condoms (used by others) that have plugged up the toilet, to being propositioned by men when their other, more attractive options, run off. 

There’s a host of other characters here–mostly the shallow, self-obsessed British ex-pat community which is composed of men who’ve abandoned England and their first wives (and families) to start afresh in Italy. So with all of our characters, who see the world through the lens of their own problems, the issues they hoped to leave behind in England simply follow them. Alan, Flossy’s brother, who seems to be waiting for some cosmic event to release him from the doldrums, acknowledges he  “lost his way in life,” and writes in his notebook:

My wife: sometimes it’s as though I’d only met her yesterday and were trying to decide whether I really wanted to see her again. 

Minor academics who ostracize themselves abroad, for whatever reason: adventure, travel, a change of pace, to escape something at home, find that it’s not so easy to return, and miserable, depressed Alan is the epitome of this:

What was he doing in Italy in a dead-end job? And what was worse with a time limit attached that would cut him off at precisely the age he became more or less unemployable in the UK? He’d come out here to write (it was the ease of the job that had fooled him) and all they’d done instead was have children.

He had allowed his energies to be dissipated. He had lost his way in life. Friends back home were leaping up the career ladder and he was teaching lousy students where not to put adverbs, getting no useful experience and merely filling wastebins with this trash that no word processor would make saleable. 

The novel isn’t entirely composed of letters. I’d say it’s about 50-50 letters and narrative, and most of the vicious humour is found in the trainwreck of these characters’ lives–in the disasters that occur in between letters and the firm resolves which are followed by awful behaviour. I was waiting for the Italians to toss this lot out of the country. On a final note, we don’t all find the same things funny, and there’s one thing that occurs in the novel that’s in bad taste. But apart from that I liked reading about the messy lives of these Britons who move to Italy only to find that their problems have moved right along with them. 

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Theft: Luke Brown

What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context. This was London, 2016. My friends and I had lived our adult lives in flats with living rooms made into bedrooms, kitchens into pop-up cocktail bars and gallery spaces; we worked in pubs and shops and school and clung on to our lives as artists and musicians and skateboarders. For too long I’d suspected that I would have been more successful if I’d spent less time talking to my friends, if I’d had been more discerning about who they were, if I had put to another use the ten thousand hours in which I had discussed the meaning of love with the lunatics who wouldn’t leave my sofa.”

That’s the opening quote from Luke Brown’s sly, witty novel Theft, a story set in an unstable Britain pre and post the Brexit vote. The novel explores the murky, quicksilver motivations of 33-year-old Paul, a self-professed “minor alcoholic” and sometime dabbler in illegal substances who is at a bad place in his life: he’s underemployed, his longtime live in girlfriend has departed (just what went on there?) he’s being booted out of his flat, and his mother recently died.  Paul is beginning to see the future, and it’s not bright, plus his marginal existence is being pulled out from under his feet. According to Paul’s upwardly mobile, energetic sister, Amy a “serial dater in the American style that Tinder has made standard,” Paul is “aimless,” and he’s certainly directionless, hanging desperately on to some semblance of a career amidst the impossibly high rents of London. He’s at a crossroads in life:

I suppose I will have to transform myself. Get a sensible job. Marry a sensible woman from the Home Counties. Produce babies. Get a pension, Buy a Motorbike in ten years to let off steam. Take prescription pills for my anxiety. 

Paul works in a bookshop three days a week and writes for a magazine called White Jesus. His “two pages” per issue, a job which provides “little more than beer money,” is composed of one page devoted to books and another page devoted to haircuts, and naturally the latter, which at least affords opportunities to chat up women, is the more lucrative part of the job.

theft

It’s through White Jesus, that Paul lands a “coup” interview with “cult author” Emily Nardini. Paul is intrigued with Emily even before he meets her, and in Paul’s subconscious, she becomes the solution to his many problems. He fantasizes about moving in with her even before they meet, and the interview, handily, takes place at Emily’s well-appointed flat. Too bad the flat belongs to her boyfriend, but it’s just not any boyfriend; Emily lives with Andrew Lancaster, a left-wing professor and author, a divorced man who’s considerably older than Emily. 

Paul has one thing over Andrew: age, so it’s not too surprising then that age becomes the issue that Paul orbits around. When Paul begins hanging out with Andrew’s outspoken daughter, Sophie, a Marxist sex columnist who shoplifts in order to write (supposedly) a piece on White Privilege, Andrew suspects Paul’s motives. Andrew isn’t comfortable with Paul, and their encounters are barbed duels.

I watched Andrew, trying to get the measure of him. He cared about his appearance, that was clear-you’d have to if you had a girlfriend more than 20 years your junior. You wondered how the pontificating old Jeremies of this world could bear the photos that were taken with them and their young women. The contrast was too great to be explained by charm and intelligence, even if you didn’t already know that the men concerned had been punished by the moral universe with exactly the faces they deserved. Did they revel in the contrast or look away from the snapshots? The photos of these older men and younger women together looked like they belonged in plastic evidence bags, documents of the continuing crimes against women. 

This darkly funny, engaging novel explores Paul’s odd, undefined relationship with Emily, Sophie and Andrew. He becomes part of their circle, but it’s not clear what he wants, what he’s up to. While Paul seems to be dating Sophie, he’s clearly got his eye on Emily. As the months roll by, Paul and his sister Amy prepare to sell their mother’s home–an “unsellable terrace in a half-alive Northern town,” and it’s the sale of the house–a literal break with the past–that becomes the turning point in the tale. The novel includes several lively secondary characters who careen from one problem to another. There’s Amy, who is going through a crisis of her own as she “inflicted something exhausting on herself. Deferred immediate comfort for future comfort,” Jonathan, a workmate who moves into Paul’s tiny flat after being booted out by his wife, and Susannah, another victim of the May-September romance: 

“Replaceable,” she sighed. She was fifty-four and her husband had just left her a year ago for a fucking 35-year-old. “Well, of course at that age and childless, if you haven’t found someone you can be attracted to anyone. The bloody fool. He thinks he’s escaping into some youthful vita nuova; he’ll be changing nappies in a year or two, mark my words, and pretending to be happy about it.” 

Paul is an enigma–a man of the brink of middle age who’s panicking about the future without really acknowledging his fears. The sale of his mother’s house, and a fascination with an author who’s out of his league, combine into a toxic, twisted cocktail of appalling behaviour, male competitiveness and stunted ambitions. 

“Andrew’s a terrific lover,” I said. “He first made love in the 1960s and has been practising ever since.”

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Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

own a copy/review copy

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