Tag Archives: holiday

Rush of Blood: Mark Billingham

In Mark Billingham’s suspenseful crime novel, Rush of Blood, three British couples meet at a Florida resort, and in spite of the fact they are all quite different, they spend their days and evenings together on the beach, at the mall and at various bars and restaurants. Just as the holiday concludes, Amber, a young girl from Georgia who is also staying at the resort with her mother disappears. While the mother frantically looks for her child, the three couples lounge by the pool; it’s their last day. Why should they spend it chasing after a girl who was a bit of a nuisance to the holidaymakers?

The three couples return to their lives in England while the search for Amber rages on in their absence. Then her body is found and a murder investigation begins. In Florida, the investigation is headed by Detective Jeffrey Gardner,  and for the purposes of tying up loose ends, he asks the British police for some follow-up information from the three couples. Trainee Detective Constable Jenny Quinlan is assigned to the task as it’s considered a very minor job, but Jenny doesn’t see it that way; she takes it seriously. Then when another girl similar to Amber goes missing in Kent, it seems that the six holiday makers have moved from being witnesses to being suspects.

rush-of-blood

Mark Billingham takes us into the lives of the three couples: the obnoxious Ed whose job in the publishing industry is in a downward spiral and his teacher wife, Sue. Then there’s builder Barry and his second wife Angie. Finally there’s would-be actress/writer Marina and her boyfriend Dave–a very mismatched couple.

When the three couples parted ways in Florida, there were some airy promises made about exchanging e-mails and keeping in touch. Angie is the one who pushes keeping the connection almost as though the unsolved crime leaves unfinished business between them. The novel goes back and forth between the couples and the three dinners they have together back in Britain, and we view the “Sarasota Six”  as they see themselves but also as they are seen by others. Ed, with his constant sexual innuendos, is clearly the alpha male, and Dave’s fascination with crime is supposed to be seen as creepy (we crime readers can understand), but the relationships between the women are not so easy to define. TDC Quinlan finds them all a bit weird

Barry Finnegan was clearly capable of snapping without much provocation. Ed Dunning was a sleazebag and Dave Cullen was just downright creepy.

Some chapters are also told by the killer, and of course we try to guess the masked identity. I loved the novel’s premise of the holiday that goes wrong and the plot structure which shows the couples trying to sink back into normalcy but that happy state evades them. The relationships between the couples are well done and highlight the competitiveness through the dinners. The weakness for this reader resides in the way that it seems fairly obvious, through the process of elmination, who the killer is. The plot breadcrumbs to the solution were so obvious that I knew it couldn’t be that simple and guessed the identity of the killer fairly early on.

Luck and lies then, that’s about the size of it. The other thing, the ‘why’, well that’s not really for me to say, is it? Anyway, I’m not sure I could put it into words that made sense and how could anybody? Whatever it is that makes your blood race and puts your hands where you know they really shouldn’t be.

The thing that opens the cage. 

Here’s Cleo’s review.

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Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,”  has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.

You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life. 

The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:

But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.

Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”  

24-hours

Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….

This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs.  Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.

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Translated by Anthea Bell

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Siracusa: Delia Ephron

“An eight-day vacation-how could that hurt”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tales about people on holiday, and that explains why I was drawn to Delia Ephron’s novel, Siracusa. This is a tale of two married couples who decide to spend a holiday together in Siracusa, Sicily. Both of the marriages under scrutiny here are pathologically troubled, and yet on the surface, everyone functions within those troubled relationships. But more of that later…

New Yorker Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning play writer who’s stymied with his novel (featuring his alter ego and heavily influenced by The Red and the Black). He’s cheating on his wife, journalist Lizzie, who in the internet age, can’t quite seem to find her niche. Years earlier, Lizzie had a fling with Finn, who is now a restaurateur in Maine and married to Taylor, a beautiful blonde who heads the tourist bureau in their hometown. Finn and Taylor have a 10 year-old daughter, Snow. They all met in London the year before and had a great time, and this year Lizzie plans a trip to Italy. First stop Rome and then on to Siracusa.

siracusa

Siracusa is told through four different narrative voices–the only character we don’t hear from is Snow ( a wise choice by Ephron). Snow, according to Taylor, suffers from Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. In reality, the child is disturbed, extremely manipulative and communicates, sometimes in “clucks,” with Taylor acting as both Snow’s conduit to the world and as her mostly intuitive interpreter for the rest of the company. According to Finn, Taylor, “doesn’t have a clue where she ends and the kid begins.”

While the two marriages here are pathological, I’d say that Taylor’s relationship with Snow trumps the lot. Taylor (think Blonde American Princess), who already has a superiority complex, and thinks that she’s married beneath her, sees her daughter as perfect.  Snow is an accessory to Taylor’s beauty and perceived pedigree, but since Snow and Taylor sleep together, the child also acts as a wedge between Taylor and Finn. Not that Finn really ‘gets’ it. This is a man who takes life lightly; he smokes secretly (breaking his promise to Taylor) and is busy contemplating an affair of his own.

Ephron does an excellent job of showing just how dysfunctional marriages still manage to function. The dynamic between Finn, Taylor and Snow is appalling, yet everyone acts as though their interactions are normal–as if Taylor’s relationship with Snow isn’t pathological. Taylor orders food for Snow, speaks for her, voices her opinions, and even tells Snow how to react emotionally to her father’s laughter. Taylor may think she’s helping her daughter but in reality, she’s enabling Snow’s  behaviour.

Taylor, wrapped up in her daughter, never letting her out of sight, admires Michael as a great writer, and Snow… well Snow develops a crush on Michael. Egomaniac Michael, sensing Snow’s worship begins paying her attention. In the meantime, Taylor thinks the whole holiday has been organized by Lizzie so that she can get her hooks into Finn. As for Finn, he sees something that puts him in a moral quandary, and Lizzie is so busy trying to get Michael’s attention, she doesn’t see some warning signs.

Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.

Given the festering nature of these two marriages, and that these people decide to holiday together in order not to be alone with their respective spouses, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the holiday goes horribly wrong, and that some of the characters find themselves in therapy afterwards. Ephron’s tale, however, is not as predictable as it might seem to be. …

Some authors can never seem to pull off creating different voices, but there are four very convincing separate voices in this tale. Through the different narratives, Ephron shows us how these two sets of spouses don’t really know each other at all. The fussy, perky slightly neurotic voice of Taylor is convincingly annoying.

Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, it’s importance, is overrated, and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

And in contrast here’s Finn:

I felt like something dirty she’d forgotten to wash off. Tay threw herself into packing. I watched that sick enterprise–the compulsively neat way she folded things. One uneven crease and she begins again.

I had fun reading this. About the first half of the book is spent in the build up to Siracusa, and on one night there’s a seemingly innocent conversation that takes place around the dining table when the adults all answer the hypothetical question whether or not they’d “give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed.” An all-important moment as it turns out…

I don’t know if I was supposed to find the novel funny. Perhaps that’s a question for the author, but for this reader, the novel was nastily funny (I laughed in quite a few places as the situation devolved). Aside from Lizzie, all of the other characters are appalling people, so if you want to read about likeable people, then this book is not for you. Delia Ephron has a disturbingly canny eye when it comes to dissecting the complicated politics of marriage. Taylor, for example,  is insufferable but rather than confront her, Finn refuses to take things seriously and makes everything a joke. Taylor is constantly referencing her divorced mother, and Finn gets his digs in with comments such as Taylor’s dad “escaped.” Then there’s the entire Snow Situation… this child gets so much attention and yet still manages to slip under the parental radar.  When bad things happen, in “Siracusa. Where everything went in the shitter, we know these characters brought this all upon themselves.

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The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis

“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”

The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.

In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match  against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.

The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.

The Sin Eater

Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.

The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”

Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.

Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.

‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.

‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.

‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.

‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’

It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’

‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’

Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.

Henry looked unusually sombre.

As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.

The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.

Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…

While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:

‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.

As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

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Mr Lynch’s Holiday: Catherine O’Flynn

Given my interest in books that send characters off on holiday, it was easy for me to pick up and read Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr Lynch’s Holiday. The title encapsulates the action perfectly, and yet it also gives the impression of a very light beach read, but there’s a lot more going on in these pages than the title implies. While most of the action concerns a group of ex-pats, post boom, who’ve committed financial suicide by electing to pursue a fantasy of life in Spain, this is essentially a story about compromise and how we make the best of what we have.

Dermot Lynch, a 76-year-old retired bus driver, hails from Birmingham but was originally from Ireland. Now widowed, he arrives in Spain for a fortnight to visit his son, Eamonn, who decided, along with his long-term girlfriend, Laura, to abandon the UK and telecommute from Spain. And why not? Property values were soaring, and there was a sense of everyone stepping into a new exulted societal status, so it seemed easy for Eamonn and Laura to take the plunge and move to Spain.

Their original plan had been for one of the big cities–Barcelona or Madrid or Bilbao. They had no interest in joining the hordes of expats clustered along the Costas in vast apartment complexes and chintzy hillside developments. Eamonn saw the majority of British settlers in Spain as an amorphous mass of Daily Express readers riddled with hypocrisy: railing against benefit cheats at home while happy to avoid Spanish tax; indignant at immigration levels in the UK but oblivious to their own immigrant status. These were people for whom Spain’s greatest cultural achievement was its tireless dedication to polished floors and gleaming kitchen worktops.

Things didn’t go as planned:

They spent a depressing two weeks in Barcelona, looking at a succession of tiny apartments with increasingly inventive layouts. Mildewed shower cubicles in the corner of bedrooms, toilets on balconies, a mezzanine bed platform suspended above the kitchen, and everywhere perky Ikea accents to mask the squalor.

When dreams or elaborate plans don’t pan out, many people have a way of hammering their dreams to fit reality–ignoring the clear warning signs that the dream is impossible and should be abandoned. And that’s exactly what happens here; Eamonn and Laura can’t afford Madrid or Barcelona and so instead buy one of the completed homes in a new, remote housing development:

The houses and apartments were described as minimalist cube structures with a nod to the principles and aesthetics of Bauhaus. Lomaverde claimed to offer all of the style and sophistication of city living but without the bureaucratic wranglings and complexity. Where Barcelona had been difficult and impenetrable, Lomaverde was easy and welcoming.

So here we are years later; Lomaverde is an unfinished ghost estate inhabited by a group of stubborn ex-pats who either won’t give up or who now cannot afford to return home. The community pool is empty and cracked, the post isn’t delivered regularly, and a road leading out of the estate ends suddenly, unfinished, dropping off into the harsh landscape. Eamonn and Laura both lost their jobs and Laura has returned to the UK.

mr lynchs holidayVisiting the deeply depressed Eamonn becomes a rescue mission for his father, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Dermot mingles well with the other ex-pats on the estate even though his son has withdrawn from everyone’s society and is wallowing in self-pity. Dermot is a great character, and as the plot continues we see glimpses of a young Dermot arriving in Birmingham, his history and some of his disappointments in life. The most balanced, socially conscious character in the book is Inga, a divorcee from Sweden who is strangely happy that Lomaverde failed:

“I came here expecting the same as everyone else. A new community, a fresh start in this beautiful place.” She lit another cigarette. “My marriage was over. Thirty years of trying to turn a blind eye, of thinking my husband would change. That felt like a mistake, a terrible waste of time. I thought I could come here and lose myself in a new place.

But imagine somewhere in which everyone is like that. So intent on happiness, on living a fairytale. They have not emigrated from places with no work and no money to a place with jobs and opportunities. No, they have left comfortable lives in search of somewhere even better. It’s a kind of greed, don’t you think. And if you’d have said that to me two years ago, I’d have said. ‘So what? why not be greedy for happiness? what’s wrong with that?’ “

Eamonn was always closer to his mother and dismissive of his father. With Dermot’s visit, he now learns things he never knew about. While I enjoyed Mr Lynch’s Holiday and I wouldn’t hesitate to read another book from this author, it does have IMO, two flaws: 1) the character of Eamonn is too weak. He’s so weak that he’s a complete disaster–from the inappropriate things he says to one of his internet ESL students to his drunken gropings of a fellow resident. No wonder Laura ran for the hills. 2) The ending regarding Eamonn is sewn up too ‘nicely’ and while Dermot’s decision makes sense, what happens with Eamonn is supposed to be a happy ending but in reality just opens the doors to more disaster.

Author Catherine O’Flynn is very generous and well-disposed towards her characters, so consequently there are no villains here. While one of the British ex-pats is an ethnocentric bore, most of the other people are just trying to take a day at a time and make the best of things in this bad situation.

There’s one great scene when the residents hold a homeowners’ meeting, and its formality is in direct inverse proportion to the chaos of the estate. One very poignant, very realistic scene focuses on grandparents who watch their grandchildren back in the UK via Skype. These sessions conclude with either the grandparents falling asleep or the grandchildren wandering off, forgetting that they have a live audience. The grandparents moved to Spain telling themselves that their grandchildren would be able to visit and have free accommodation, but with the children’s father unemployed, those planned holidays never come to fruition, and since Lomaverde is riddled with places up for sale (at savagely reduced prices), the grandparents are stuck and cannot return to the UK.

I closed the book, a gentle pleasant read, and contrasted it to Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye which is set in an estate with residents who’ve fled the city for a variety of reasons. Garnier, in his trademark way, is pitiless with his bourgeois characters who mostly live in a state of constant paranoia and fear that outsiders might break in. In Mr Lynch’s Holiday, the same theme occurs, but it’s handled in a gentler, much more generous way that’s slightly unbelievable, but that attitude may depend on how you see basic human nature.

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Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

Review copy

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Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

“In my profession, true relaxation is a necessity. I see and hear things all day long. Things you need to get off your mind at night. The fungal growths. The bleeding warts. The folds of skin between which things have gotten much, much too warm. The three-hundred pound woman you have to examine in a place you hoped you’d never have to go again.”

The Dinner by Herman Koch made my best-of-2012 list, and when I turned the last page of the book, I was very disappointed to discover that there were no other books available in English by the author, so you can understand my delight when I heard about Summer House With Swimming Pool.  Plus a big bonus on this book, it includes the added attraction of one of my reading obsessions: a holiday setting.

Summer House with swimming poolSummer House with Swimming Pool is narrated by doctor Marc Schlosser and the book begins with a deliciously nasty, claustrophobic, self-obsessed first-person narration which recalls Bernhard, or a sicko version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The not-so-good doctor, a general practitioner is obviously a seriously disturbed man, and that makes him an unreliable narrator.

Many of us have probably had doctors who’ve seemed unbalanced, but Schlosser is dangerous because, on the surface, he seems to be so stable. This is a man who loathes his patients, who grimaces at their ailments which he believes are mostly imagined, and yet his carefully developed professional mask has helped Schlosser built a large practice of loyal patients mainly from the “creative professions.” Schlosser paces his patients twenty minutes apart, “his selling point” as a doctor, but he barely bothers to listen to the litany of health issues, and confides that in his practice, “the key is not to worry too much about medical standards.”  While he knows that people line up on a waiting list to become patients, believing that he “makes time for each individual case,” Schlosser brags that “patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.” He has a well-honed script to deter anyone from seeking a specialist, and a manner in which he encourages patients to keep coming to him while feeling good about their bad, unhealthy addictive habits. Repulsed by his patients’ bodies, he has fantasies of death during examinations:

Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and the infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed … Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park. The car in front has a green dragon’s head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red, infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted to their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It’s cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean waits.

One of the very best scenes in the book, and one that made me laugh out-loud concerns how Schlosser terrorizes patients prior to a rectal exam while appearing to reassure them as he slowly and methodically preps. Of course, any doctor with an attitude like this is a disaster waiting to happen, so it doesn’t come as any great surprise to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with one of Schlosser’s patients. A famous actor, Ralph Meier, is now dead, and Schlosser is accused of malpractice.

Meier, a larger than life, bon vivant, obnoxious womanizer, first came to Schlosser’s practice 18 months before because he had heard through the grapevine that the doctor “was fairly accommodating with prescriptions.” This, incidentally, is another way that Schlosser has built his practice.  A series of events brings Schlosser and his wife, Caroline into Ralph’s social sphere. When Ralph is introduced to Caroline, he doesn’t disguise his lust:

As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey,. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse or some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it were something edible, something that made his mouth water. Now there was also some movement around his moth. The lips parted. his jaws churned, I even thought I heard the grinding of teeth–and he breathed a sigh. Ralph Meier was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites.

The most remarkable thing perhaps was that he did all this without the slightest embarrassment. As though I weren’t even there.

Ralph and his wife Judith invite Schlosser, his wife Caroline and their two daughters (aged 11 & 13) to join them near the Mediterranean coast at a rented summer house. Caroline wants to decline, and yet strangely enough, Schlosser manipulates a visit which ends in complete disaster…

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a bit of a disturbing curiosity. It begins with an unreliable narrator, a nasty toxic, twisted doctor who indulges in violent fantasies involving his patients (and humanity in general), who references the teachings of a former university professor who was “later drummed out of the university” for his controversial studies, and isn’t completely honest about his motivations. These motivations become clear over time, and yet I still didn’t quite trust his version of events.  While the book was initially very funny, in a sick psycho sort of way, the plot spins in the doldrums for a while before it takes an unexpected, very serious turn, and the two parts of the novel don’t quite mesh smoothly. 

I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool, but I prefer The Dinner–a novel with nastiness that built relentlessly to the end. Both books examine the parent-child role–specifically the issues of protection and innocence. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, the male adults at the rented home, who include a visiting American film director with a taste for nubile young girls, engage in a summer of irresponsible, lustful juvenile behaviour which naturally ends badly. The motivations of all the characters are under scrutiny here, and while revenge may seem to be the dominant directive, troubling questions remain regarding Schlosser’s actions. We all tend to believe what we want to believe and accept the version of events that we like best, and perhaps this is what happened with Schlosser.  Unfortunately for the book, the Marc Schlosser we are left with at the end appears to have run out of steam and nastiness and this, in spite of the fact that Schlosser has finally had to confront the validity of his demented mentor’s misogynic ravings, doesn’t quite gel with the character revealed at the beginning. That said, I just read that Herman Koch has a third book soon to be published in English, and you bet I’ll be reading it.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garnett. Review copy.

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Cécile by Theodor Fontane

“I fall in love with them, not because of their virtues, but because of their human qualities, that is to say, their weaknesses and sins.”  (Theodor Fontane in a letter in which he discusses his female characters.)

Cécile isn’t considered Theodor Fontane’s (1819-1898) best novel, and after reading it, it’s easy to see why. It’s a wonderful story, but there are initially many references to German culture, history and society, and unless you’re very familiar with the names and incidents, it’s easy to get distracted and become lost in the notes. My copy from Angel Books is translated by Stanley Radcliffe. If you want to read the book (and it is recommended), then I suggest this edition. The explanatory notes are essential, and the afterword is excellent.

cecilePeople who regularly read this blog know that I love to read books about people on holiday, and that’s exactly how Cécile opens. It’s late 19th century, and a husband and wife take a train to Thale–a tourist spa town in the Harz mountains. The story begins with the couple boarding the train, and Fontane shows us right away that there’s something a little off about this couple. Could it be the age difference? He’s late fifties and she’s much younger, elegant, and very beautiful, but this age difference isn’t the explanation–there seems to be something deeply buried between this husband and wife. These are the St. Arnauds. He’s a former colonel, and his years of military life show in the economy of his movements, and his attention to detail.  There’s a certain air of detachment from Cécile St. Arnaud towards both her husband and her life, and then they appear to be shunned by other military men who acknowledge the Colonel’s presence but “then immediately avoided coming anywhere” near them again.

The air of mystery surrounding the St. Arnauds continues and deepens throughout almost the entire novel. The St. Arnauds arrive at the wonderfully named Ten Pound Hotel (Hotel Zehnpfund), and another guest, civil engineer Herr von Gordon, is immediately fascinated by them. He’s enormously attracted to the beautiful, fragile Cécile, who seems to be an invalid with “nervous afflictions,” but there’s something about Cécile and her relationship with her husband that von Gordon can’t quite define. After learning the name of the couple he remembers hearing gossip in 1870 about the colonel fighting a duel and killing his opponent.  The St Arnauds seem out of place at the hotel:

“There goes Baden-Baden,” said the man who watched them from the balcony. “Baden-Baden or Brighton  or Biarritz, but not the Harz and the Ten Pound Hotel.” And as he talked to himself in this way his eye followed the couple with growing interest as they came closer and then went away again, while he sought deeper in his memory at the same time. “St Arnaud. In 1870 he was still unmarried, and she would scarcely have been eighteen at the time.” And as he calculated and pondered in this way he indulged further and further speculation as to the precise circumstances of this somewhat strange and surprising marriage. “There’s a novel in all this. He is more than twenty years older than her. Well, that could be all right, that doesn’t mean much in some cases. But to give up his commission, such a brilliant and effective officer! You can still see the dash about him: guards colonel comme il faut, every inch of him. And yet on the retired list. Could it be … But no, she’s no coquette, and his behaviour towards her is also completely proper. He is good-mannered and obliging, but not too assiduously, as though trying to conceal something. Oh well, I’ll find out in time.”

Fascinated by Cécile, and intrigued by signals about the odd relationship between the St. Arnauds, Herr von Gordon, strikes up an acquaintance and along with a few other tourists, including painter Rosa Malheur (named after Rosa Bonheur) accompanies the couple on various tourist excursions throughout the area. Fontane takes us on tour too, and these early sections are packed with references to German history. One of the trips takes them to Quedlinburg and specifically to its castle. These scenes are humorous as Fontane places the main drama between the characters on hold while he delivers a wonderful scene on the rip-off side of tourism. The St Arnauds, von Gordon and Rosa enter the castle expecting to see its treasures and magnificent art collection with the steward as a tour guide:

This man, a pleasant and friendly person, immediately won them over with his affability, but on the other hand, somewhat surprised them by a manner that betrayed a troubled and almost guilty conscience, like someone who offers lottery tickets for sale knowing them to be blanks. And indeed, his castle could throughout all its rooms truly be regarded as a prime example of a blank. Whatever treasures it had once possessed had long since gone and so it fell to him, the guardian of erstwhile splendor, to speak only of things no longer there. No easy task. He undertook it with however with great skill, transforming the traditional custodian’s lecture hinging upon tangible exhibits into a historical discourse that contrariwise occupied itself with what had vanished.

Fontane cleverly gives us a glimpse into the private regions of the St. Arnauds’ married life through a few discussions between husband and wife. In one scene, St. Arnaud admonishes his wife for her poor choice of reading material, choices that “shocked” St. Arnaud by their superficiality:

She nodded her agreement with a tired air, as nearly always when something was discussed closely that did not directly relate to her person or her inclinations. And so she rapidly changed the topic of conversation.

It’s through scenes such as these that we see how the St. Arnauds manage their marriage and each other. Cécile mentions that Herr von Gordon is a  “first-rate travel guide. Only he talks too much about things that don’t interest everybody.” St. Arnaud laughingly responds that he knows his wife wants von Gordon to be a “stylite” devoted only to her. He’s not threatened or jealous by her need for male attention and devotion. Subsequently, Gordon spends a great deal of time in the company of the St. Arnauds, but proximity only deepens the mystery for von Gordon. He knows that the St. Arnauds did not marry for love. Is Cécile a trophy wife for her husband? After days in their company, von Gordon only has more questions about Cécile. She is a beautiful ornament for her husband’s arm, but their tour excursions reveal a shocking ignorance on Cécile’s part. Why are the St. Arnauds shunned by some people? Why does Cécile blush when some subjects come up in conversation? What secret is she hiding?

The afterword to this edition states that Cécile was written in 1866 (p.186) , and this must be a typo as St Arnaud’s scandalous duel took place in 1870, and Herr von Gordon has to strain his memory to recall the details. Elsewhere in the afterword, it is mentioned that Cécile appeared initially in serial form and then was published as a book in 1887. Fontane travelled to Thale and actually stayed at the Hotel Zehnpfund in 1881 and 1882. He stayed in another hotel in the area in 1883 and 1884 and in a letter to a friend, he wrote of his plans to write a novel set in the Hotel Zehnpfund. It seems that he began work on the novel in 1884.

While Cécile is a marvelous story, as I mentioned, the downside for readers who are not versed in German culture, are the dense, frequent references to German culture and history. After all the novel begins with a story set in a tourist area, so we get the spiel of the area historical significance and major attractions: Rosstrappe, the Witches’ Dance Floor, Quedlinburg, and Altenbrak. You could probably take this book on a Fontane-inspired holiday and have quite a bit of fun tracing his characters’ steps.

Later in the novel when the action moves to Berlin, the history and culture references drop and we are left with just the drama of two people who feel an intense sexual attraction to each other, and Herr von Gordon, who has written to his sister enquiring about Cécile St. Arnaud’s past, finally discovers the truth. He should stay away, and while his common sense tells him to forget her, his passion dictates the opposite….Cécile is a very well structured novel, and the power of its structure becomes evident as the novel concludes.

This is an amazingly visual novel–no doubt the visuals are encouraged by the descriptions of the tourist attractions, but the visual qualities of the novel extend beyond promontories and magnificent views. We can see St Arnaud confidently strutting around with military precision, and although no monocle was mentioned, I gave him one. And then there’s Cécile, a flawed woman who seems to live and breathe in these pages as she walks slowly around the hotel grounds like some delicate, fragile and rare hot house flower, perfumed, exquisite and yet whose existence depends on the care and attentions of others.  The mystery that keeps von Gordon on edge is subtly addressed by Fontane by clues which are embedded in the story. It’s the novel’s denouement that lifts these clues to the fore, and then we realize that the truth was staring us in the face all along. Cécile is a fascinating heroine–a product of her time and circumstances, she’s flawed and superficial, and yet she’s not without feelings and neither is she unsympathetic. The novel’s conclusion leaves the reader with a deeply unsettling and unanswered question regarding the nature of Cécile’s unhappiness.

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