Tag Archives: infidelity

The Gioconda Smile: Aldous Huxley

I bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile some years ago, and it’s taken me this long to get to it. It’s brief: my copy of oversized print runs to 42 pages, so it’s a short story. This is the tale of married man, Mr Hutton, who fancies himself as dashing and handsome. The story opens with Mr Hutton visiting “poor” Janet Spence. She’s the one with the Gioconda smile, and all I could think of was that old song, ‘Mona Lisa.’

If there’s a mirror in a room, that’s where you will find Mr. Hutton admiring himself whenever he gets the chance. There’s “no sign of baldness ” yet  “only a certain elevation of the brow,” which Hutton thinks is “Shakespearean.” Hutton has money, an invalid wife, a perky, doting lower-class mistress, and yet, he still finds the time and energy to visit Janet Spence. Hutton never knows what to make of Janet. She’s so calm and self-contained–not like the other women in his life.

Hutton, like most womanizers, liberally drops hints about his unhappy married life (he sounds a lot like Grant in Christina Stead’s A Little Tea, a Little Chat):

Reality doesn’t always come up to the ideal, you know. But that doesn’t make me believe any less in the ideal. Indeed, I do believe in it passionately the ideal of a matrimony between two people in perfect accord, I think it’s realisable. I’m sure it is.

He paused significantly and looked at her with an arch expression.

Poor Hutton… making his unhappiness known. But the next scene shows Hutton rapidly switching gears as he joins his cockney mistress who’s waiting patiently for Hutton in the back of his chauffeur driven car.

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946The portrayal of Hutton is masterful–even if the story’s denouement is not. Hutton is very much a type, and yet still strongly individualistic. A man who thinks he owns the world, runs the world and yet is still basically clueless.

I’ve read a few Huxley stories/novellas now and enjoyed them all. Brave New World dominates Huxley’s work, and other than that book, he seems to have fallen out of fashion.

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Straying: Molly McCloskey

After I finished Molly McCloskey’s eloquent, thought-provoking novel Straying, I thought about the title. What is the definition of ‘straying?’ The word evokes the idea that someone … or some thing … wanders off the path. Not intentionally. No never intentionally–but an aimless, purposeless wandering off. And that brings me to the book’s plot:  Straying  is the story of a young American ex-pat who travels to Ireland, gets a job, and marries. Alice, a journalist in a stalled career, has no particular plans when she arrives in Ireland “at the tail end of the 80s.” She makes connections and drifts into a job in Sligo as a barmaid. Here she meets Eddie, a quiet, older man, who imports furniture. While Eddie seems perfect husband material, Alice feels a tug of resistance.

And then, one night, I had what felt like a conversion experience. I allowed myself to accept, with what seemed my whole heart, a future with Eddie. It wasn’t a decision (even allowed isn’t the right word), and that was why it felt like something I could trust.

All the right boxes are checked, and so they marry. Eddie buys them a lovely home, and is kind and thoughtful to his younger wife. Why then does the marriage go wrong?

Straying

In the novel, Alice is now a middle-aged woman who’s spent nomadic years working for non profits abroad. She returns to Ireland after wandering the world being exposed to some of the planet’s greatest miseries, and she finds herself alone with the memories of her brief marriage and an affair. Alice reminisces about Eddie and their marriage, still trying to unravel the motives for her actions decades later, yet even deeper than these troubling memories which are entwined with thoughts about her decisions, Alice deeply mourns her mother. By far the strongest connection in the book exists between Alice and her mother–even in death.

Now that Alice’s life is far removed from the notion of home and children, she finds herself thinking more about her mother and some of the conversations they had, especially those that took place towards the end of her mother’s life when “she often sounded distracted, as though she had caught sight of something approaching in the distance, something she couldn’t quite make out.” People who reach middle age (or late middle age) are fortunate indeed if their parents are still alive, for it’s only with age that we can possibly begin to understand our parents.

Straying is essentially the story of an affair, yet it’s also a story of loss,

Beyond the end of the lawn, the upper half of the Protestant church, which dominates the Crescent, looms like a giant risen from slumber, and when the night is cold and wet and moonlight falls on the yew tree and its needles glint like tinsel, the spectacle of it all is more than satisfying–for though I lament that narrowing of world that comes with age, I know that, like all children, I overlooked much and took everything for granted, and that even into the early years of adulthood, when I thought about the world at all in that way, I mistakenly assumed that all of its good, beautiful things would come around again, and then again, and again, until the time was right for me to pluck them. Now I am old enough to know that there are people I would like to see again whom I have already seen for the last time, there are places I dream of returning to that I will never revisit, and that though a few things do come around again and offer themselves, many more do not. 

After finishing this wonderful book, I found myself puzzling over Alice’s behaviour. How did she drift into marriage? How did she drift into this affair? She certainly never intended to hurt anyone, yet that was the ultimate result.

The title has a double meaning: Alice’s affair but also the aimlessness of her early life and marriage. Yet was she really aimless? Bad things happen in life. Take disease for example. We don’t choose disease, but sometimes it happens anyway, in spite of our plans or our tactics of avoidance. But can we say the same thing about marriage and/or infidelity? Do they just happen or are they murky attempts to establish or demolish something we don’t even recognize that we are seeking?

I’m a big believer in the idea that most of the time, people have a way of getting what they want. I’m not talking about money or health; I’m talking about the subtle manipulation of circumstance: I didn’t mean to let the dog off leash; I didn’t mean to have an affair. 

If you like books that delve into the murky waters of motivation, then you should enjoy Straying. While Alice chews over the choices she made, because yes they were choices even though she didn’t see things that way, this leaves room for the reader to speculate about the deep motivations for the decisions she made. Alice is a sensitive, thoughtful narrator who is still chewing over her actions decades later, and perhaps because she doesn’t make excuses, I liked her even more.

I’ll be reading this author again. This is a wonderful, wonderful book.

I recall a single midnight downpour, parked in Eddie’s car above the beach at Rosses Point, the world through the windscreen a rich black smear, as though painted in oils. 

(Alternate title: When Light is Like Water)

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Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

There are some books that manage to hit the pulse of current societal issues, and by that measure, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal comes just at the right time.  With the recent Hollywood scandals, the subjects of consenting sex and acceptable sexual behaviour are in the headlines. I’m old enough to say that I had a employer who called women ‘broads,’ and I’ve lived long enough to see attitudes about rape shift. But in spite of attitude shifts, there’s always that underlying notion that saying ‘no’ can just be a coy way of playing hard-to-get.

So here we are in 2018 …

Anatomy of a Scandal is the story of a sex scandal–the type of sex scandal that makes headlines. Sophie is married to James, a junior Home Office minister in the government; they have two children and a beautiful home. James and Sophie met while attending university at Oxford and they dated for a while, broke up, and then reconnected years later in London. Sophie, who’d attended university primarily to snag a husband  (and not build a career) was ready to settle down, and she was sure that James’s wilder days were behind him.

We all mature, right?
Anatomy of a scandal

Sophie’s world comes crashing down when James comes home one night, sits her down  and explains that he’s accused of rape. The accuser is his parliamentary researcher, Olivia. Oh but wait… they had an affair, he broke off the relationship, but then they had one last hookup. And it’s this one last encounter that’s at issue: Olivia claims that she did NOT give consent and James says the incident was just the same as many others they had had before. …

The book follows the fallout from the accusation, and the story is told through 4 voices: Sophie, James, Kate (Olivia’s barrister, “an experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes”) and Holly. Holly’s voice goes back to Sophie’s days at Oxford when Sophie was dating James. Part of the narrative is courtroom drama.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a page-turner. The author capture’s Sophie’s confusion as she is abruptly told about the affair by her husband. Then, with little time to absorb the information or assess her marriage, she’s groomed by the prime minster’s director of communications to stand-by-her-man. Sophie’s distress is shoved aside for political concerns, and there’s no room for any mourning, adjustment, or even time for the shock to be absorbed. At first Sophie cannot believe that the rape charge has any legitimacy, and her husband’s defense is that Olivia is a woman scorned. Of course, at the same time, she knows that he is a government minister and that he “dissembles,  yes. That’s part of his job–a willingness to be economical with the truth.” She also has an intimate view of James’s attitudes towards women and sexuality.

The courtroom scenes are marvelously done, so we see Kate eyeing the juror’s reactions as she walks Olivia through her testimony. The jury is composed of 7 women and 5 men:  “A jury that’s not ideal as women are more likely to acquit a personable man for rape.” James knows how to act the “penitent,” knows the pose to strike as a sensitive man who knows he shouldn’t have had an affair. James’s attractiveness pays off with even Kate’s friend admitting that he’s “the one Tory I wouldn’t kick out of bed.”

Wasn’t he having an affair with her, and didn’t she go to the papers when he called it off to be with his wife and kids? Doesn’t sound like she’s much of a victim to me. More of a woman getting her own back.

For this reader, by far the most interesting aspect of the book was the incident itself and whether or not rape had occurred. We slip into a grey area here as both sides are presented, and James is so smooth:

It pained him to say this, he said it more in sorrow than anger–he was now concerned for her mental health. It hadn’t been as robust as he’d assumed; a bout of anorexia in her teens; the rampant perfectionism that made her a superb researcher, but indicated a lack of balance; and now that her going to the paper hadn’t paid off–that he hadn’t left his wife as she’d wanted-this patent fantasy.

His blithe dismissals tumble from my mouth. Does he believe them? A politician who is so self-assured that his version of the truth is entirely subjective. His truth the one that he wants to believe? Or is this the smooth response of a liar who knows that he lies?

The book pivots on a central coincidence (which in all fairness, the author addresses), but for this reader, the coincidence distracted from the central moral questions of the case.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a great book club choice for not only does the plot center on the issue of rape and consent, but also there are underlying questions regarding male/female relationships. It would be interesting to sit in on post book club discussions. I could see readers coming to blows over this book.

To be fair, I sometimes wonder why so many of us women allow ourselves to wander so directly into the path of danger. Why return to a man who has made an unwanted advance or send a text with a kiss or a smiley face emoji? Why engage when it’s the last thing you feel?

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

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Inheritance from Mother: Minae Mizumura

“You know what the best part is? Getting free of her while I’m still in my fifties.”

The Japanese novel Inheritance from Mother from Minae Mizumura examines shifting Japanese culture and society through a double lens: middle-aged Mitsuki Katsura’s troubled relationship with her aging, infirm mother Noriko and Mitsuki’s increasingly difficult marriage to her remote, academic husband, Tetsuo.

Inheritance from mother

Inheritance from Mother opens with the death of Noriko, but don’t expect grief from either of her daughters. They are relieved that their mother, following a long illness, is finally dead, and in Mitsuki’s case, her mother’s death means she’s finally ‘free’ from a heavy burden. In the year before her death, Noriko had the second of two bad falls, the latest fall left her in a wheelchair, and from there it was a “private, exclusive nursing home” called (somewhat cruelly) Golden Years. She lived there briefly before contracting pneumonia which eventually led to her death. And here is how the novel opens shortly after the death of Noriko with both sisters feeling “liberated in different ways, but their excitement was identical-keen and palpable.”

“So how much do we get back from Golden?”

Before answering, Mitsuki, on the phone with her sister Natsuki, glanced once again at the numbers. On this late-fall night the window by the desk was closed, but instinctively she lowered her voice in reply. “Around seventeen million yen.”

17 M yen converts to around $154,000 or close to 121,000 pounds. So divide that between the two middle-aged sisters, and it’s a not-too-shabby sum. But given the title of the book, Inheritance from Mother, we’re not just looking at the money these women inherit from their mother; we’re looking at a lot of other less tangible things including grief (a lack of), and a burden of emotional baggage.

Inheritance from Mother was serialised in a Japanese newspaper from 2010-2011, so keep this in mind when you pick up the book. This is not a tight, terse plot, but a leisurely exploration of Japanese society, class, mothers and daughters, aging, and death and dying in an age when the medical community can prolong life. This is a society where daughters take care of mothers or in the case of sons, caregiving of the elderly “fell to the wife of the firstborn son.” 

The first section of the book goes back in time and includes the family’s history, so we see a post WWII Japan with its strict class system and its worship of Western culture. We see the less favoured daughter, Mitsuki, whose grandmother was a geisha, living in Paris, where she met her husband.  In middle age, Mitsuki is an underemployed part-time lecturer who’s passed up translating opportunities in order to support Tetsuo’s standard of living. Bouncing between Noriko’s neurotic demands, Mitsuki doesn’t have time to confront Tetsuo’s infidelities or their failing marriage, and while he’s on a sabbatical in Vietnam, Mituski remains in Japan to care for her mother.

Wisely, the author does not dwell on Noriko’s slow decline but instead uses the illness and death to springboard into how these characters find themselves at these points in their lives.  On one level, this is a story about three generations of women with two generations making marital decisions that impacted their children. Mitsuki’s grandmother, the former geisha  “in her long life experienced everything from virtual slavery to luxury and pomp to gritty poverty and more,” so perhaps that explains why Mitsuki’s mother, Noriko, had such a love of luxury and expensive tastes. Mitsuki, Noriko and Noriko’s mother always carry the shining, yet elusive example of the wealthier branch of the family as an intellectual ideal. We see glimpses of Mitsuki’s father who was “warehoused” when he became ill, and his wife refused to care for him–a decision that still haunts Mitsuki and fuels her determination that her mother will receive adequate care.

Readers who come to this novel will have their own opinions about Mitsuki’s relationship with her mother. Noriko, who was already using a cane, fell for the second time when she picked up sheets from the dry cleaner, and for this reader, Mitsuki seemed unnecessarily harsh. (As an aside: the mother in the Isabelle Huppert film, Things to Come was equally impossible, but was managed much better). There’s not an ounce of sentimentality here, so with a total lack of grief or anguish, there are times when Mitsuki wishes her mother would just die, and not for humanitarian reasons. While reading Part I, I realised that Mitsuki has made her mother a receptacle for her own unhappiness, and it’s inevitable that once her mother dies, Mitsuki will no longer be able to avoid some unpleasant truths.

Once she had her mother squared away, she would sit down and think about what to do with her marriage.

In Part II, following the death of Noriko, Mitsuki, now with time on her hands, must confront some ugly truths about her own life. The situation with her needy mother has caused Mitsuki to delay making decisions, but now she no longer has any excuse to ignore her husband’s infidelities and his ongoing, serious affair. Mitsuki travels to a hotel to rest and recuperate and meets a man who mourns the loss of his wife deeply. This grief is something that eludes Mitsuki, and we are left with the question of whether or not grief, which is another form of inheritance, is something we should regret not having.

One minor quibble: there’s a subplot which involves guests at the hotel that pushed credibility and seemed unnecessary–even if it served to underscore mortality. The novel’s form allows the author to take some leisurely, circuitous paths during the story, so the plot echoes back to the 19th century Victorian form more than anything else. For the reader who is willing to take the time, Inheritance from Mother is a rich, rewarding read, a look at an ever-changing Japan, but also a look at the eternally difficult relationships between mothers-and-daughters.

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Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

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The Arrangement: Sarah Dunn

“Yeah, but I’m not sure marriage should be like dating,” said Lucy. “Where you’re always looking for someone to hook up with.”

I knew I wanted to read Sarah Dunn’s novel, The Arrangement after reading the blurb: A hilarious and emotionally charged novel about a couple who embark on an open marriage-what could possibly go wrong? What indeed? This is an extremely funny look at a couple, who bored with their lives, make what they think is a mature, controlled decision, but in reality, it’s a decision that leads to chaos, confrontation, and other unexpected results.

Lucy and Owen, married and with a five-year-old autistic son, have traded in their fast-paced New York life and moved to the Beekman burbs. It’s a move that was supposed to bring more ‘quality of life’ but like many young couples, Lucy and Owen are feeling overwhelmed and even, possibly, bored. One evening, married friends confess to Lucy and Owen that they’ve decided to try an open marriage as they’re “both tired of this persistent, […] low-grade dissatisfaction.” At first it seems like an outrageous idea, but after Lucy and Owen discuss it one evening, they find themselves creating ground rules and embarking on a six-month long experiment.

The Arrangement

Owen who complains about how his wife is constantly “choring,” slips gleefully into an affair with the free-spirited, sexually adventurous Izzy, a woman with the laugh of a “mental patient,” and while Owen finds himself being dragged into a relationship that’s more demanding than his marriage, he doesn’t for a minute suspect that Lucy is hunting for prospects at local coffee shops.

It was like a whole world of signs and signals had been floating right past her-lingering looks, secret smiles, eyes moving up and down, wineglasses lifted in solidarity, charged conversations in bookstores. It was like an energy field, and some people were aware of it and some people weren’t.

The Arrangement is a very funny look at the mistakes made by a couple who really need time for themselves and each other--not time for other people.  Owen and Lucy’s experiment is set against the backdrop of the affluent Beekman community and the local drama concerning a male elementary school teacher who decides he’s a woman and starts dressing accordingly. One cohort of parents support Mr Lowell’s decision to become a woman and think that the kindergarteners “have an opportunity to watch her as she becomes who she truly is.” Other parents demand Lowell’s removal.  The lively cast of characters include Lucy’s friend, Sunny Bang, who arranges a hook-up for Lucy, Susan Howard, an annoying perfect and PC mother, and George Allen, a crass bombastic billionaire on his umpteenth wife, a ex-cocktail waitress.

Infidelity isn’t a naturally hilarious subject, but Sarah Dunn wickedly inverts the age-old scenario of ‘cheating.’ Owen and Lucy choose to bring disaster and chaos down upon their heads, so the novel is more about the foibles of the affluent who have the time and money to burn on hotel bills and trips to NYC.  Owen and Lucy’s married life is essentially good–but strained by time and familiarity, and stressed by parenting a difficult child.

The Arrangement argues that the emptiness of modern life makes people crazy as they age. Many of the characters here have arrived at middle age with their goals achieved but find only boredom at the end of the rainbow. At one point, a character mentions how all of her female friends are going crazy and how she knows one woman, “perfect Jen,” who spends her free time making out with men she meets in bars:

This semi-normal women is, in fact, like a grenade with the pin pulled out.

I haven’t laughed so hard at a book in a long time, and The Arrangement is going to make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, irreverent, insightful, and Sarah Dunn’s flexible, smooth style perfected matched the content:

And the pictures. Good God, the pictures. After his second time with Izzy, a seemingly unending stream of pornographic selfies popped up on his text screen to the point where Owen’s once rather cozy relationship with his cell phone was forever changed. He’d type in his password and see he had four new texts and then be like Whah? She really didn’t have a good eye, Izzy. She didn’t seem to know the difference between a sexy picture and an alarming one. 

Author Sarah Dunn is a television writer, and someone out there, PLEASE make this into a television series.

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The Rules of Engagement: Anita Brookner

Back to Brookner with The Rules of Engagement, and what an interesting and yet somewhat frustrating main character we have here in Elizabeth.

The book opens with Elizabeth describing how she met another Elizabeth in school. To keep everything from being too confusing, the non-narrator Elizabeth chooses to switch her name to Betsy. Immediately there’s the idea (at least to me) that these two are somehow tied together but with Betsy branching off into her own zone. If we keep to that idea, then we see Elizabeth marrying Digby, a staid, responsible man, 27 years her senior, while Betsy goes to Paris and marries the radical Daniel.

Betsy fades in and out of Elizabeth’s life: appearing at her wedding (and obviously shocked by the groom’s age), but eventually returns to London years later. The two women aren’t exactly friends–although they call each other by that title. Rather they have a shared history buried in childhood. They have very little in common: Betsy longs for a family, while Elizabeth is all about clinical detachment.

the rules of engagement

This is the most introspective of Brookner’s novels I’ve read so far. Not a great deal happens, so I can’t talk much about plot without giving away the central dilemma. Instead I’ll focus on Elizabeth who really is a very strange character. At times I wondered if she were quite sane, or at least how she became so damaged. She marries a man old enough to be her father (which makes sense given her home life) but then very quickly begins an adulterous affair.

Elizabeth is a mass of contradictions, and there were times I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. For example, their wedding night would seem to be sexless:

He was tired, and it showed in his face. He looked nearly as old as my father, whom I had not managed to thank for all the fuss. As we drank our tea the strain we both felt slowly dissipated. We had baths, changed into simple clothes, decided to go out for dinner, and let the rest of the day take care of itself. We were due to catch an early plane the following morning, and would probably appreciate an early night. That was what Digby said. I envisaged a succession of early nights, in which nothing very remarkable would take place. In this I misjudged him, and was pleasantly surprised. 

I read that passage over several times and interpreted it to mean that her predictions of early nights did not happen. Hints of evenings out, lively conversations or sex? After all Brookner is subtle. But then as the plot develops, we see Digby time and time again falling asleep in his chair.

I knew Digby would take the evening paper into the other room, switch on the television, and fall asleep. He slept heavily, more heavily than I did, and seemed unable to invest any energy into keeping awake. 

and later:

After we had eaten he went into the other room as usual, and switched on the television. When I joined him I found him asleep, a scene of passion beaming out unnoticed. When two characters joined in a violent embrace I switched it off.

I really wasn’t sure how to align these two impressions: the sexless marriage and the part about being “pleasantly surprised.” But this was not the first time I was confused by Elizabeth. Here she is talking about the hairdresser:

For this was an establishment not favoured by the young: I liked it because it was so close to home, and because Alex, who did my hair, was so soothing and deferential. In my normal state of mind I found this irksome; in my reduced condition it felt like balm. 

Early in the book Elizabeth mentions that both she and Betsy were born in 1948, and that “the sixties took us by surprise.”  These two women were raised in one set of expectations but were then ambushed by the shifting nature of society, and this idea works well.  I liked some parts of the book–especially Elizabeth’s introspection about her affair, but she seems very critical of poor Betsy (and tough on Digby too). On one hand, this is a very focused novel, but at the same time, it’s also blurry. I had no real indication of poor Digby as a living, breathing human being, and he remains a rather cardboard figure.

One of the criticisms I read of this book is that Elizabeth is too clinical and analytical, but the story is told in retrospect. Also Elizabeth really is a casebook for study, so much so, I began to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. She’s happy putting marriage and sex into different compartments, and while it seems that she married Digby as a father figure, there’s also the argument that she married him in order to avoid any sort of normal relationship. As the plot rolls on, that argument just strengthens. Ultimately, Elizabeth is a few cards short of a full deck–something happened in the emotion department.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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Two or Three Graces: Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s novella After the Fireworks concerns the love affair between a popular author and a young attractive female fan. Two or Three Graces, the second novella in this collection published by Harper Perennial also concerns love affairs–collectively these two novellas explore the nature and reality of love

The tale is told by Wilkes, a bachelor, and begins in Paris. I wasn’t sure where Huxley was leading as he describes two of Wilkes’s problematic relationships. One trying friendship is with the volatile, highly emotional writer Kingham and the second with former public schoolmate the plodding, boring Herbert Comfrey. Kingham, a man who “liked scenes” has an overreactive fit about Herbert and exits the frame, or so we think.

after-the-fireworks

Wilkes returns to England in the company of “passive vegetable clinger” Herbert and lo and behold who do they meet on the Dover quayside but Herbert’s even more boring brother-in-law, solicitor, John Peddley. This man is so boring that he actually haunts railway stations and docks waiting to pounce on a “victim,” some weary traveller who he can then pontificate to at length, while this poor lost soul, too tired to fight, puts up little resistance. Peddley, like a typical bore, just needs an audience; to other people’s “feelings and thoughts he was utterly insensitive. It was this insensitiveness, coupled with his passionate sociability, that gave him his power. He could hunt down his victims and torture them without remorse.”

Peddley was an active bore, the most active, I think, that I ever met; and indefatigable piercer, a relentless stuffer and crammer. He talked incessantly, and his knowledge of uninteresting subjects was really enormous. All that I know of the Swiss banking system, of artificial manures, of the law relating to insurance companies, of pig-breeding, of the ex-sultan of Turkey, of sugar rationing during the war, and a hundred other similar subject , is due to Peddley. He was appalling, really appalling; there is no other word. I know no human being with whom I would less willingly pass an hour.

And yet the man was extremely amiable and full of good qualities. he had a kind heart. He was energetic and efficient. He was even intelligent.

And it’s in a state of weariness that Wilkes succumbs to an invitation to Peddley’s home. Here he meets Peddley’s wife, Herbert’s sister, Grace. She’s a lot like Herbert, but whereas Herbert annoys Wilkes, he’s charmed by Grace. She’s a sort of helpless, vague woman, and Wilkes finds her “graceful ineptitude” quite “enchanting.” After spending some time with the Peddleys, Wilkes concludes that the marriage ‘works’ but that Grace tunes out of her life most of the time.

It’s through Wilkes that Grace is introduced to two successive lovers. Each love affair defines Grace in some way–hence the title. With one lover she becomes a bohemian, and with another, she’s a heartless vampire who sucks the life out of men. At one point, Wilkes even begins to imagine that he’s in love with Grace.

With each of these men, Grace, however, doesn’t fundamentally change. She might dress differently, and she might carry around a cigarette, but she’s still vague, fuzzy at the edges, Grace. The men in her life make her what they want her to be–hence the title. Huxley shows us two different Graces through her love affairs, but he’s not sure if there even is a third Grace. There’s a lot of sympathy for this character who married Peddley when she was too young to know better.

In spite of this novella’s slow start, I loved it. It’s a character study, and Huxley analyses his handful of subjects quite unmercifully, giving them nowhere to hide. But then even Wilkes, our narrator, is sliced up and his faux feelings examined. Also under scrutiny here is the subject of love. Huxley acknowledges its realities but also subtly analyzes its shifting properties.  There’s a definite feeling that Huxley is writing about real people disguised by fiction.

Uncle Spencer is the third, and weakest novella in the book. It’s basically the reminiscences of holidays spent with an idiosyncratic uncle who runs a sugar factory in Belgium. These holidays are interrupted by WWI, and Uncle Spencer’s arrest and imprisonment.

Review copy

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His Only Son: Leopoldo Alas

Miserable marriages exist both in real life and in fiction, but with fictional miserable marriages, readers have the opportunity to chuckle at the domestic enslavement of others. The author, Leopoldo Alas (1852-1901) in this case, presents just the right blend of unhappiness and characters who either asked for it or who juggle their marital discord with some sort of coping mechanism.

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Emma Valcárcel, we are told, is a “spoiled only child,” who at age 15 kidnaps her father’s handsome, poor, and stupid clerk, Bonifacio Reyes, and strong arms him into an elopement. Emma ends up in a convent, and Bonifacio, in Mexico, tries “earning his living as the rather inept editor of a newspaper, whose main purpose was to insult others.”  In time, Emma, a wealthy heiress, and with her Uncle Juan Nepomuceno as her guardian, marries a sickly older man, and is a widow within a year. Emma, who rules the Valcárcel family like some sort of benevolent despot, arranges for Bonifacio to be given a job that will bring him back into her orbit. The plan works and they are married.

It’s not a happy marriage, and Emma turns to her family for adoration (most of her male relatives are infatuated with her–but her fortune may have something to do with that). Bonifacio, finding a flute that belonged to Emma’s father, learns how to play. Since Bonifacio is a handsome man, Emma delights in dressing him up in expensive clothes, and showing him off on social occasions, but he never has any money of his own.

Following a miscarriage, Emma’s health and temperament, are in decline, and Bonifacio, who tries to pursue a separate life through the more bohemian crew at the local opera house, becomes a nursemaid/slave to Emma’s petulant demands for massages given with various lotions. She “despised her husband more with each day that passed, considering him useful only as a handsome physical presence,” and “telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation.”

His willingness to submit to all the intimate tasks of the bedroom, to his patient’s many complicated whims, to the sad, tender voluptuousness of convalescence, seemed to Bonifacio viewed from outside, not the natural aptitude of some saintly, fussy hermaphrodite but the romantic excesses of a Quixotic love applied to the minutiae of married life.

Juggling Emma’s tyrannical demands for domestic servitude, Bonafacio begins an affair with a third rate opera singer Serafina, even as he is slowly bled for money by her other lover, Mochi, the opera company impressario and lead tenor. Since Bonafacio has no money of his own, he turns to Emma’s uncle for a loan.

The book’s introduction, written by translator Margaret Jull Costa, mentions that one of the criticisms of Leopoldo Alas’s best known work, La Regenta, is that  “Alas had stolen the plot of Madame Bovary.” That being the case, then of course, it becomes significant that the dominant female character of His Only Son is named Emma. While Madame Bovary’s doom was driven by debt, Emma Valcárcel also has problems with money management.

Her one talent was for spending money. Kindly Juan Nepomuceno, formerly Emma’s legal guardian and now her administrator, would happily have shooed away all the flies–in the form of her relatives–who buzzed around the rather shrunken honeycomb of her inheritance, but this simply wasn’t practicable because his niece had grown so fond of all the members of the Valcárcel family, past, present, and future, that she demanded they be treated with the utmost generosity.

Emma knows that her uncle is ripping off her estate, but she doesn’t care. She glories in it. While Emma Bovary had romantic ideals that led to her destruction, Emma Valcárcel romanticizes the portraits of her deceased ancestors.

No wonder His Only Son was banned. The novel portrays a hypocritical society rife with adultery and corruption. After Emma’s father’s death, it was discovered that he left behind “a whole tribe of bastard children,” and that “the lawyer’s chastity had not been quite as perfect as everyone thought; his real virtue had consisted largely in prudence and stealth.”  

Even though this tale of adultery and money-grubbing has all the earmarks of tragedy, Alas turns his scenes into domestic farce. While adultery has drastic results in Madame Bovary, here adultery acts as an aphrodisiac in Bonifacio’s marriage. The women in His Only Son are very strong characters with the men weak and led by the nose, but it’s still the men who somehow or another have the power.

The excellent introduction explores the subversive nature of His Only Son, and the way the novel exemplifies the “clash between romanticism and realism.” It’s in this clash between the two schools of thought–Romanticism and Realism, that most of the novel’s humour is to be found. This New York Review Books edition also includes the novella Dona Berta.

Review copy

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.

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The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

Review copy

 

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