Tag Archives: infidelity

Ask for Me Tomorrow: Margaret Millar (1976)

“In this business you see their worst side, until pretty soon you forget they have a better one. And then ten chances to one they haven’t, anyway.”

Margaret Millar’s Ask for Me Tomorrow opens on a hot afternoon in Santa Felicia, California. Immediately we step into a toxic domestic scene. Middle-aged Gilly is watching and talking to her wheelchair bound husband, Marco, a stroke victim. His right eyelid closes and opens “normally,” but the rest of his body is paralyzed. He doesn’t respond to his wife, and he doesn’t seem to register her presence, but in spite of this, Gilly keeps up almost constant conversation. She’s convinced that Marco is aware, at least on some level. Gilly’s efforts are admirable, but there’s also something off about her behaviour too. Is she trying too hard?

Trying was part of her nature, just as giving up was part of Marco’s. He had given up long before the stroke. It was merely a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence.

Gilly is wealthy. She has hired a male nurse, beefcake Reed (think Tab Hunter wearing tight swimming trunks), and there’s also the housekeeper, the extremely religious, nosy Violet Smith who seems out-of-place in the household.

ask for me tomorrow

Through her lawyer, Smedley, Gilly arranges to hire a bilingual, newly graduated lawyer named Tom Aragon. Gilly refuses to discuss anything with Smedley and insists on discussing her case with Aragon at her home. Gilly tells Aragon that she was married before to a very wealthy man named B.J. Lockwood, but the marriage only lasted 5 years and ended when B.J. ran off with Tula, their 15 year-old pregnant Mexican maid. She hires Aragon to travel to Mexico and find out what happened to B.J. and the child he had with Tula.

Well, I’m fifty. That’s not very old, of course, but it cuts down on your alternatives, narrows your choices. There are more goodbyes and not so many hellos. Too many of the goodbyes are final. And the hellos-well, they’ve become more and more casual … I’ve lost one husband and I’m about to lose another. I’m depressed, scared, sitting in that room with Marco, listening to his breathing and waiting for it to stop. When it does stop, I’ll be alone, alone, period. I have no relatives and no friends I haven’t bought.

All a little weird as Gilly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. She arms Aragon with a letter she received from B.J. 5 years earlier. In the letter, B. J. asks Gilly for $100,000 which he says is an “opportunity to invest” in a building project, Jenlock Haciendas, in partnership with another American named Jenkins. According to B.J. “once the Americans get word of it we expect to be deluged with offers.” Yeah right. 

Gilly never sent the money. So Aragon’s task is to travel to Bahía de Ballenas, a place with no roads and no signposts, and discover what happened to B.J. and the child. Aragon goes to this remote, dusty, undeveloped region and ignites a trail of murder. 

Ask For Me Tomorrow is a wonderful book, full of peppy dialogue and quirky secondary characters, the waspish lawyer’s secretary, the pouty male nurse Reed, and Jenkins, the man caught up in the frenzy of dreams of riches. Yes, it’s a crime novel, and while I thought the plot was leading me in one direction, it took me somewhere else. More than anything else it’s about human nature and the bitterness of experience. There’s Gilly’s life story, of how she fell in love with the already married B.J. and how she worked on taking him from his wife, Ethel. He was, she claims, the love of her life, and yet there’s also bitterness there in a conversation she has with Aragon when she describes how B.J. ran off with Tula.

“B.J. always did honorable things, impulsive, stupid, absurd, but honorable. So the two of them rode off into the sunset. It was what they rode in that burns me up–the brand new motor home I’d just bought for us to go on a vacation to British Columbia. I was crazy about that thing. Dreamboat, I called it. On the first night it was delivered here to the house B.J. and I actually slept in it, and the next morning I made our breakfast in the little kitchen, orange juice and Grapenuts. A week later it was goodbye Dreamboat, B.J., Tula and the rest of the box of Grapenuts.”

“What do you want me to do, get back the rest of the Grapenuts?”

And then there’s B. J. What kind of a man was he? Evidently women were his Achilles’ heel but while he seems passive–the sort of man things happen to–he nonetheless manages to stir a maelstrom of emotions. 

It’s funny when you think about it–Henry Jenkins took B.J. from Tula the way she took him from me and I took him from Ethel. We just sort of passed him along from one to another like a used car. Even Ethel, Ethel the Good, she probably took him from somebody else. There was always someone waiting, wanting to use B.J. Where did it all start? The day he was born, the day the car came off the assembly line.

Absolutely fantastic

There are three Tom Aragon novels: Ask for Me Tomorrow, The Murder of Miranda, and Mermaid

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An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

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Tourmaline: Adalbert Stifter

German literature month 2019

“The tourmaline is dark in colour, and the events which I am going to relate here are very dark, too; they took place in times gone by, just like the events described in the first two tales*. In them we can see, as in a letter bearing sad news, how far a man can go when he dulls the light of his own reason and is no longer able to understand things, ignores the law of his conscience–which leads him unerringly along the way of righteousness–yields completely to the intensity of his pleasures and his pain, loses his step, and falls into circumstances which we are scarcely capable of unravelling.”

(*Granite and Limestone)

With an intro like that, Tourmaline seemed to be my kind of story. I’ve yet to get used to Stifter’s pacing and his use of details, but since there’s more Stifter in my future, no doubt that will happen. Just like Brigitta, Tourmaline is a story of passion, but it’s stained with other, much darker elements.

Eight german novellas

The story opens in Vienna with a man of “about forty,” and immediately there’s the sense that there’s something a little off about this man’s domestic arrangements. It’s here that Stifter’s use of detail comes into full play as he describes the man’s home which is located on the fourth floor of a house. The details: passages, an iron grille, a clock so quiet you can’t hear it tick,  iron railings, argue for an oppressive, prison-like environment which is controlled by the man of the house who is known as “the pensioner.” The pensioner has a beautiful wife who is about 10 years younger and they have one child,  a little girl. The wife “did not maintain a great deal of contact with the outer world,” and more or less stays inside. 

A well-known actor, a good-looking, charming man named Dall visits the pensioner, listens to his stories, but eventually Dall begins a love affair with the pensioner’s wife. “This went on for a while until, at last, the wife became afraid and confessed everything to her husband.” The wife vanishes and the pensioner goes to Dall’s home three times and demands the return of his wife, but Dall has no knowledge of her whereabouts.

The pensioner and the child also disappear, the apartment is closed. Years pass and eventually the courts order that the apartment be opened, the belongings sold and the landlord paid. Money leftover from the debt to the landlord is retained in case the pensioner ever reappears. 

In the wife’s rooms nothing whatsoever had been changed, every piece of furniture was in its accustomed place and the objects were still upon them; but the minor changes which had taken place revealed how different things now were.  The heavy curtains, which had always swayed slightly when the windows were open , now hung motionless; the flowers and plants were now shrivelled wisps of brown; the clock which used to tick so quietly now ticked no longer, for the pendulum did not stir, and the clock indicated immutably the same time of day. The linen and other items of handiwork still lay upon the tables, of course, but showed no signs of having been touched, and mourned under a veil of dust. 

The story then shifts to a different narrator: this time it’s a friend of the first narrator, a married woman who becomes involved in the life of Professor Andorf and meets his reclusive concierge. …

Tourmaline is a dark fairy tale, sinister, threatening and bleak in its portrayal of the child who pays a heavy price for the folly of human passions. While the tale stands on its own, reading about Stifter’s disastrous attempts to adopt children added to its meaning. 

Jonathan likes Stifter also. 

Another fan … Tom 

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All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

Review copy

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Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

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

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

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

Olive again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy.

 

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Splitting: Fay Weldon

“Women tend to be more than one person,” said Angel, “at the best of times, Men get just to be the one.”

Fay Weldon’s novel Splitting is a story of marriage, divorce and lost identity.

Sir Edwin Rice is divorcing Lady Angelica Rice, and what a messy divorce this is. Sir Edwin’s divorce petition includes accusations ranging from “lesbianism to bestiality. Bad cooking to adultery.” Lady Rice fights back and “claimed physical assault; over-frequent and perverted sexual activity which led to her humiliation; drunkenness, drug-taking and financial irresponsibility on the part of her husband; she asserted that her husband’s relationship with his dogs was of a sexual nature.” This divorce is going to be dirty.

splitting

When the book opens, Edwin’s lawyer, Brian Moss is dictating to his new secretary, Jelly White. Jelly White is none other than Lady Angelica Rice. It’s a strategic self placement, and it’s a position that comes in handy when you want to stack the deck in your favour.

While the novel begins with the ugly divorce, it then slips back into the past: when middle-class Angelica first meets Edwin, the youngest son of Lord Cowarth. Edwin marries Angelica and they make their home at the “dilapidated manor house” Rice Court. How fortunate that Angelica has a Savings and Loans balance of 823,000 pounds generated from a single hit “Kinky Virgin.” Angelica dutifully hands this sum over to the Land Agent, and then the marital games begin.

A few years into the marriage, cracks begin to show, and the problems erupt over money. Angelica, now Lady Rice, manages her home well, but Edwin is critical. Fissures in the marriage widen when adulterous relationships evolve between the Rices and their friends Rosamund, Susan, Humphrey, and Lambert. This section of the novel seemed to be deliberately confusing. I couldn’t keep track of the bed hopping, and this is partly because everyone lies and they all accuse each other of various affairs possibly to obfuscate the truth.

The “Splitting” of the title occurs though matrimonial discord.

“How dare he!” says a voice in Angelica’s head. “How dare he!” Another one says “don’t rock the boat,” another says “take him upstairs and fuck him,” and Angelica shakes her head to be rid of them, which works.

These voices, which offer conflicting advice lead to a “perforated, split personality.” Not in the strait-jacket lock-up sense, but in the sense of a woman who’s carried a role for years but then with doubt and rebellion gnawing at her mind, loses any formed sense of self  (loyal wife) and ‘splits’ into other possible selves–an “internal war.”

“Pull yourself together, for God’s sake, “Jelly said to Lady Rice, out of the mirror. But she added more kindly, “It’s been a long, hard day.”

“In future,” said Angelica. “we’ll go home by bus, not Underground. It’s easier on the nerves. And do stop crying, before our eyes get red and puffy. Jesus! What a sight!”

“Let’s do downstairs to the bar,” said Angel, “and make out with some rich businessman. Have a fun night out, some sex-good or bad; I grant you that’s a risk. We’ll score if we can and make ourselves some money.”

“Score?” said Lady Rice.

“Drugs,” said Angel.

Lady Rice uttered a little scream.

Lady Rice found herself looking out her best lingerie and trying it on, while Jelly agitated.

Marriage is a union of two people. The ‘me and the we’ positions are the hardest to negotiate, and in Splitting, Angelica gave up her class, her home, her friends, her identity to marry Edwin. She became Lady Rice–a totally different person, and when the marriage falls apart, the identity crisis in which Angelica fights with various splintered aspects of herself, is alarming, funny and bitterly real.

This isn’t my favourite Weldon novel. The affairs were confusing and difficult to follow, and the novel’s premise: a woman whose personality splits into various warring selves adds to the mayhem. That said, the novel is a strong cautionary tale: women who give up their personalities, friends, family, environment and career to adopt a marital role will have issues with identity.

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Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

en are

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A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.” 

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie.  Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie,  brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…

I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.

Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …

A severed head

While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.” 

There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”

Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness. 

A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose. 

 I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of  a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama. 

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship. 

Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.

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The Ditch: Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s novel The Ditch is narrated by Robert Walter,  the middle-aged Mayor of Amsterdam. Robert is seemingly happily married and yet fault lines appear, subtly, but quickly in the novel. Robert introduces us very quickly to his wife saying “Let me call her Sylvia. That’s not her real name.” We know she’s not from Holland, and Robert adds “where she is from is something I’d rather leave up in the air for the time being,”  so we know we are not getting the full story. Robert tells his story his way, parceling out the information he wants to divulge, telling us his daughter’s name is Diana and then almost immediately retracting it, revealing that “Diana isn’t our daughter’s real name either.”

The ditch

While Robert controls this unreliable narrative, he feeds us clues; his wife is from a country “about which a lot of preconceived notions exist. Notions both favorable and unfavorable. From “passionate” and “temperamental,” it’s only a small step to “hot-tempered.” A crime passionel.” It’s the sort of narrative that encourages the reader to fill in the blanks and to start guessing.

Although married to the mayor, Sylvia doesn’t like “public appearances” but she accompanies her husband to certain events especially when Robert wears his “most pitiful expression” and gives her a “hammy, imploring look.” Telling Robert not to “start crying” Sylvia agrees to attend the new year’s reception, and this is where all the the trouble starts. At the reception, Robert notices his wife, off in a corner with Alderman Maarten van Hoogstraten laughing and talking. The Alderman has his hand on Sylvia’s elbow and is whispering something in her ear. When Robert joins them, the conversation ends, but Robert suspects that his wife is having an affair. These suspicions become an obsession.

An unreliable narrator, a suspected extramarital affair … these are plot ingredients guaranteed to capture my attention. Given that I’ve read and enjoyed (to varying degrees)   The Dinner, Dear Mr. M, Summer House with Swimming Pool I expected to enjoy The Ditch. Robert is an interesting character: a glib, facile politician whose superficial slick social manner hides a somewhat spineless, neurotic individual. Unfortunately Robert’s discursive (rambling) narrative overwhelms the fault lines revealed in Dutch society. Intriguing issues emerge but are drowned out by Robert’s self-obsession and paranoia; he’s a slippery narrator and ultimately his paranoia and frequent digressions leave little to hold onto.

review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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More Anatomy of Murder: Sayers, Iles,Crofts (1936)

“As for the academic question of whether the association of a young man with a woman considerably older than himself is to be regarded always as harmful to the young man, that is debatable.”

In More Anatomy of Murder, Dorothy L. Sayers, Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, respected authors of detective fiction, each discuss an infamous murder case. Sayers, Iles and Crofts were all members of the Detection Club (Sayers and Crofts were founders). Sayers considers The Murder of Julia Wallace, while Iles examines The Rattenbury Case, and finally Crofts, in a much shorter piece, discusses A New Zealand Tragedy.

More anatomy of murder

The biggest issue for readers of More Anatomy of Murder is that these three cases (or at least the first two) were headlines in 1933 and 1935, and so some prior knowledge of these murders is assumed. Fortunately for this reader, I was familiar with the Rattenbury case through the film Cause Célèbre. But back to the first section: The Murder of Julia Wallace. (The bones of this case reminded me of Celia Dale’s Helping with Inquiries. ) Julia Wallace’s husband, who claimed to have been lured from his home at the time of his wife’s bludgeoning murder, was arrested and tried for the crime. In the second case, the Rattenbury murder, Francis Rattenbury was murdered by his much younger wife’s lover (the wife initally confessed), and the third case, The Lakey murder, involved the murder of a married couple by a neighbor. So three very different types of murders.

Each of the authors takes a different approach to the case under examination. Sayers, for example, states that the law is interested in “one question only,” … “Did the prisoner do it?” while the crime novelist asks “if the prisoner did not do it, who did.” Sayers’ approach is heavily psychological as she peels away the layers and complications of the case. At each step of the evidence, she presents the possibility of Wallace being the murderer, or whether or not the murderer was another individual.

In The Rattenbury Case, Iles references the hanging of Edith Thompson and compares Alma Rattenbury to Edith Thompson, and the two cases appear similar on the surface. Iles argues that while husbands were murdered by their wives’ lovers in both instances, there are differences. Since married women seeking sex with young lovers loomed large in both cases, Edith Thompson and Alma Rattenbury’s behaviour scandalized the public, and Mrs. Rattenbury’s temperament is much discussed along with that of her 18-year-old lover/chauffeur, Stoner. Iles makes a good argument for the case that Mrs. Rattenbury and Stoner fed off each other’s unstable temperaments.

Iles also discusses Miss F. Tennyson Jesse’s transcript and commentary of the trial, and Iles argues that while Jesse “finds it difficult to account for Stoner’s crime,” and calls the crime “a gesture conceived in an unreal world,” he disagrees:

Where personal advantage looms so large if a certain person can only be knocked out of the path, the consequent knocking out bears a very solid relation to real life. 

The final case follows the standard police procedural as Freeman Wills Crofts tackles the evidence in the Lakey Murder Case.

I liked the way each author took a different approach, and Sayer’s wit bolstered the tame drabness of married life between Julia and William Wallace. She notes that while the couple’s married life seemed superficially happy, there are hints that life was not what it seemed:

Nothing will ever bring her back, and however much I want her or however much I miss her loving smiles and aimless chatter …

After reading this section, I had my own theory. The Rattenbury Case with its unstable, erratic household, morphia, lashings of alcohol and cocaine was a good contrast. Iles even spends some passages explaining why he is fascinated by the case.

(F. Tennyson Jesse wrote A Pin to See the Peepshow which is a fictionalised account of Edith Thompson and the Ilford Murder Case.)

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