Tag Archives: miserable marriages

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a reread. I’m not quite sure what drew me back–perhaps the thought that Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a great favorite of mine, reveals new dimensions with each reread. Perhaps I thought the same would happen with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall--my belief is that reread revelations say more about the change in the reader–not the book.

The plot is fairly simple. The first part of the novel is in epistolary form with letters sent from Gilbert Markham to his friend Jack Halford. Through these letters, Markham recounts events that took place many years earlier in 1827. As a young man of 24, Markham leads a quiet country life with his mother, annoying younger brother, Fergus and sister Rose at Linden-Car Farm. Their social circle is small, and Markham is attached to Eliza Millward, the daughter of the local vicar. Although Eliza is penniless and not beautiful, Markham sees Eliza’s good qualities, and considers her a “very engaging little creature,” with “irresistibly bewitching eyes.” He seeks out her company, and his preference for Eliza is noted by both families.

The quiet life of the community begins to stir with the arrival of a mysterious tenant, a young widow named Helen Graham. She takes up residence, along with her small son, Arthur and surly servant Rachel, at the dilapidated Wildfell Hall which belongs to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence. Of course, with a new person in the neighbourhood, social visits must be made and soon tongues (female tongues) are wagging about Helen Graham. Markham’s first encounter with Helen is not promising; she’s prickly, and standoffish to the point of rudeness. Helen’s solitary situation combined with her anti-social behaviour, her blunt refusal to bow to the opinions of others (including the vicar) win no friends, and the rumours about Helen grow. Eliza, sensing a rival in Helen, is the main offender when it comes to gossip, and in this she is aided and abetted by the very ambitious, sly Jane Wilson. Jane has her eyes set upon marriage to local landowner, Mr. Lawrence, Helen’s landlord, and since Lawrence’s name is linked to Helen’s (in a most unsavory way), Eliza and Jane both have their knives out for Helen. Eliza’s behaviour repels Markham and he realises that everything positive he once saw in Eliza is non-existent. She’s unkind, cruel and petty. Still … she has lost Markham’s attentions and so the lady must be excused to some extent. Markham’s passion for Helen grows and he also becomes attached to Arthur. Markham presses his suit, and Helen, already aware of the gossip surrounding her lonely existence at Wildfell Hall and the condemnation she will receive for the visits of an eager bachelor, finally gives Markham journals of her life which explain exactly why she is at Wildfell Hall. (There’s another reason she gives him the journals which I won’t reveal here.)

Helen’s sections are, therefore, in journal form. The journals begin when she is a young single woman in London. Abandoned by a neglectful father and raised by an aunt and uncle, she is at first pursued by an older suitor. Helen’s aunt approves of the match but Helen wants to marry for love… then she meets Arthur Huntington. Despite warning signs that he is a thorough rotter, and also against her aunt’s dire warnings, Helen insists on marrying Arthur, and it’s a terrible mistake. …

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was considered shocking for its time: and no wonder–alcoholism, domestic violence, adultery, corruption of a child. Is there no end to the wickedness?? There were moments when I laughed out loud (inappropriately) at poor Helen’s naïve belief that she could ‘improve’ Arthur and stop him from all the wicked pursuits he had squandered most of his fortune on during his raucous bachelorhood. The marriage of Helen and Huntingdon is that prototype of the ‘good woman’ determined to save the ‘bad man’ from himself. And of course it’s doomed to failure as we knew it would be. Helen should have married a clergyman and Arthur should have married a thoroughly bad woman (like Annabella Lowborough)–a woman who would have kept him on his toes in the competition to see who could be more unfaithful. But that’s the point isn’t it? Arthur Huntingdon wanted and needed someone like Helen–a disapproving figure who made his exploits all the more fun. And Helen went into marriage wanting to ‘fix’ Arthur. An older, more experienced woman would have known there was no fixing to be done. …

Arthur hones his cruelty in the first few months of marriage, and then quickly tires of his new toy. He abandons Helen for months at a time, and then brings his dissipated friends for fun and games. Yes he wants to indulge in every vice, but it’s so much more fun to do it in front of Helen. Helen reminds me of the character of Jane Eyre in her strong morality and backbone, and I liked Helen a lot for the first part of her story. While I had great sympathy for her situation, her naiveté, her economic and legal plight, eventually I grew tired of her lectures. Since all she did was provide Arthur with cheap, cruel entertainment, why is she wasting her breath, I asked myself? (Course it’s that classic abuse cycle repeated ad nauseum.)

I’m not going segue into a PhD discourse about why this novel is important or the character of Branwell Brontë, etc. etc. The novel is amazing for its time and its scandalous, revolutionary approach to inheritance, education, divorce, and woman and child as property. Helen’s refusal to bow to the ‘authority’ of the pompous clergyman is another rejection of the patriarchy in which she is drowning. Her individual morality soars over any formal notion of religion. Some of Helen’s speeches are jaw-dropping when she speaks upon the rights of women, and yes this is Feminism before there was such a word. It’s impossible to read this novel and not feel that laws must be changed. As it is, Helen must endure all humiliations heaped upon her by her husband. She has no recourse to the law, manages by the skin of her teeth to support herself through painting, and is shunned by society for finally leaving her abusive, dickhead of a husband.

Arthur was already a boozing whoremonger when he married. Helen bored him with her otherworld goodness and her preaching, and any appeal to his conscience had the opposite result. It merely urged him on. This is why Helen and Arthur were the worst possible partners for each other. I’m going to add that by the time the novel ended, if I had been Arthur Huntington, it would have been a nightmare to wake up to Helen by my side telling me to prepare for my maker. Payback’s a bitch–there he is a helpless invalid in bed (yes serves the bastard right) and Helen delivers the coup de grace. He probably croaked just to get away from her. Here he is asking if he will survive:

“I’ve had a dreadful time of it, I assure you: I sometimes thought I should have died: do you think there’s any chance?”

There’s always a chance of death; and it is always well to live with such a chance in view.”

“Yes, yes! But do you think there’d any likelihood that this illness will have a fatal termination?”

I cannot tell; but, supposing it should, how are you prepared to meet the event?”

“Why, the doctor told me I wasn’t to think about it, for I was sure to get better if I stuck to his regimen and prescriptions.”

“I hope you may, Arthur; but neither the doctor nor I can speak with certainty in such a case; there is internal injury, and it is difficult to know to what to what extent.”

“There now! you want to scare me to death.”

“No; but I don’t want to lull you to false security. If a consciousness of the uncertainty of life can dispose you to serious and useful thought, I would not deprive you of the benefit of such reflections, whether you do eventually recover or not. Does the idea of death appall you very much?”

“It’s just the only thing I can’t bear to think of: so if you’ve any–“

“But it must come sometime,” interrupted I, “and be it years hence, it will as certainly overtake you as if it came to-day,– and no doubt be as unwelcome then as now, unless you–”

“Oh, hang it! don’t torment me with your preachments now, unless you want to kill me outright. I can’t stand it, I tell you. I’ve suffered enough without that. If you think there’s danger, save me from it, and then, in gratitude, I’ll hear whatever you like to say.”

I would have liked Helen more if the death and religion lectures had been delivered with an acknowledgment that she was enjoying the reversal of power. In other words, if she’d not been such a saint and was just a little bit wicked.

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”

Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.

The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.

Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).

Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.

Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.

The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.

Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:

Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.

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Act of Love: Celia Dale (1969)

There is some terrible flaw in me against which I must always struggle.”

I’ve been on a Celia Dale roll lately: A Helping Hand-is a very credible crime tale of what to do with your elderly relatives when they annoy you. In Sheep’s Clothing– two con-women find that the elderly are easy pickings. Helping With Inquiries concerns the murder of a married woman in a quiet suburb. And this brings me to Act of Love; it’s another crime novel, but this time it’s with a Victorian gothic setting.

22-year-old Bernard West, “Bun” to his family, leaves the impoverished family home to accept the job of tutor to the 2 children of Henry and Isabel Mortimer. The tale is partly narrated by Bernard, who is, as it turns out, somewhat unreliable, or at least less than truthful. We know he’s been “ill” with “brain fever,” but that now he’s “completely recovered.” Bernard’s father, who is another private tutor, is “ruined,” when he “imprudently stood guarantor” for a “rascal who defaulted.” Bernard also has two sisters, doomed to spinsterhood: Agatha and Mary. According to Bernard, all the hopes and fortunes of the family rest with him.

The first few days at Bulmer Hall are not good. Bernard is very quickly relegated to a lowlier position in the household than he expected. Mr. Mortimer, who is pleasant enough, has a very strong personality, disappears frequently to London to indulge his vices, and walks with a cane due to an old wound. His much younger wife, Isabel Mortimer is the snot here. She’s beautiful, a wonderful horsewoman, and she immediately puts Bernard in his place :

She was slender, with dark hair piled high under a small cap, a perfect cameo-line of brown and nose, lips and chin; eyes of the same inky blue as were her daughter’s but cool as ice, as was her smile, which seemed to glide over us all like skates. I had never before seen anyone so perfectly indifferent to other people, so actuated by nothing but the thinnest pretense of politeness.

It’s soon abundantly clear that while the house is magnificent, and while the Mortimers are wealthy, there is something not quite right with life at Bulmer Hall:

Yet it had no heart. It ran with the mechanical motions of a clockwork toy, lifelike but artificial.

The only regular guest at Bulmer Hall is the oily Dr. Brooke, who at one time practiced in the slums of London. He’s seen enough of “the debasement of the human animal” that he is now more or less retired, thanks to an inheritance, with only the occasional wealthy client to fuss over. Dr. Brooke befriends Bernard, and appears to take an interest in the young man’s future. And while at first Isabel humiliates Bernard every chance she gets with “her glance shifting over [him] as indifferently as a searchlight over the sea,” a turn of events throws Bernard and Isabel together.

Act of Love is mostly cleverly constructed, and for a while I thought I was reading something as magnificent as My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately, the book slides into purple prose, with rather long passages so torrid and yet vague that I was forced to reread these sections several times to understand the implications. The ending seemed a little hurried which was unfortunate given the cleverness of the plotting.

Still… I enjoyed the structure if not the execution. The characters are great creations but this is my least favourite Celia Dale to date.

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Valentino and Sagittarius: Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg’s 2 novellas Valentino and Sagittarius both focus on the magnetic pull of family–even if a family member is toxic. It often occurs to me that we tolerate certain toxic behavior in family members and relatives, while we would distance ourselves from others if they behaved in the same way. This can certainly be argued for both of Natalia Ginzburg’s stories, told by narrators who are blindly accepting of the horrible behaviour of family members who drag them to the ground.

In Valentino all the hopes for the rise of family fortunes is invested in the sole ne’er do-well son. The tale is narrated by Caterina, Valentino’s sister who lives with her brother and parents in a tiny rented apartment. There’s also Clara, a married sister, who also needs support, a woman with “constant toothache” who has three children. Caterina attends a teacher training college and tutors children in her spare time. Valentino’s expenses are “never-ending” and never questioned as he is “destined to become a man of consequence.” Valentino’s father believes his son will become a world-famous doctor:

Valentíno himself seemed void of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust, fashioning cats and dogs and monkeys too, with big heads and long, lumpy bodies. Or he would don his skiing outfit and admire himself in the mirror; not that he went skiing very often, for he was lazy and hated the cold, but he had persuaded my mother to make him an outfit all in black with a great white woolen balaclava; he thought himself no end of a fine fellow in these clothes and would strut about in front of the mirror first with a scarf thrown about his neck and then without and would go out on to the balcony so that the caretaker’s children could see him.

Valentino, a self-centered peacock, has a constant stream of girlfriends; “Teenagers wearing jaunty little berets and still studying at high school.” Imagine then the shock experienced by Valentino’s family when he announces that he’s going to get married and then brings home his fiancée, Maddalena, an extremely ugly, “short and fat” much older heiress.

It’s clear that Valentino’s motives are venal, and he really can’t stretch out the ‘famous doctor’ fantasy for much longer. While you might imagine that Valentino’s family would be relieved that he’s marrying money, they are hostile to the match. Even though Maddalena is extremely generous to her husband’s family , they never forgive her for marrying Valentino–as if somehow she’s ruined his potential.

Sagittarius is narrated by an unmarried woman who lives with her impossible widowed mother. There’s another daughter at home, Guilia, who, after a failed romance, marries a Jewish doctor on the rebound. The mother quarrels with her husband’s family after selling off some family land, and so she moves, daughters in tow. She imposes herself on her sisters who’ve managed to run a china shop quite efficiently without her help. The bombastic widow who has an overinflated idea of her competence tries to muscle in on the shop to no avail. And then the widow meets the shady Signora Fontana, a woman whose tatty glamour appeals to the widow, and the two women plan to open an art gallery together.

Both darkly humorous novellas focus on the way the main characters mistreat their families–Valentino is a sponger, controlling everyone in his life with his dubious, superficial charm, and he transfers his appalling behaviour from his family to his wife. He’s never held accountable for his fecklessness, and so we see how someone who is a User carries on being such for the rest of his life. In Sagittarius, the widow controls everyone by nastiness; she’s abrasive to her family and yet bends over backwards to accept so much rubbish from Signor Fontana. Again: that truism of how we can be considerate to others while treating family like indentured servants who are expected to tolerate bad behaviour. Both novellas had a 19th century feel to them, so much so that modern references were a bit of a shock.

Translated by Avril Bardoni

 

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You Should Have Known: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Remember the days when books had alternate titles? Well if I had to give Jean Hanff Korelitz’s book You Should have Known an alternate title, it would be Me and My Big Mouth. This is tale of how one married therapist’s very public statements, made via a non-fiction book, come back to haunt her in a big way.

When the book opens, successful New York therapist Grace is on the cusp of a huge upswing in her career. She’s written a book: You Should Have Known: Why Women Fail to Hear What the Men in their Lives are Telling Them. Grace’s thesis is that women in failed, toxic relationships “knew right at the beginning” that there were warning signs, but that they somehow “unknow” and “let[s] these early impressions, this basic awareness, get overwhelmed by something else.”

You know how we always tell ourselves, You never know, when someone does something we don’t see coming? We’re shocked that he turns out to be a womanizer, or an embezzler. He’s an addict. He lied about everything. Or he’s just garden-variety selfish and the fact that he’s married to you and perhaps you have children together-that doesn’t seem to stop him from behaving as if he’s still a single-unencumbered teenager.

It’s an interesting, but limited thesis. In the first chapter, Grace is interviewed about her book as she presents her argument that women marry men recognizing, but burying their faults as they walk down the aisle to short-lived wedded bliss. Grace has an inflexible approach to the ‘should have known‘ theory which fails to acknowledge a) a lack of experience 2) the deviousness of sociopaths/ psychopaths 3) a frame of reference and, finally, 4) plenty of people acknowledge in hindsight that ‘they should have known.’

Grace’s rather arrogant, judgmental argument is unforgiving. But then Grace, of course, has a perfect marriage to pediatric oncologist Jonathan. With a job such as his, Jonathan is gone a lot; he’s a devoted doctor to his patients, going above and beyond in his free time. …

Physician, heal thyself.

The first chapter was great fun. I knew Grace was going to get her comeuppance and since she’s put her rigid theory in a book, I knew she was going to regret her very-public words.

The second long, incredibly boring chapter tossed me into a bunch of stuffy uppercrusty women who manage fundraisers for the snot private school Grace’s son attends. These “highly tended” women may or may not subscribe to Grace’s theories about relationships, but like Grace they are coddled in a cocoon of privilege (although we are supposed to believe these women are more privileged than Grace). Amongst all the high-maintenance women, there’s one mother who sticks out like some sort of exotic weed, Malaga, a woman whose son attends the school on a scholarship. Malaga ends up murdered, and it’s a shocking event as things like this don’t happen to women in Grace’s protected social circle.

This domestic thriller is a slow read, and Grace’s (initial) constant eulogizing of her mysteriously absent husband is absurd, boring and nauseating. Here she is berating women for choosing to ignore the warning signs about the psycho men in their lives, and she’s blithely sashaying down the same path in a cloud of denial and … yes… stupidity. The best part of the book is the anticipation that Grace is going to get her comeuppance as her perfect little world crumbles around her. Karma can be a bitch.

The HBO series, The Undoing, places a different emphasis on various aspects of the novel. Smart move.

 

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Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s marvellous novel Shelter in Place opens in November 2016, right after the presidential election. Childless couple, 56-year-old Eva and her wealth management advisor husband Bruce, are hosting a motley assortment of houseguests at their Connecticut home. The people we meet that night: Min Marable, decorator Jake Lovett, married book editors Aaron and Rachel Weisenstein, neighbour Grady and his cousin, recently separated Sandra comprise almost all the book’s characters, although a few more appear as the plot fans out.

Although it’s a “benevolent autumn sunset,” Eva’s mood, extreme distress at the prospect of Trump as president, eradicates the sense of peace and relaxation. A debate ensues about free speech with Eva announcing that she’s “possessed by this mad urge” to ask Siri how to assassinate Trump. Interestingly, once Eva starts the fireworks, she doesn’t actually go through with it, but instead tells her husband to do it. From this point, everyone jumps in with their opinions on this “thought experiment.” Min, who says she’s Eva’s best friend, (translation: sycophant and object of belittlingly criticism) defends Eva (as always) noting her Jewish background and concern about fascism. One of the houseguests concludes that Eva’s preposterous and toothless statement that she would do anything to defend democracy makes her a “teensy bit fascist.” Another debate ensues about “majority rule.”

This evening becomes the leaping point for the rest of the story. Eva, feeling that she can’t stand to remain in America for the inauguration party, leaves for a holiday in Venice, taking along mooching, much put upon journalist Min. Once in Venice, Eva decides to buy a palazzo apartment, and it’s the beginning of a real estate transaction nightmare and also the beginning of a deep rift between Bruce and Eva.

Shelter in Place, a comedy of manners, takes a spiky look at the affluent New Yorkers in Eva’s orbit.  Eva is a spoilt, vastly uninteresting, hollow, self-focused woman, one of the 1% cushioned by vast wealth and therefore the least likely strata of society to feel any societal turbulence. She becomes so consumed with repugnance at the thought of a Trump driven America, she decides to leave. While neurotic Eva calls Trump a “demon,” this dreadful woman (think of Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives) terrorizes most of those in her circle. She loves to patronise people with the grandeur of her liberal, moral opinions–opinions that don’t hold up under scrutiny, so, for example, she’ll have an impoverished pet chef for a while until he “touched the third rail.” And then there’s Min: Eva will shove cookies and food at Min and then humiliate her for eating whenever the opportunity arises (and especially if there’s a third person as witness).

Quiet Bruce acknowledges that as a couple, he and Eva “have a system. She does the wanting and I do the paying.” As the deal for the Venice apartment becomes more complex and dodgy, Bruce, for the first time in his married life considers denying his wife’s whims, but at the slightest hint of Bruce’s resistance, Eva turns on the marital screws. She mouths platitudes about how politically she’s “refusing to do what everyone else is doing, which is either lapsing into this state of terrible ennui or putting all their energy into looking the other way.” So she garlands herself with noble status for bailing from the country while others don’t–and yet how many Americans can afford to go and buy an apartment in Venice just because they feel like it? (Or even a trailer in the Salton Sea?) And of course before long it becomes obvious that escape from Trump is just a narrative for Eva to get what she wants. Eva talks about political oppression and yet treats her servants and friends appallingly. Meanwhile, Bruce ponders the life and financial circumstances of his long-term secretary Kathy who is undergoing treatment for cancer. Kathy has been dumped by her husband (when he heard about the diagnosis), she’s drowning in debt and supports both of her impossibly selfish children. Kathy isn’t a martyr to duty; she’s a realist and in spite of her many troubles, she blames no one.

Shelter In Place, a very clever title, also refers to decorator Jake, who has emotionally ‘sheltered in place’ for decades following a tragedy. He finds it safer to engage in sexting with strangers than take a risk with real flesh and blood relationships. There’s are wonderful sections involving Jake and his partner Pablo, both decorators, each with a different aesthetic, attitudes, and motivations.

The point wasn’t to create a room that reflected their personalities. It was to create a room where they belonged.

It’s hard to relate to the privilege some of these characters enjoy–the millions they fling around and yet at the novel’s core we see humans struggling with their lives, finding excuses to bail. Ultimately Eva is a case study in a horrible human being: not ‘bad’ in a criminal sense, but a woman who’s been so indulged that she’s become a tyrant, holding everyone in her orbit in thrall, never called on her bullshit accounts of her past and present. Some of the funniest scenes involve her 3 Bedlington terriers–all named after characters from the novels of Henry James. It’s through these three dogs, we see Eva at her most intolerant worst, bitching at Bruce for walking the dogs with a neighbour who voted for Trump and then coming unglued from her perfect world when her dogs start peeing on the furniture.

One of my favourite characters is the perennially angry Aaron; fired from his job, he now simmers in the stew of failure. While he’s a liberal, he wants to take PC-ness and tear it out of society; so far he’s doing a pretty good job of it as a one-man wrecking ball. He attends a Lydia Davis book signing, although he can’t stand her work, claiming, as he holds up one of her books that the problem isn’t that young people don’t read but “what they read. Shit like this.” When told he doesn’t ‘get it’ because he’s “a man,” Aaron cuts loose:

Fine, then, Jeffrey Eugenides. He’s a Jerk-off. As is Jonathan Fucking Franzen, and Jonathan Fucking Lethem, and Jonathan Asshole Safran Foer. All of these fucking Jonathans, they’re total jerkoffs.

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

She is the embodiment of liberal piety at its most middlebrow and tendentious. Her novels are the beef ribs of fiction.

And:

Ninety percent of what gets published is worthless. With any luck, that’ll be the silver lining of this fucking election, that when writers start to feel oppressed again they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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Poor Angus: Robin Jenkins

“These artist types,” said Douglas, “are poison to women. I read that once.”

Poor Angus from Scottish author Robin Jenkins is an examination of the artistic life. Does the pursuit of art exclude the artist from moral obligations? Or is Art simply an excuse for selfishness? Painter Angus McAllister returns to the Hebridean island of his birth ostensibly to paint his masterpiece. He prefers to paint nudes and during the course of his modest career, he’s had many love affairs but has always managed to float away free of any entanglement. Angus “implied” that “being married would cripple him as an artist.” And, in truth, having a wife in tow, even if she were some sort of saint, would cramp Angus’s style. He can give a lot to a woman: attention (during the portrait phase), sex and romance (for a while anyway), and he’s the perfect (wild fling) antidote to the boring, stodgy, unfaithful husband.

There are two women who feature prominently in Angus’s past: the married Australian, good natured, boisterous redhead Nell and Fidelia “the most delectable of women,” part-Portuguese, and part Filipino. She is also married but is separated from her brothel owning husband.

So right away it’s established that Angus is one for the ladies, on his slippery terms, and he’s remained successfully unencumbered, always moving on when things become too serious or demanding. Both Nell and Fidelia were close calls in terms of more permanent involvement.

Angus, on his home turf, a hermit in a remote house on a remote island should be free of harassments but then Janet, a local barmaid who claims to have second sight, insists on moving in with him. She intends to have an affair with Angus to make her golf-obsessed, philandering boorish prig of a husband, Douglas, jealous. Angus isn’t comfortable with Janet moving in, but there are no other female prospects on the island, and she is beautiful. Plus there’s something about Janet–her determined willfulness that brooks no argument.

Angus is already set for domestic trouble but then the past converges upon him in the form of both of his former mistresses. Nell has run away from Bruce, her cheating, golf-loving husband, and Fidelia, with her child in tow, is on the run from her wealthy, powerful husband.

There’s a lot of humour here in Poor Angus: almost Shakespearean in a way, and most of the fun comes when the two abandoned husbands, Douglas and Bruce meet and immediately hit it off; after all they have so much in common. Both men are addicted to golf, but beyond the fun of the sport, it’s an easy way to access sex with female golf players. In spite of the fact the stuffy, self-righteous Douglas and the affable Bruce have been serially unfaithfully, they both blame their wives for running away.

The two abandoned husbands have dinner together and with Bruce loudly swearing his head off (“he’s an Australian, of course,”) they commiserate, dishonestly, about the vagaries of their wives and their respective golf handicaps.

“She’d got it into her head I didn’t want her any more. I guess I was doing a bit of fucking around. She was drinking too much and letting herself go to fat.”

The two old ladies were fairly enjoying their roast lamb.

“Her age, the doctor said. Menopausal stress. Poor Nell. Have you any kids, [Douglas] Maxwell?”

A few pages of Douglas and Maxwell, who unsurprisingly hit it off immediately, and we can see just why Nell and Janet were attracted to Angus as an antidote, but when aggrieved husbands and disgruntled wives converge on Angus’s retreat, the women suddenly see Angus’s horrible shortcomings as they wrestle with the knowledge that the antidote, hothouse nature of extra-marital affairs precludes judgement. Three very different misused women and four very different dickhead men. Douglas and Bruce hide their bad behaviour behind their golf, but is Angus so very different? Does he hide his bad behaviour behind Art? The scene is set for both comedy and disaster:

“All I want is to be left alone to get on with my painting. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Why can’t you all leave me alone?”
“You use people, Angus. They don’t like being used and then thrown away like paper hankies.”

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again to The Gerts.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives: Diane Johnson

I’d never heard anything about Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith (1821-61) before I picked up Diane Johnson’s book, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives. If you’d described the book to me, I probably would have rejected it as there are aspects to this history that would normally drive me crazy.  But the book, which is described as an “alternate biography”  and includes hypothetical and occasional filling in of gaps, is quite extraordinary. The author argues, and proves, that while Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith existed as an aside in other, more famous, peoples’ lives she had a rich and historically ignored life of her own.

The life of Mary Ellen is always treated, in a paragraph or a page, as an episode in the lives of Peacock or Meredith. It was treated with a certain reserve in the early biographies because it involves adultery and recrimination, and makes all the parties look ugly. More recent biographies of Meredith repeat the received version of the story with a brisk determination, a kind of feigned acceptance: we know that these things, regrettably, do indeed happen. 

Mrs. Meredith’s life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her. 

Mary Ellen was the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock, married and widowed within a brief period of time, and then she met George Meredith who was 7 years younger. And what a miserable old sod Meredith sounds like. So perhaps it’s no wonder that Mary Ellen took a lover and ditched her neglectful spouse, but there was no happy ending for Mary, and who could have expected it in the 19th century.

Mrs Meredith

Mary Ellen’s first husband was Edwards Nicholls, “the wild, sexy son of a general of the Royal Marines,” and they were married, happily by all accounts, for a few “glorious months,” before he drowned trying to rescue a friend. Mary Ellen, 23 years old, returned home to her father, a pregnant widow. Four years later, she met George Meredith, “a brooding neurasthenic fussy about his food, obsessed with achieving literary success, and hardly ever wanting to leave the house.” They were “together” for 8 years.

After running off with her lover, Mary Ellen died of kidney disease in 1861. Convenient for many perhaps and thus she sank into history. Yet author Diane Johnson shows that Meredith, who used a flexible version of the truth whenever he recalled his former wife, never really recovered from the relationship–continually working her character, “drawn from his evergreen memories,” into various forms in his novels. 

He had never ceased to brood over her–her presence is invoked in novel after novel.

The book opens, after an excellent introduction from Vivian Gornick, with Mary Ellen’s poorly attended funeral. It’s a somewhat fanciful beginning with some details that surely must be speculative (the young vicar is embarrassed, for example) but instead of being annoyed, as I usually am by such fancies, I was drawn into the misty story of Mary Ellen, a woman whose short life wasn’t much fun, who struggled with poverty and abandonment and was haunted by the knowledge of an imminent early death.

Snippets of Mary Ellen’s childhood underscore her somewhat unconventional upbringing thanks to her “too-indulgent” father. Literary figures dot Mary Ellen’s life: James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. These details hint at the inevitable rebellion of Mary Ellen when faced with the loneliness of a drab marriage, so it’s no great surprise that she fell in love with pre-Raphaelite artist, Henry Wallis, But Mary Ellen may have been born in the Romantic Age, but she was married in the Victorian Age, and Victorian attitudes to scandal buried her story.  Her poignant letters and notebooks reveal the realities of her married life to Meredith coupled with details of a troubled, rich inner life. Since Meredith lived to a ripe old age while the long-deceased Mary Ellen faded into obscurity, Meredith controlled both the narrative of his dead wife’s character and also the narrative of their life together. And the truth? Meredith kneaded the truth into an acceptable narrative even hinting that he had been trapped into marriage by Mary Ellen when certainly her literary connections gilded the deal. 

Somewhere, in some British parlor, she looks out of a painting called Fireside Reveries, and the people who see her every day may wonder–or perhaps it never occurred to them to wonder–whether the lady over the mantel was ever anyone real. 

review copy

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