Tag Archives: miserable marriages

Friend: Paek Nam-nyong

Many people in the city neither knew the location of the Superior Court nor knew of its existence. Those who aided by the law or lived in a harmonious family had no reason to come here.”

Judge Jeong Jin Wu is presented with a divorce petition, and he’s “upset with having to deal with another family’s misery.” He’s in the wrong business then, because he’s seeing divorce cases, and that includes a lot of misery. But hey, wasn’t that why divorce was invented: so that spouses (mostly men) couldn’t have their unwanted mates locked up in loony bins, dungeons or murdered? So IMO divorce may not be the worst option out there.

Friend

33-year-old Chae Sun Hee is petitioning for a divorce. She’s a celebrity, a professional singer, the lead mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. She’s been married for almost ten years and has one son with her husband, 35-year-old Lee Soek Chun, who is 35 and works in a factory as a lathe operator. Now of course because I live in America, I see the reason for the divorce right there: it’s The Custom of the Country. You move up.

But this is North Korea in the 80s, so Chae Sun Hee must explain to the judge why she wants a divorce. Her reasons are vague; she states that she “can’t live like this anymore,” and that their “personalities are completely different.” According to Chae Sun Hee, it’s a “loveless marriage” loaded with “silent treatment” and nagging, but then comes something else, the biggie: “it’s embarrassing to be seen in public with him.”

After Chae Sun Hee leaves, the judge receives a strange phone call from Chae Rim, a chairman from the Provincial Industrial Technology Commission Board. He urges the judge to grant Chae Sun Hee her divorce and at first the judge is (naively) puzzled as to why this man would interfere. But then he recalls that Chae Rim divorced his wife, and what a shameful affair that was. The wife, who’d slaved pitifully for her husband as he moved up in the world, was a “country bumpkin.” It was a case that the judge never forgot.

Jeong Jin Wu was still bitter about that incident and felt that the divorce litigation should be dismissed. He wanted to punish Chae Rim for his violent and insolent personality, but he knew that the court would not approve of sentencing someone based on personality. 

The judge begins to do some background research on the divorce case which includes visiting the -not-so-happy home, and he ends up bringing the couple’s child home. Here we see the judge’s own compromised marriage. The judge and his wife lead separate lives, and although there’s no disparity of social position between them, they share very little and have grown apart. 

Written in a simple, unadorned style, this was an interesting, rather sad read; there was so much here that was familiar–husbands and wives getting sick of each another, the suffering of the children of divorce, and then so much that was.. well North Korean. The very specific divorce case morphs into considerations of love and marriage in general. Human nature doesn’t change but the laws of the land shape behavior, and we see that here, along with the power and, paradoxically, the powerlessness of a judge. 

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Translated by Immanuel Kim

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The Blessing: Nancy Mitford (1951)

“I  wish I understood Americans,” said Charles-Edouard. “They are very strange. So good, and yet so dull.” 

The delights and hazards of marrying out of one’s culture are explored with style and wit in Nancy Mitford’s light, entertaining novel, The Blessing. The introduction to my copy states that this is the author’s most “personal” novel as it “explains in barely veiled terms” why her love affair with a “womanising Frenchman” lasted for over 30 years. 

When the book opens, it’s WWII and Grace Allingham receives a visitor to her father’s county home. The visitor is Charles-Edouard, a man who met Hughie, Gracie’s fiancé in Cairo. While he could bring tidings, instead Charles-Edouard starts paying attention to Grace. A month later, he proposes, Grace accepts, they marry, and two weeks later, Charles-Edouard returns to Cairo. The war rages on, and it’s 7 years before Charles-Edouard returns to Grace, and by this time, they have a child named Sigismond, the ‘blessing’ in the title.

The blessing

It’s easy to see that there will be problems ahead. Grace’s father wasn’t keen on his daughter “marrying a Frog.” He guesses that Charles-Edouard will not be a faithful husband, and senses that his daughter, who is blissfully happy at the family country estate tending goats, is ill-equipped for life in French society: “she would be a lamb among wolves.”  Trouble immediately begins, although the pliant Grace doesn’t see it, when the day after Charles-Edouard returns from the war, he whisks his wife and son off to France, with no notice whatsoever, to his family’s country estate, Bellandargues in Provençal. She meets his grandmother, the Marquise, his Tante Régine, and his grandmother’s lover, an elderly man who sports a pale green wig. Through this initial introduction, she learns, but fails to absorb, that lovers are openly accepted, not hidden away–at least not in Charles-Eduoard’s circle. Charles-Edouard’s family give Grace the once-over, decide she’s lovely, but that there will be problems ahead ahead–mainly due to extra-marital affairs. 

Charles-Edouard’s family think “the English are very eccentric,” and that “they are half mad, a country of enormous, fair mad atheists.” They can’t understand what “induced” him “to marry an Englishwoman–these English with their terrible jealousy.” For when it comes to infidelity:

It is quite different for a Frenchwoman, she has ways and means of defending herself. First of all she is on her own ground, and then she has all the interest, the satisfaction, of making life impossible for her rival. Instead of sad repining her thoughts are concentrated on plot and counterplot, the laying of traps and springing of mines. Paris divides into two camps, she has to consider most carefully what forces she can put in the field, she must sum up the enemy strength, and prepare her stratagem.

Then Grace is whisked off to Paris–just as she was getting used to the French country estate (belatedly she learns that her husband hates country life), and it’s here, mingling at dinner parties and soirees in Paris, we find Grace mostly out of her depth–especially when she realises there are a string of other women in Charles-Edouard’s life. …

Several nations are skewered here. From child-rearing, marriage, adultery, diet, the fun comes from the clash of cultures. There are a couple of English ladies Charles-Edouard decides are lesbians: “Is it today you go to the English Lesbians?” And then there’s Grace’s old school friend, Caroline; Charles-Edouard doesn’t get the schoolgirl crush thing, and insists on calling her a lesbian too. Caroline is now married to an obnoxious, loud, know-it-all American, Hector Dexter who, unfailing tells everyone around the dinner table exactly what’s wrong with their respective countries. France is, according to Dexter, suffering from “a malaise, a spirit of discontent, of nausea, of defatigation, of successlessness,” while England, “this little island of yours is just like some little old grandfather clock that is running down.” And of course, Dexter also thinks that Americans have superior morals when it comes to marriage and adultery:

We, in the States, are entirely opposed to physical relations between the sexes outside the cadre of married life. Now in the States, it is usual for the male to marry at least four, or three times. He marries straight from college in order to canalize his sexual desires, he marries a second time with more material ends in view–maybe the sister or the daughter of his employer–and much later on, when he has reached the full stature of his maturity, he finds his life’s mate and marries her. Finally  it may be, though it does not always happen, that when he has raised this last family with his life’s mate and when she has ceased to feel an entire concentrated interest in him, but is sublimating her sexual instincts into other channels such as card games and literature, he may satisfy a longing, sometimes more paternal than sexual, for some younger element in his home, by marrying the friend of one of his children, or as has occurred in certain cases known to me personally, one of his grandchildren. 

Grace ultimately is attracted to Charles-Edouard because he isn’t English. With him, she avoided a “dull” safe English marriage. Charles-Edouard may be charming, but he has an escape clause for the marriage if it doesn’t work out, and then at one point, we see a callous side when he plots to ruin a carpet Grace makes as he doesn’t find it aesthetically pleasing. Eventually, it dawns on Grace “that she was, perhaps, more in love than he was.”

But since the title is The Blessing, the story goes beyond the troubled marriage to Sigismond. Charles-Edouard doesn’t like the British Nanny’s influence, and he wants his son to emulate Napoleon rather than Garth, a British cartoon character. Nanny doesn’t understand what a bidet is: “what is that guitar shaped vase for?” and bemoans the French diet:

Course upon course of nasty greasy stuff smelling of garlic.

In time Nanny finds another British nanny in Paris, and “the two nannies clung to each other like drowning men.” Sigismond grasps that the cultural values and expectations of behaviour from each parent are different, so he learns to manipulate the situation between the estranged couple to his advantage.

The ending was a little too Disney for me. Overly optimistic IMO but no doubt the ending reflected the author’s decisions. This book is a light, amusing treat which delights in Grace’s painful awakening as she realises that when she married outside of her culture, she was unaware that French values would be so different. Of course, the elephant in the room is that no … what’s normal in Charles-Edouard’s aristocratic family is not the standard for the rest of France. Grace did not know the man she married. Frenchman or not. 

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The Motion of the Body Through Space: Lionel Shriver

“I’d prefer not to think of our marriage as an endurance sport.”

Lionel Shriver’s The Motion of the Body Through Space examines how a decades-long marriage changes when a husband turns to endurance sport. 64-year-old Remington Alabaster and his 60-year-old wife Serenata made the economy move to Hudson, upstate New York after Remington’s humiliating dismissal from his job as an engineer at Albany’s York City’s Department of Transportation. With a diminished pension, and without a steady paycheck, the Alabasters are forced to economize. Serenata does voice-over work, so money is still coming in, but they also have two financially insolvent children: the perennially unemployed, laid-back Deacon and the annoying, born-again Valeria. The Alabasters have a good marriage; they are intellectual equals, good friends, but when Serenata, always an avid exerciser, finds that her knees now control her physical ability, Remington, a man who has never exercised a day in his life, suddenly becomes interested in running. The novel examines aging, adjusting to retirement, society’s approach to physical fitness, and the complex power plays within marriage.

The motion of the body through space

Remington and Serenata had a good marriage, or at least so it seemed. The first inkling of a problem emerges when Remington announces that he’s “decided to run a marathon,” (and that’s just the beginning.) Shocked into disbelief, Serenata “had the sense, rare in her marriage, that she should watch what she said.” Serenata, who has just been forced by her bad knees to give up running, feels that Remington’s decision “coincides with a certain incapacity.” His “timing was cruel.” Serenata reacts badly; he calls her a bitch. The exchange is adversarial, and a line is drawn in the sand.

And it gets worse. He’s all togged up ready to go running:

Yet his getup was annoying by any measure: leggings, silky green shorts with undershorts of bright purple, and a shiny green shirt with purple netting for aeration–a set, its price tag dangling at the back of his neck. His wrist gleamed with a new sports watch. On a younger man the red bandanna around his forehead might have seemed rakish, but on Remington at sixty-four it looked like a costuming choice that cinemagoers were to read at a glance: this guy is a nut. In case the bandanna wasn’t enough, add the air-traffic-control orange shoes, with trim of more purple.

He only bent to clutch an ankle with both hands when she walked in. He’d been waiting for her.

So, fine, she watched.

I’ve read a lot of books about marriage problems, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that shows a disintegrating marriage through the lens of extreme exercise. Self-contained Serenata, who has always had a private, healthy respect for keeping in shape, cannot understand Remington’s “idiotically self-important” need to drive himself into a competitive event, and she’s horrified by Remington’s desire for praise. She doesn’t understand her husband’s obsession, and when the bank account begins draining thanks to high end equipment (a $10,000 bike) and a 1200 a month retainer for a pushy, obnoxious trainer named Bambi, Serenata discovers that she’s shoved to the sidelines. Her role is to scurry around, to cook and serve meals for the Tri training team and to cheer at the finishing lines. The situation, Remington with his new Tri-Club friends, and Bambi (Serenata should have kicked her in the rear right before shoving her out the front door and damn the consequences,) opens “a fissure between them that at their age shouldn’t have been possible.”

Remington and Serenata drift farther and farther apart, and suddenly they are not companions anymore. Of course, this is all stoked by Bambi who sneers at Serenata’s health issues, claiming that “exercise doesn’t wear you out,” and “limits are all in your head.” Bambi, and the club members believe that if you cannot do achieve a physical fitness goal, then you are a failure–a mental weakling. To Bambi, it’s mind over matter. And of course, this leaves Serenata in the Losers’ Corner.

At your age, Sera, you might consider an e-bike,” Bambi suggested. “I recommend plug-in models to older clients all the time. Keeps them on the road, even with, you know–bum joints.”

“Yes, I’ve considered one of those,” Serenata said, “But it seems more cost efficient to go straight to the mobility scooter.” 

Serenata has experience of sports injury and she is concerned that Remington is being pushed beyond his abilities. Unfortunately, Remington, who has “always been more suggestible” is infatuated with Bambi and anything Serenata says clashes with Bambi’s mantras. Yet while Serenata tries dishing out advice to Remington about avoiding injury, she, dreading and delaying knee surgery, doesn’t apply that same advice to her own situation. 

There are some marvellous scenes at the Marathons. These marathons attract all sorts, including “fat,out-of-shape bucket-list box-tickers” who, according to one woman, “cheapen what completing this distance means.” As the race takes shape, there’s a “distinctive subsection of the over-the-hill contestants  [who] began to exert a queasy fascination. All men in their seventies and eighties, they were lean to the point of desiccation, with limbs like beef jerky.”

The book may sound amusing, and, with its emphasis on extreme sports and fitness mania it could certainly have been written that way. While there are amusing scenes thanks to Serenata’s tart tongue, Shriver takes a dead-eyed look at the disintegration of the Alabasters’ marriage: Serenata’s spiraling rejection of Remington’s goals and Remington’s folly, neglect and emotional abandonment of his devoted wife. This is a richly textured book which examines how social media sharpens competitive training, the human desire for attention and praise, and what happens when one marriage partner goes off the rails. The novel asks: at what point does exercise become ‘unhealthy?’ Couch potatoes would remain that way unless challenged, but at what point does challenge become insane? The marathons here include all types: the young and vigorous and the aged “wizened immortals” with many of the spectators making snide comments.  Is the participation of the elderly, who cannot compete with those decades younger, heroic or misguided? I didn’t quite get the utterly charmless characters of Lucinda (Remington’s former boss ) or Bambi. They seemed caricatures rather than fully fleshed beings, and the book is marred as a result. Finally Serenata, for all her unemotional, rational approach to life, takes far too much shit (which is not a knock at the book). She needs to kick some rear ends. Starting with Valeria and Remington. 

Review copy

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A Nail, A Rose: Madeleine Bourdouxhe

“One part evil is always much more powerful than one part good. Evil has a habit of leaking, spreading out, overlapping.”

a nail a rose

I came to author Madeleine Bourdouxhe a few ago via the film Gilles’ Wife– a great, if somewhat depressing film. The book was a stunner. I also read Marie which I found disappointing. So on to a short story collection from Pushkin Press: A Nail, A Rose. Here’s the contents, and there’s an excellent introduction from translator Faith Evans who provides a bio of the author, an analysis of her work and a recollection of meeting the author.

A Nail, A Rose

Anna

Louise

Leah

Clara

Blanche

René

Sous le Pont Mirabeau

For those who’ve read Madeleine Bourdouxhe before, it shouldn’t come as a revelation that some of these stories depict the toxic, brutal relationships between men and women. In A Nail, A Rose, it’s WWII, Irene is walking at night, recalling her lover Danny:

Danny and Irene: that she did understand, she understood it perfectly, and she thought it meant she could understand the rest of the world as well: Danny and Irene, and the whole world. But she would never understand the line that ran between them, like an arrow with a sharp point at either end. And the whole world was now this line. 

Her memories include the times of their “savage” “love-making” full of “hope and despair,” when she’s suddenly jolted back to reality by an attack from a hammer-wielding assailant. She confronts her attacker, and suggests that they divide the contents of her handbag. One thing leads to another and then he’s holding her with an obvious erection. The next day, the assailant, Jean, shows up at her house to check on her:

What a strange episode this man who’d not been afraid to return. Neither perfection nor eternity; some good, some evil. And while she waited, the mould was rising in layers, in the world and in her heart.

The stories have a dream-like quality to them as though the women featured here drift through their experiences. If you’ve read, Gilles’ Wife (or watched it) you know what I mean, and while Madeleine Bourdouxhe writes about the inner life of women, we repeatedly see women who exist on a physical level while their minds hook them, by the necessity of survival, into a different realm. In Blanche, for example, the main character is “an absent-minded woman” who “often forgot things” and is considered “stupid” by her bore of a husband.

It was then that Louis had passed the kitchen door with his hat and coat–“Goodbye, Blanche.” She waited for the layers of air to re-form themselves and be healed, for them to join up again and for the air to be one, without fissure or tremor, and for peace to inhabit her.

The gem of the collection is Sous le Pont Mirabeau. There’s something special about this story, something different, shimmering, and perhaps that’s because it’s based on the author’s own experience. In this tale, a young woman gives birth to a baby girl the day the Germans invade Belgium. Loaded into a lorry with her newborn, she makes the hazardous journey to France. Many people, seeing the mother and baby, give assistance, and the story, set amidst a moment of human tragedy, glows with hope and strange, surreal experience:

In the evening, the roads were dark yet they thronged with people, bumping into each other, still hoping to find somewhere to spend the night. It was full of people and quite dark, until the great green and red arc lights shone out over rooftops, walls and faces. 

She stayed still for a moment, the child in her arms, overawed. Above her was the beauty of the guns. A second of immobility was enough to embrace, and reject, the beauty of the guns, denuded, useless, miraculous, valuable only in their own right. But what if this beauty was meant to become embedded in the secret of all things, to flourish on the greens and the reds of nature and the rhythms of the earth? Or perhaps to be exploited, warped, faded, false as the beauty of the helmeted warrior and his steel blade false as the beauty of the dead hero–kissed, corrupted, rejected? Above her was the beauty of the guns.

Translated by Faith Evans

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Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

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

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

getting it right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

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

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

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

Highly, highly recommended. 

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The Playground: Jane Shemilt

Jane Shemlit’s The Playground concerns three married couples, and their children, thrown together over the course of a summer. Stay-at-home mother Eve, who is more than comfortably off thanks to a generous legacy from her parents has 3 children with landscaper hubbie, Eric. They have an idyllic country home with meadows, woods and even donkeys. Eve is the perfect wife and mother, the sort who makes her own bread–she has an inner tranquility which has a medicated quality. Eve has recently become certified as a teacher of dyslexic children and this move was due to Eve wanting to help her own dyslexic child. Poppy

The playground

Now certified, Eve opens up her home to other parents and takes on Isabelle the daughter of ultra-thin interior designer Melissa who is married to creepy control freak Paul. Also onboard for tuition is Blake the son of Zimbabwe immigrant Grace whose slim income supports the family, barely (including Booker prize novelist dad, Martin).

Day one, things go wrong. But not screamingly wrong. At first it’s subtle: Eve’s husband Eric promised to watch their two other children, but now work commitments demand otherwise. Then Grace leaves daughter Charley at Eve’s house when she drops off Blake for his lessons. So here’s Eve, who planned to tutor 3, with three extra kids: 6 total. Now what can go wrong???? Right away, Eve’s home becomes a sort of playground of dangerous and even sick games for the children, and the adults are so busy with their own issues, no-one notices a thing.

All of these marriages come under scrutiny with Martin working his lazy charms on Eve, Grace agonizing over money, living in a slum, harried all the time, and Melissa worrying about aging and staying in shape–after all Paul has a ‘thing‘ for really young women; he snapped up Melissa when she was 15 (pervie alert), so a mixture of characters–all with their own problems and with the women eyeing each other envying each other in various sad and pathetic ways. …

Sorry but if I went to pick up my kid and the adult watching them had no idea where she/he was, it would be sayonara baby. I didn’t like any of the characters which isn’t a deal breaker for me, as nasty people are usually a lot more interesting than nice ones. In this case, I wasn’t interested in these characters much at all. I wanted Grace and Melissa to whack their husbands upside the head. The Playground would probably slot into the domestic suspense genre and as such it is a slow burn. We know almost immediately that something bad has happened, and so the read is a train wreck waiting to happen.  I wanted to stop the train wreck. 

I used to think truth was a simple thing. That there could only be one truth, single and essential–like light, say, or water. Now I know it comes in layers, some more transparent than others. If you look carefully–and we didn’t–you can see through the top layer to the darkness beneath.

As a reader, I love reading about adults behaving badly, but it’s another thing when it comes to children (and animals), so given the subject matter, this book may not be for all readers.

Review copy

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So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing (1947)

“There are secret ways of justice.”

So Evil My Love is a novel of Gothic suspense. Hardly my usual read but I came to this book via the ‘Gaslight noir‘  film version (which I’ve yet to see). Author Joseph Shearing is one of the pseudonyms used by Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) who wrote an incredible number of books.

So Evil My love (1947) according to my edition, has some similarities to the case of Charles Bravo, so if you know anything about that case, you know that it involves murder–murder by poison.

The novel opens with 30-year-old Olivia Sacret, the widow of a Dissenter missionary “whose life and death were obscure, who had bequeathed her but a few hundred pounds” and a tiny shabby house. She worked alongside him in Jamaica and nursed him through the tortures of his illness. Now she’s back in England desperately seeking work either with some mission or dissenter society, but no such work is forthcoming. Olivia, the daughter of a doctor who married beneath him, remembers a school friend, Susan. Heiress Susan married, was made a widow and has married again. In between those two marriages, however, she fell in love with a married man. Looking for a suitable position, Olivia reads an announcement in the paper that Susan and her new husband, Martin Rue have just returned home from Florence.

Olivia decides to contact Susan, and even though she despises Susan, Olivia, a festering tangle of resentments, thinks perhaps she can turn the acquaintance to her advantage.

So evil my love

Susan Rue, as it turns out, isn’t happily married. Her second husband, Martin is “jealous, censorious, mean,” and even though he’s a young man, he’s a perpetual neurotic self-made invalid, fussing about his health and dosing himself with various potions.  After Susan foolishly confides her unhappiness to Olivia, Olivia gains “a sense of power,” for “she had regained her old ascendancy over this [Susan’s] weak nature.”

Olivia mentions some letters from Susan she still has in her possession. The letters were written when Susan was a widow and madly in love with the married man. Susan’s obvious fear that these letters still exist fuels Olivia, and she begins to subtly blackmail Susan–moving into the Rue home, siphoning off money, jewelry, clothing.

Then into Olivia’s life, a handsome man appears who claims he’s a painter. He wants to rent Olivia’s now empty house, and after a little flattering attention, gradually Olivia falls under his spell, confiding in him and taking his advice regarding her manipulation of Susan. …

As noted, this is not my usual read, and yet So Evil My Love is brilliantly constructed, it’s gripping. The threat of encroaching evil permeates this incredibly atmospheric novel of deception, blackmail, murder and revenge. Marjorie Bowen, writing as Joseph Shearing nails human nature, and shows how a murderous plot is put in motion with one nasty, vindictive human nature coming under the control of an evil mind–a murderer who gives Olivia a narrative of her life. And that is Olivia’s central weakness: accepting the narrative she wants to hear. Olivia is an incredible, yet credible, creation: when the novel begins, she wraps herself in piety. It’s a costume which allows her to feel superior and to imagine she’s still part of the genteel crowd when she’s long since sunk beneath that–now she’s clinging to the raft of respectability with both claws. Bowen includes some marvelous touches here–Martin Rue’s hothouse of exotic rare flowers, the resentment of the servants, the way in which Olivia brushes over her own evil acts, and the way the ‘painter’ harnesses her resentments for his own gain. 

How little any of it had availed–so much violence, so many lies, such intricate scheming, and she was where she had been, a poor missionary’s widow. It was all the fault of her parents, who had brought her up so poorly, who had cheated her so cruelly, who had never given her a chance.

She made her way home, using that word in her mind, with no sense of how grotesque it was in her case.

The ending is incredible.

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The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy

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Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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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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