Tag Archives: miserable marriages

The Bogeyman: Margaret Forster

“Another twenty years and with luck we’ll be dead. We’ve got through twenty already, what’s another twenty?”

Margaret Forster’s The Bogeyman is a look at the ghastly life of a London family. It’s the 60s. Father Jack is a much-feared and loathed schoolmaster, while wife Edith stays at home in their disastrous home which is appropriately placed next to an asylum. They have three children: teenagers Justin, Natalie and new baby Sebastian. The book opens with the arrival of 18-year-old German au-pair Christina, who is supposed to be the answer to all the family’s problems. Edith hasn’t been coping since the birth of Sebastian, but the problems are far deeper-rooted than just postpartum depression. Jack is a unhappy man who feels trapped by his family; he hates his job and his students, and his hatred for his family is on the point of exploding. Natalie and Justin loathe their parents in different ways, and although they sense their father’s violence right under the surface, nonetheless they both live to goad him.

Christina, in her pictures, looked plain but wholesome. In reality, she is striking, and so for a while, The Bogeyman seemed destined to take us to some familiar territory, but while Christina does act as a catalyst for the events that take place, the problems within the family leave Christina as a silent spectator more than an active participant.

Like rats in a trap, the family members gnaw on each other mercilessly, with poor Edith at the bottom of the totem pole. Christina’s presence means that the house is tidy, the baby fed and the meals cooked, and that leaves Edith free. But free to do what?

When, after several weeks of bone idleness, the time began to drag just a little, she decided to do something about it. At ten thirty, she picked up the Daily Telegraph and a pencil in a determined fashion. She was going to write down all the important topics she didn’t know anything about and after asking Jack to give her a background, she would follow them through each day. She wrote down AFRICA. Africa was very important, she didn’t need telling.

But Edith’s plans don’t work out.

Without potatoes to peel and beds to make she was nothing. She wasn’t discovering a new self, smothered all these years. She was laying bare what was merely a scaffolding.

One of the consequences of Christina’s presence is that Jack decides to take Edith to the pictures. He immediately regrets his decision. Edith is delighted about this rare night out, and he is “appalled” at her “transparent naivete” and excitement. This of course gives him ample opportunities for casual cruelty.

While the marriage is toxic, Jack’s relationships with his children are vile. Jack hopes Natalie commits a crime so she’ll be “packed[ed] off to Borstal.” Natalie and Justin despise their parents. Justin thinks his mother is “practically illiterate,” and takes his hatred of his father to the classroom. Natalie leaves large bottles of aspirin around the house, hoping that her parents commit suicide. Every single interaction is an opportunity for abuse. Verbal, emotional and physical. The book was published in 1965, and society’s attitude towards child abuse has changed.

“Where did you get that watch?” asked Edith suddenly.

As Natalie had stretched out her dirty hand for a cake, the thin gold chain and small, diamond shaped clock face stood out. “Use your brains, if you’ve got any,” said Natalie nonchalantly.

You didn’t buy it?” asked Edith.

“Don’t be funny. How could I buy anything on what scrooge here doles out.”

“Who gave it to you and why?” said Jack sharply.

Natalie ate her cake, eyeing them both with pleasure. They were leaning forward, tense and waiting. She toyed with answers. “I got it from a sailor,” she said, “for services rendered.”

This is an odd book. Parts of it are brilliant. I especially loved how Edith morphs into Mrs Jellyby, but apart from that it’s not easy to read at times due to the sheer hatred that is lobbed back and forth between the family members. We never know what poor Christina thinks. She is not a developed character–she’s a blank–and it’s hard to understand why she stays in a house where Natalie shouts orders to her mother to “shove your tit” in the baby’s mouth, and subsequently calls the new au pair a “foreign slut” echoing her father’s sentiment against hiring her in the first place. Jack is the toxic villain here, a frustrated, unhappy man who takes out his misery on his family. Marriages can rot to the extent that the greatest joy resides in making each other miserable, but in this case, Edith is the sponge and the children are active participants manufacturing mayhem and misery. There are times when the teens realise that their mother is a buffer, and a victim too, but she can’t protect them; she’s made her own escape. In this toxic environment, everyone is damaged. It’s profoundly sad and the ending is problematic.



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Stoner: John Williams (1965)

These days the word Stoner has a certain connotation, but William Stoner, the protagonist in John Williams’ novel is a staid, dare I say it … plodder. Playing my alternate title game with this book, it would be Downer.

William Stoner, the only child of a dirt-poor, hard-working Missouri farming couple, does not think of his life beyond the daily drudgery of the farm, but one day, a County agent approaches his father regarding sending William to the state university to study agriculture. This will be a hardship for the family, but Stoner’s father makes the decision that his son should attend. There’s no sense of ambition behind the decision, but more the sense that it might ‘be a good thing.’ In 1910, Stoner, equipped with the bare minimum is taken via mule-wagon by his parents to the nearest town, and then he walks to the university. He is given a ride in a wagon for part of the way and finds himself in a whole new world. He boards at the farm of his mother’s cousin, another dirt poor couple, and he pays for his room and board by working on the farm.

Stoner is an average student until he walks into a required English Literature class taught by Archer Sloane, and it’s in this class that Stoner finds a deep love for literature. He switches his major, learns Greek and Latin, and eventually, encouraged by Archer Sloane he enrolls in a PhD programme. Somewhere along the way he meets Edith, the only child of a banker. He may fall in love, but there’s a whiff of last chance in Edith’s acceptance. The novel follows Stoner’s life, and what a miserable life he has. On one hand it’s a story of tremendous success–a story of how a man’s life is transformed by education, and yet it’s a story of loneliness, a bitter marriage, university backstabbing politics and moral failure. Stoner is part of the great American tradition of the misunderstood, underappreciated, overworked American male crushed by the often neurotic social climbing women in his life. That’s not a slam, but there is a such a sub-genre. Thinking Dodsworth here.

Set from 1910 until 1956, the book serves as a tableau of American history –we see WWI, Prohibition, The Great Depression, WWII, the Korean war and McCarthyism like a moving picture all taking place outside of the sheltered world of the university.

This is also a campus novel, so we see Stoner’s steady but plodding academic career, and he’s no match for the more politically savvy university employees. Stoner’s contemporary, Gordon Finch is the quintessential political animal, a man whose personality guarantees he will float to the top. Stoner has an arch enemy in Professor Hollis Lomax, and long standing hatred brews in the English Department (as it so often does). Stoner, as a professor is reliable, steady, and has principles–rather expensive principles as Stoner learns. For this reader, the depictions of university life are the best aspects of the novel: the petty squabbles, using students as a battleground, the silent politics of appointments, the tyranny of tenure. Oddly, the descriptions of the campus are the best (non-depressing) descriptions in the book.

His sense of time was displaced. He found himself standing in the long parquet first floor corridor of Jesse Hall. A low hum like the distant thrumming of birds’ wings was in his ears.In the shadowed corridor, a sourceless light seemed to glow and dim, pulsating like the beat of his heart, and his flesh, intimately aware of every move he made, tingled as he stepped forward with deliberate care into the mingled light and dark. He stood at the stairs that led up to the second floor. The steps were marble and in their precise centers were gentle troughs worn smooth by decades of footsteps going up and down. They had been almost new when, how many years ago, he had first stood here and looked up. As he looked now, and wondered where they would lead him, he thought of time and its gentle flowing. He put one foot carefully on the first smooth depression and lifted himself up.

The narrative of Stoner (which is all tell and no show) tends towards depressing descriptions. Here he is thinking about his dead parents:

He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been–a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them. Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

Stoner is well-worth reading and is considered an “American masterpiece.” It is, however, somewhat problematic. As a protagonist, Stoner is passive. He’s not a man of action; he’s worked on and against more than anything else. He accepts whatever is dealt to him–his wife’s antagonism is a great example. She vomits the first time they have sex, but later when she decides she wants a child, she turns into a bedroom nympho which seemed more like a male fantasy than anything else. Eternally discontent, her nomadic neuroticism initially manifests as an ongoing cleaning campaign but later she drifts from one hobby to another. She mostly ignores their only child, Grace, until she can weaponise the child against Stoner. Edith is the mistress of covert, malicious domestic warfare. Stoner comes home from work one day to find that his office is stripped so that Edith can work on her watercolors (a long abandoned hobby). His books desk etc are shoved in the unheated sun room. Later, children are allowed to play in the room, so many of his papers (for a second book) are trashed. Upon another occasion, a window is broken and items ruined, so Stoner, accepting defeat, moves his work, his books, to the college campus. At home, he sleeps on the couch.

There are three female characters in the novel: Edith, Grace and Ann. Edith and Grace both have mental health issues, and Ann seems a male fantasy created to feed Stoner’s unacknowledged ego. We only get Stoner’s version of his depressing long-suffering life with Edith, a woman who has the emotional maturity of 12. I wanted him to pick up a chair and break it or something–anything to end the tyranny of her personality. In every relationship Stoner is passive, but ever stoic, with increasingly stooped shoulders, he bears up like Atlas under the burden of his woes. The only time he drops his timidity is when he’s defending his position at the university, but even that takes years. Stoner is a downer. You really wouldn’t want to follow this with, let’s say, Jude the Obscure.


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The Only Story: Julian Barnes

Love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger.

At the beginning of the novel The Only Story from Julian Barnes, the narrator, an aging man named Paul asks this question:

Would you rather love the more and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Took me all of a second to answer that one.

It’s the 60s. Paul, the son of a solidly-middle class family, is home from university for the summer, and his mother suggests he join the local tennis club. This simple decision alters the course of his life. Paul, our narrator tells his story, his love story from the perspective of time and experience. Deeply philosophical, the story explores the nature of love, responsibility, choices, and how first love charts the course of the rest of your life.

At the club, 19 year-old Paul meets 48-year-old married, mother of two, Susan Macleod. Although Susan is about the same age as Paul’s mother, to Paul she seems completely different. There is no generation gap; she’s not like anyone else he’s ever met. They become tennis partners, friends, companions and lovers. Susan makes it clear, just a few weeks into their acquaintance that there are problems in her marriage to irritable, blustering Gordon, otherwise known as Mr EP (Mr Elephant Pants).

I was hanging up his clothes and he’s got these grey flannel trousers, several pairs of them with an eighty-four-inch waistline and I held up one pair, and thought to myself, that looks just like the back half of a pantomime elephant.

Mr EP, a man who appears to thrive on being obnoxious, munching a bunch of “spring onions” every meal time, appears to tolerate Paul’s presence, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness. While gossip rips through the tennis club, Mr. EP seems oblivious about Susan’s relationship with Paul. But is he oblivious or just unwilling to explode his life?

Eventually Paul and Susan live together in London, and while it’s not hard to predict that their relationship will not last–strangely it does for some years, but it’s the slow disintegration of their relationship, the implosion of their love that comprises the centre of this novel. Paul recounts his decisions in hindsight, mulling over his actions, his intentions and the consequences. At times he edits or self corrects his memories, and recalls how they both started lying to each other. His lying, he explains was “something to do with the need to create some internal space which you could keep intact and where you yourself could remain intact.”

Particularly brilliant are the scenes when Susan explains to Paul certain life wisdom–not in a lecturing way but from the viewpoint of experience.

I like Joan I say. I like the way she swears

Yes that’s what people see and hear and like or don’t like. Her gin, her cigarettes, her bridge game, her dogs.

Her swearing.

Don’t underestimate Joan.

I wasn’t, I protest. Anyway, she said I had good hands.

Don’t always be joking Paul.

Well I am only 19 as my parents keep reminding me.

Susan goes quiet for a bit then seeing a lay-by turns into it and stops the car. She looks ahead through the windscreen.

Susan explains to Paul that while Joan, in middle-age may appear to be this washed-up, boozed-up breeder of Yorkshire terriers, that is just an “act.” Joan has an interesting past that nearly destroyed her, and that past is now buried in the trivia of a boring, almost cliched life. Susan explains: “We’re all just looking for a place of safety, and if we don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.” The act is a way of to “deflect curiosity.”

I’m going to change Susan’s use of the word “act” that to “cover story” (or narrative). Susan explains to Paul that we all end with an “act.” While much later in life, Paul has a story to explain his position in life, looking at his narrative as a series of stories nesting within each other, is his love story with Susan a cover story for his other failed relationships?

I’ve been thinking about this book since I finished it. Some of Paul’s actions–while not exactly murky–tell one side of the story. Paul says that“love is the only story,” but there’s a double meaning here—we only get Paul’s story. We never get Susan’s side of things. Does she struggle with guilt after leaving her family? Was she threatened by Paul’s burgeoning career and the vast age gap? Did she feel horribly guilty after leaving Gordon? Was she tortured by buried insecurities (there’s that mention of Paul snogging another woman fairly early on.) Was her relationship with Paul a symptom of something else (not just an unhappy marriage and no sex life)? Were the seeds of Susan’s destruction sown somewhere in her past–planted before she met Paul?

It seems safe to say that Susan is Paul’s curve ball, detouring him from a relationship with a peer. But isn’t Paul Susan’s curve ball, knocking her out of her safe boring life in Suburbia? Finally there’s Joan who remains a constant figure in both Paul and Susan’s life. In Paul’s final meeting with Joan, she has an elderly dog, a “dog for the road.” I loved that. The Only Story will be make my best-of-year list.


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Vipers’ Tangle: François Mauriac

François Mauriac’s superb book Vipers’ Tangle is the exploration of the inner life of a lawyer, Monsieur Louis, a bitter shriveled, miserable man who taints the lives of all those in his orbit. The novel is essentially a journal kept by Louis to be read after he dies. While he lives with his family, he is estranged from them all, and the journal, which he imagines will be read with shock upon his death, is an explanation of why he loathes them all. The journal will be a “single act of vengeance.” According to him he’s been goaded into this hate by the treatment he has endured from Isa, his wife, his children and his grandchildren.

All though my life I have made sacrifices, and the memory of them has poisoned my mind, nourishing and fattening the kind of rancorous resentment that grows worse with the passage of the years.

The journal begins when Louis is 68 year old. He has been married for over 40 years, “suffered side by side” with his wife is how he describes it. Louis is the narrator so that means he is in control of the narrative and gives us his poisonous versions of events. The journal is a litany of vicious spite against everyone in his family. According to Louis he has been wronged by everyone, and that started with his wife who made a confession of sorts about a innocent youthful passion. They married when he was 23 and she was 18. Perhaps she just wanted to clean the slate, or felt the need to confess, but Louis hid his true feelings regarding her confession and then began to hate and despise his wife. It could be said that bitterness entered his heart at that point, but no, he was an emotionally shriveled human being before that point. In despising himself, he must also despise his wife and children, and hence he plots a way to ensure his family will not get their expected inheritance.

Things obviously are bad with Louis and Isa but then when he sees her giving the children religious training, he tries to win them away from her. That’s when he decides she hates him (and not the other way around).He has many grievances, including that Isa turned the children against him, that she paid them more attention, and that she is religious.

Your first pregnancy, moreover, made any explanation idle, and little by little changed the relations between us. It was before the great gathering. We went back to town and you had a miscarriage and had to lie quiet for several weeks. In the spring, you became pregnant again. We had to take great care of you. So began those years of pregnancies, accidents and births that provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you. I plunged into a life of secret debauchery. Very secret, for I was beginning to appear in court a good deal. I was at my business as Mamma said, and it was a question for me of being careful of my reputation. I had my hours and my habits. Life in a provincial town develops in the debauchee the wily instinct of hunted game. But don’t be afraid Isa. I shall spare you held in horror. You need not picture any of that hell into which I descended almost every day. You threw me back into it, you who had pulled me out of it. Even if I had been less prudent, you would have seen nothing but passion in it . From the moment of Hubert’s birth you revealed your true nature. You were a mother. Nothing but a mother. Your attention was turned away from me. You no longer saw me. It was absolutely true that you had no eyes except for the children.

Boo hoo. Had to love his statement that her pregnancies “provided me with more pretext than I needed to draw away from you.” So the ‘drawing away’ clearly was selective. He moans about missing ‘the joy of life’ (as if he had any clue what this is) and the way his family considers him “a machine for handing out 1000 franc notes.” True his family come to him for handouts, but then that relationship is all that remains. There is no affection, concern, love–no interaction except money. But hasn’t he crafted his life this way?

I imagine that psychologists would put a number of labels onto Louis’s behaviour. The novel is brilliantly written. It’s an unrelenting look at a miserable git who has to ensure that everyone else around him is as miserable as he is.

To me this is the story of a wasted life. Louis had a good life but he poisoned all of his relationships, and yes there’s a moral lesson there. There is a religious component/lesson to the novel. There’s the underlying idea that you can be a total prick your entire life but still find “divine grace” on your death bed. I am not a religious person, but this seems like cheating to me. Decades ago, when I used to take my pocket money and haunt used books shops, I came across an entire volume arguing against death bed repentance. It was written by a C of E vicar. Made sense, but then all that stuff is mostly Greek to me.


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Betrayal: Karin Alvtegen

The cover of Karin Alvtegen’s Swedish crime novel, Betrayal, states the book is “reminiscent of Ruth Rendell at her best.” The comparison is valid, but for this reader, Betrayal is much darker than anything I’ve read by Rendell. The plot has the same tight claustrophobic feel of Rendell’s novels, but Betrayal is far more twisted.

Meet Eva, an energetic young mother to her 6-year-old son Axel. Eva has been married to Henrik for 11 years, and when the novel opens, Henrik tells Eva, in response to a question, that he’s unsure of their future together. The only reason Henrik will give is that they “don’t have fun anymore.” The truth is he’s embroiled in an affair with Axel’s daycare teacher, Linda. Of course he isn’t about to admit that and shoulder any blame. Instead, according to Henrik, it’s all Eva’s fault.

We get a bit of he said/she said:

Everything finished and ready before he even managed to see that it needed to be done. Always ready to solve every problem, even those that were none of her concern, before he even had a chance to think about it. Like an impatient steam locomotive she charged ahead, trying to make everything right. But it was not possible to fix everything. The more he tried to demonstrate how distant he felt, the more zealously she made sure it wouldn’t be noticed. And with each day that passed he had grown more conscious that it really didn’t matter what he did. She didn’t need him any more.

Eva sees things differently:

She did what had to be done first, and then what she really wanted to do if there was any time left over. He did just the opposite. And by the time he had done what he wanted to do, whatever had to be done was already done. She envied him. She would love to be able to act like that. But then everything would collapse.

The ying-yang of their relationship was probably why they got together in the first place, but all that is lost, buried under a dung-heap of marital resentment. I suppose this is where marriage counseling comes in, but in Eva and Henrik’s case, they don’t go that route. Meanwhile elsewhere in town, Jonas, a deeply troubled 26 year old man, visits his comatose girlfriend in hospital every day. This has been going on for the past 2 years 5 months, and once a week he sleeps next to her on her hospital bed. His devotion is amazing, and yet at the same time, it’s a bit too much … it’s disturbing.

So here we have Jonas who sticks to his comatose girlfriend’s side like glue and Eva and Henrik who are on the brink of a marital explosion. Eva, who in the face of divorce, has a terrible sense of failure, discovers Henrik’s affair. She launches a plan for revenge, and then she meets Jonas.

The novel excels at showing the he said/she said versions of the marriage, and the deeply dysfunctional grooves of established marital behaviour. This is a very dark, depressing tale, relentless in its bitter look at the psyches of these damaged people. It’s not as well-written as Rendell IMO, and it’s an almost unpleasant albeit cleverly plotted read.

Translated by Stephen T Murray

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Exiles: Jane Harper

“We see what we expect to see.”

Jane Harper’s novel, Exiles, is set in the small town of Marralee, and it’s here that Federal Investigator (Financial Crimes) Aaron Falk returns for a christening. The christening is of the son of Aaron’s longtime friends Rita and Greg Raco, and it was originally supposed to take place a year earlier but was postponed. Last year, Kim Gillespie, a woman with deep roots to the Raco family, disappeared from the annual fair leaving her six week old daughter in a stroller. Kim’s shoe was found in the local reservoir but her body has not been discovered. Her disappearance and probable death is chalked up to suicide and post-natal depression. In some ways the theory fits; she was on medication for depression, but in other ways, it’s a narrative that doesn’t sit easily–especially with Zara, Kim’s teenage daughter from a decades long relationship with Charlie Raco, Greg’s brother. The christening was delayed due to Kim’s disappearance, so here we are a year later.

Falk finds himself sucked into the mystery of Kim’s disappearance. Zara hasn’t moved on, and she’s friends with another local teen, Joel who is mourning the death of his father, Dwayne a local accountant who was killed in a hit-and-run accident a few years before. While the adults in town accept that Kim committed suicide and that Dwayne was killed in a random hit-and-run accident, the two teens, Zara and Josh, are not satisfied. Falk initially dismisses Zara and Joel’s claims, but there are some uncomfortable coincidences and some things that just don’t add up. Both Kim and Dwayne died during festival time. Both Dwayne, and it’s assumed Kim ended up in the reservoir. It took 5 months to find Dwayne’s body, but Kim’s body has never been found. The teenagers are unhappy with how both investigations have been handled and so they discuss their concerns with Falk. Falk never knew Dwayne or Kim but he met Gemma, Dwayne’s widow (Joel’s stepmum) some time back, and while there were sparks, Gemma turned Falk down.

Maralee is a close-knit town where most of the residents grew up together. When Kim left Charlie Raco after several decades of an on-and-off again relationship, she moved to Adelaide and there married Rowan, another Marralee refugee. It’s not exactly that the residents of Marralee picked Charlie over Kim, but Kim drifted away, and all her former friends lost touch.

This is a superior crime novel which explores the aftermath of two different and yet possibly connected crimes. The author excels at conveying the ripple effects of crime–the vast space left by violent death. Many of Kim’s former friends feel guilty about the way they lost touch with Kim in light of what seems to be her suspected suicide, and perhaps that guilt allows them to accept the narrative of suicide. It’s festival time once again; there’s an appeal launched to the fair crowd for any additional information about Kim’s disappearance. The juxtaposition of the fun-seeking festival-goers is set against the daunting theory that Kim, depressed and unable to bear life any longer, abandoned her new baby, exited the festival grounds and leapt into the reservoir. It’s a sobering thought.

Jane Harper doesn’t write cheap thrills here. This is a thoughtful, slow-burn novel which avoids surprises, shock elements and plodding police work. Instead, there’s Falk slowly chewing away at the various possibilities regarding Kim’s disappearance which he aligns with known or hypothetical scenarios. Perhaps because he’s not related to the Racos and perhaps because he is not officially on the case, he is able to ruminate on the niggling doubts about Kim and Dwayne’s cases–doubts which gnaw away at the edges of his mind. There’s something wrong, but Falk can’t pinpoint this deeply embedded feeling that he’s missing something.

With the track ahead clear once more, they walked on, the lights from the rides throwing bright colors onto their faces. Falk turned back to Raco and had opened his mouth when the words simply disappeared. It happened without warning as, in a dormant part of his mind, something stirred. Whatever it was shifted, heavy and stubborn, only to resettle awkwardly. It left behind a mild but distinctly uncomfortable sensation, as though Falk had forgotten something he really needed to remember. He blinked in confusion. What had triggered that?

For those who have read other Harper novels, these are several repeat characters, but it not necessary to read the previous two Falk novels before reading Exiles. I listened to the audio version which was read by Stephen Shanahan.

Review copy


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Reef Road: Deborah Goodrich Royce

“It was easy to cross the next barrier in an ever-collapsing string of them.”

Deborah Goodrich Royce’s novel, Reef Road, begins in 2020 with the discovery of a severed human hand that washes up in Palm Beach Florida. From that point, the novel splits into two storylines: one is told by “the wife” Linda Alonso and “the writer” Noelle. Middle-aged Noelle lives a lonely life in Florida and her life is overshadowed (stained) by the 1948 unsolved brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl (also called Noelle). Noelle, the writer’s mother, was permanently damaged by the brutal murder of her friend, and that damage ricocheted to her daughter, Noelle, subsequently named after the murder. So here are these two women: Linda and Noelle. How are they connected?

Linda Alonso lives in an upscale neighborhood with her Argentinean husband, Miguel, and two small children. We know almost immediately that Linda is unhappy in her marriage, and Miguel, as portrayed, is a controlling perfectionist–the sort or person who makes you grit your teeth as you wait for the criticism to fall. At first, Noelle seems just interested in Linda, but over the course of the book, it becomes obvious that this interest is a full-blown obsession.

These two women connect over crime–past and present–when Miguel and the two children disappear. Miguel’s car is found at Miami International airport, and there is evidence that he absconded with the children to Argentina. The lockdown has just began, and with flight restrictions due to COVID, Linda cannot travel to search for her children.

While the idea of this slow-burn novel is intriguing, the two stories which connect in inventive and intriguing ways feel strangely apart. This may be due to the long sections from Noelle regarding the details of the 1948 murder, which was, by the way, based on the very real murder of the author’s mother’s friend. It may be due to some essential information withheld from the plot. With the double use of the name Noelle, there were unclear moments. I liked how the author used COVID in the plot, and I liked the way these two storylines finally collided. The vicious murder of Noelle left scars in the lives of those connected to the crime, and the author cleverly conveys that sense of damage.

review copy

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Black Money: Ross Macdonald (1966)

“I didn’t like the purposeful look in her eye, and I began to regret the bottle of pink champagne. She took it from my hands as if she planned to break it over the prow of an affair.”

Black Money is the 13th book in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer series. This tale brings the private detective to a tennis club in the upscale Southern California college town of Montevista, where he’s employed by Peter Jamieson, the bulimic son of a local wealthy man. Jamieson hires Archer to ‘save’ his ex-fiancée, Virginia Fablon. Virginia, after jilting Peter, has taken up with the charismatic Francis Martell. On the surface Virginia’s decision to dump Peter in favor of Martell doesn’t seem so odd. Virginia is a lover of all things French, and Martell is educated, handsome and sophisticated–unlike Peter who spends most of the time stuffing himself:

He looked like money about three generations removed from its source. Though he couldn’t have been out of his early twenties, his face was puffy and apologetic, the face of a middle-aged boy. Under his carefully tailored Ivy League suit, he wore a layer of fat like easily penetrable armor.

Martell is a man of mystery; he claims to be both wealthy and in hiding from De Gaulle. Peter doesn’t buy the story, and so Archer begins digging for the truth. It seems that Martell recently arrived in town with a Bentley and a 6 figure deposit made from a Panamanian bank. His references used to get into the local tennis club are suspect. Martell also becomes positively violent at the idea that someone might take his photograph. Archer suspects that Martell isn’t the French aristocrat he claims to be, and soon Archer connects Martell to the suicide (supposedly) of Virginia’s father years before.

In the course of his investigation, Archer meets a widow with secrets, a doctor with a secret vice, an over-worked French professor, and his frisky much younger discontented wife who is looking for a way out of her kitchen-life:

Though she had a strokeable looking back, my hands were careful not to wander. The easy ones were nearly always trouble: frigid or nympho, scitzy or commercial or alcoholic, sometimes all 5 at once. Their nicely wrapped gifts of themselves often turned out to be homemade bombs or fudge with arsenic in it.

When the novel began, I initially thought it lacked the punch of many of the other titles I have read so far, but as the book continued, the plot grew on me. Ultimately, Black Money is my favorite in the series so far. It shows a more mature Archer. Cynical yes, but a touch of humor to his barbed observations as he roots through this snobbish college town where claiming to be a Frenchman apparently opens all doors. The emotional layers of the story are poignant, and the crimes–in terms of moral responsibility–are complex.

A few years ago, there was talk of the Coen bros. making a film of Black Money, but so far that hasn’t happened. And that’s a shame.

She was rough. They get that way sometimes when they marry too young and trap themselves in a kitchen, wake up in a kitchen and wake up ten years later wondering where the world is.




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Chéri and The End of Chéri: Colette

Colette’s Chéri opens in 1912, in pre-World War I Paris, yet given the setting and the characters, we could be in a 19th century novel. Chéri, whose unglamorous real name is Fred, is the only son of a former courtesan, Charlotte Peloux. Chéri was raised in the demi-monde world of women, which probably goes a long way to explaining his behaviour. When the novel opens, Chéri is in the bedroom of yet another retired courtesan, Léa. Unlike the usual fate of the tragic, worn out courtesan, Léa has done very well for herself. She lives in luxury. Chéri is in Léa’s boudoir, playing with, and demanding her pearl necklace as “it looks just as good on me as it does on you, even better!”

In front of the rose-colored curtains suffused with sunlight, he was dancing, all black, like a graceful devil with an inferno at his back. When he drew away toward the bed, he turned all white again from his silk pajamas to his doeskin babouches. […]

He stood, facing a full-length mirror that was mounted on the wall between the two windows, and gazed at his image: that of a very beautiful, very young man, neither tall nor short, his hair tinged with blue like the plumage of a blackbird. He opened his pajama top to reveal an olive-hued, firmly muscled chest, rounded like a shield, and an identical pink spark played on his teeth, on the whites of his dark eyes, and on the pearl of the necklace.

At this point, he seems like a gigolo, fresh flesh for Léa, “a well-heeled courtesan,” whose work days, at age 49, are over. Chéri certainly acts like a gigolo, a boy-toy, lounging around in an opulent boudoir. He’s spoiled, bores easily, playing with, and demanding jewels, but there’s more to Chéri than meets the eye. He’s intelligent, has a slight miserly touch and has invested his money wisely.

Six years ago, Léa ‘saved’ Chéri. She scraped him up from a wastrel life of debauchery, fed him, petted him, recuperated his health through training with a boxer, and gradually his health returned They’ve had an “affair” or as Léa calls it “an adoption” since then. Léa, sharing her life and her bed with Chéri, is the envy of all of her female friends.

Chéri and Léa’s lives are about to change dramatically, and so the book’s opening scene between Léa and Chéri is a sort of farewell. Chéri is be married in an arranged match to Edmée, the 18-year-old daughter of yet another one of Chéris mother’s circle. There’s a meeting at the Peloux house with Chéri, his mother, Edmée and her mother, and, curiously, Léa in attendance. Edmée has led a sheltered life, and she seems terrified yet resigned as she looks with “unaffected dread” at the mention of the wedding. “Léa wasn’t the least but mistaken about the bewildered, defeated look” in Edmée’s eyes. But just as Chéri has hidden depths so does Edmée. She knows just how to handle Chéri, mainly by shrinking and minimizing his role in her life.

These two short novels follow the life of Chéri and his relationships. Chéri and Léa were inseparable for 6 years, but once Chéri leaves for his honeymoon, Léa’s supposed to smile and sail on. All her female friends are watching her with the acid hope that she will collapse with grief and that of course will spoil her well-preserved looks.

At first I expected a sort of love story, but no, this is a tale of finding one’s place in the world, having purpose and adjusting to change. The second novel, The End of Chéri, finds Chéri a WWI veteran who returns to find a world in which he is superfluous. Everyone, even Léa has adapted to the change.

Review copy. Translated by Paul Eprile.


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Odd Girl Out: Elizabeth Jane Howard

In Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel Odd Girl Out, there are references to the decade-long marriage of Anne and Edmund Cornhill as an “island.” That may seem a peculiar term to use when describing a marriage, but in this case it’s appropriate. Edmund is an estate agent based in London, and Anne maintains their lovely country home (along with the help of a house cleaner.) To Anne, Edmund’s “chief attraction” is his “predictability: to many this might equate to dullness,” but Anne appreciates Edmund’s steady character after enduring a turbulent, emotionally draining first marriage which ended in divorce. Edmund likes the way Anne “always contrived to be rational about any sacrificing attitude he called upon her to make.”

It would seem to be an idyllic existence, yet I disliked Edmund from the first:

He never let her get up in the mornings until he had either set out for London, or otherwise begun his day.

What is this: wife in a box?

A crisis erupts in the Cornhill’s marriage when Arabella, Edmund’s stepsister arrives post abortion to stay with the couple. Arabella is the daughter of Clara, Edmund’s wealthy serial monogamist mother, a woman who drifts in luxury across Europe sometimes via yacht from castle to castle and who changes her husbands frequently. Arabella has spent her life with a chain of stepfathers and has an exotic yet unenviable upbringing. Anne feels protective of Arabella, yet her presence in their home is undeniably disruptive. There are some funny scenes between Edmund and his boss Sir William who insists on taking Edmund to lunch and there, due to his hearing loss and battiness, he loudly quizzes Edmund about his sex life which embarrasses Edmund but which provides free entertainment for other diners.

Anne, who has built her life around Edmund’s fantasy existence without realizing it, is living in a cocoon. Perhaps she needed a cocoon after her first marriage. :

She was someone who continually felt that she was on the brink of order in her life, and that when she actually embarked upon it, her life would, so to speak, start afresh in a more dynamic and significant manner.

The sexually uninhibited Arabella is a hodge-podge of wobbly morality, and she openly admits to Edmund “I haven’t got any serious principles–only amateur ones.” Arabella complains a lot about her life, and it’s easy to feel some sympathy for her after a few glimpses of her vain, self-focused mother, a woman who “after eighteen months with anybody [is] like a rogue elephant in velvet.” Arabella doesn’t examine life deeply (she is young) and has no grasp of consequences when it comes to how her actions affect others. She simply has too much money, which she tends to throw at problems to make them go away, and the money partially cocoons her from those consequences–unlike poor, tragic Janet who is stuck in poverty with sickly children and a whiny, pathetic, vain philandering husband who blames his failed career on his wife and children. Janet’s problems sink everyone else’s issues.

I didn’t enjoy the novel, and it was fairly easy to see where the plot where taking me. The characters were rather uninteresting (I wanted to kick some bottoms-Not Janet’s though) and the book’s conclusion is implausible.

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