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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again to The Gerts.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Meredith

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

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

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

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

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

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

review copy

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The Lives of Edie Pritchard: Larry Watson

Who said the best predictor of someone’s behaviour is past behaviour? That is certainly true for Edie Pritchard, a young woman married to Dean, a man she met in high school. It’s the 60s. Edie and Dean live in an apartment above a bakery in Montana. She’s a bank teller, blonde, a looker; she tends to get a lot of male attention whether she wants it or not, and being beautiful hasn’t made her life easier. Her husband, former athlete Dean, peaked in high school and now seems locked in depression. 

Lives

Dean is a twin, and somewhere in the back of his troubled mind lurks the idea that Edie really wants his brother, Roy.  Dean lacks confidence, Roy does not, and to make matters worse, Edie once had a minor thing with Roy, but that’s all in the past as far as Edie is concerned. A bizarre triangle emerges between Dean, Roy and Edie. Roy pursues Edie, Edie goes off alone with Roy and then Dean accuses Edie of really wanting his twin. It doesn’t matter that Edie denies the accusation.

“Do you know me? I wonder. There’s a me who exists in your mind and you know her. But that’s not me. You’ve made her up and you seem to have a whole life for her.”

There are times when Edie is sure that Dean is shoving her at Roy, and Edie and Roy spend a lot of time together–time that Dean bows out of. And during this time alone, Roy constantly hits on Edie. An incident with a truck brings things to a head, and one day, Edie, who has had enough, takes off.

The novel picks up twenty years later with Edie now on her second marriage. She has a child with Gary Dunn and when the past comes to call, her second marriage explodes. The novel then has a third final section with Edie now in her sixties, living in an apartment when her granddaughter comes to visit.

The book explores Edie’s life, her choices and how those choices then impact three generations of women. Larry Watson’s The Lives of Edie Pritchard is a rather depressing read. The book’s biggest argument, at least in my mind, is that women MUST have an education and or a self-supporting career to fall back on. Until women have that, then their lives are not their own, and they are subject to the vagaries of possession. The book’s argument that Edie’s beauty leads men to want to possess and define her is not invalid, however, any woman in a relationship in which she cannot support herself is vulnerable.

For this reader, Edie was a frustrating character. Roy constantly puts the moves on her, his behaviour and conversation is inappropriate as Edie is, after all, his sister-in-law, not a potential lay. Edie complains to Roy about his behaviour and yet does not avoid being alone with him. Neither does she draw a line in the sand and tell him to back the fuck off. She complains about everyone misunderstanding her relationship with Roy and yet she walks right up that path. Maybe she’s baiting Dean, but whatever her motivation, she annoyed me.

She gets out his pack of marlboros, shakes out a cigarette, and raises it to his lips. If he has to be disabled in some way, she thinks, why couldn’t it be his vision that’s affected. If he were blind or nearly so,. his remarks, his unrelenting remarks, about her appearance would finally cease. And their relationship would be different.

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Good Women: Jane Stevenson

It’s a good rule of thumb not to get involved with a woman you meet while she’s masturbating on a train, but when it comes to Freda Constantine, successful architect, David Laurence opts for self-destruction or maybe it’s just excitement or the constant sex. Both David and Freda are on the Edinburgh train when their uncontrollable sexual desire leads to an affair. The affair leads to a break up of two marriages with David leaving a perfectly good wife and two daughters. David’s career, which had been bolstered by his Scottish wife’s connections, also suffers. But nothing is keeping David from Freda. He says “she felt like the woman I was meant to have.”

Good Women

Light My Fire, the first of three sharply funny novellas in Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, charts the trajectory of David’s catastrophic relationship with Freda. There’s a sort of madness here, and David’s obsession with Freda is marked by a need for possession–even though he knows she’s trouble–even though he knows “she was a woman you couldn’t trust if you couldn’t see her.” 

At least there weren’t any kids on the other side. I was so obsessed with Freda I’d’ve carried on regardless even if she’d been a mother of ten, but the Fredas of this world, thank god, are strictly ornamental, like those strange toys you’re not supposed to give to children. A perfumed garden, not a fertile field. She’d never wanted kids, she told me, to my unspeakable relief. I’ve got a couple of pals who’ve settled into this grotesque pattern of finding someone new around the time that the current wife’s just about got number two potty trained , and starting all over again. What a carry-on. There must be some kind of death wish involved–fifteen or twenty years of pampers and sleepless nights, it’s a thought to freeze the blood. 

Knowing that he will have to impress “high-maintenance” Freda in a big way if he wants to keep her, David buys a wreck of a 16th century house “in the middle of nowhere.” At first she’s impressed as it’s “practically a castle.” But then she sees inside…

Oh the wonderful scenes at Scottish Christmas party There’s a point at which men’s envy of another man’s sizzling hot new wife turns to amusement:

I could see people I knew glancing at her and then at me. Cool, amused glances.

Light My Fire is wickedly funny in its portrayal of a man who destroys his life in order to possess a woman who is nothing but trouble. David knows Freda is selfish, self-serving, grasping and not particularly bright, but all these negatives are wiped out by his need to sew up her sexual exclusivity. The passionate affair boils down to two wildly disparate people, whose tastes, goals and ambitions are worlds apart, and that’s ok for a while … until reality sets in.  

Thanks to the Gerts for recommending this book. Another post (or two) on the rest of the book to follow ….

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Weatherley Parade: Richmal Crompton (1944)

Yes, Richmal Crompton (1890-1969) wrote those Just William books, but she also wrote a host of adult novels. Crossing genre and audience boundaries can be hazardous to both the author’s career and the readers’ expectations, so when I first came across a few of her novels (for adults) I wondered how good they would be. A few years ago I read and enjoyed Steffan Green, a story of village life in the 30s, so onto Weatherley Parade–a book which had lingered in my TBR  room stack for far too long.

The word ‘parade’ evokes a celebration, but if there’s any celebration here, then it must be the celebration of survival. The book opens in 1902 with the return of Arthur Weatherley from the second Boar War. Although Queen Victoria died the year before, somehow the ending of the Boer War seemed to slam the door on the era, so here we have the Weatherley family about to enter a different age. Since the novel follows several generations of this family into the 20th century, we know we are going to head into some difficult times.

Arthur Weatherley arrives home a broken man; he’s now an invalid and will remain so for the rest of his life. In his absence, his much younger responsible second wife, Helena, has managed their stately county home, their baby Billy and Arthur’s 2 children from a former marriage: Clive and Anthea. Even though the 3 children are young, already the eldest 2 have formed the characters which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Clive is ‘perfect’–a sober little adult in the body of a 15-year-old. He’s even tempered and meticulous. Clive has many of his father’s characteristics, but while Arthur Weatherley could be called an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud, a product of his age, Clive is a prig. But there’s more than just fustiness afoot here. There’s no warmth, no shred of humanity or compassion. He’s an automaton. Eventually he marries and proceeds to micromanage his young, naive wife. If he micromanaged her with sarcasm or anger, she’d probably fight back, but he micromanages her with a smile, under the guise of ‘teaching’ her. 

On the top of the bureau was a little pile of books that Lindsay had brought from the Library the day before. He looked at them with a kindly smile.

“No trash, I hope, darling?”

“No,” said Lindsay. “They’re all from the list you gave me.”

Anthea Weatherley, on the other hand, is nothing like her brother. She’s vain, superficial and hell bent on being the centre of attention. “Already the bright–too bright–eyes were darting round in search of further conquests.”

Other characters include: Arthur’s sister, Lilian, a youngish woman when the book opens, whose many engagements to various men have all ended abruptly. Lilian is on the wild side; she smokes and drinks, and her private life causes Arthur a great deal of anguish. Lilian won’t settle down, and over the course of several decades she restlessly careens from one cause to another, burning her bridges as she goes.

Another significant character is Clive’s best friend Ronnie–the son of the local vicar. Ronnie is neglected and treated badly by his father who is unhealthily fixated on his paralyzed daughter, Flora. She may be immobile but she’s a tyrant masquerading as an angel:

You’re a very brave little girl,” said Miss Clorinda. 

“Well, I can’t be anything else,” said Flora, “so I might as well be brave.”

The Vicar’s hand went to the pocket where he kept the notebook in which he recorded his angel’s more notable sayings, then, as he remembered where he was, withdrew. He could put it down later … Flora’s sharp eyes had seen and understood the movement. If he forgot to put it down later, she would remind him. He didn’t often forget, but when he did she reminded him.

Ronnie accepts Clive’s patronage as he’s several years younger than Clive, but as the years pass, Ronnie, no longer wants a friendship with someone who acts like his schoolmaster, and he grows apart from Clive.

The novel’s strongest aspect is the examination of character as these people age and interact. Many of the relationships here are built on exploitation of one sort or another. When people are nasty, then their behaviour is at least somewhat transparent, so manipulation with kid gloves under the guise of ‘caring’ is especially toxic.

Will wild Aunt Lilian ever find happiness? It’s arguable that she can’t fit into the role defined for her by the standards of the day (marriage and children). Will she grow through the Suffragette movement or it this just another of her phases?

And what of Anthea as she ages? Some of the novels best scenes concern her middle aged attention seeking behaviour which her kind, supportive (doting) husband, accepts as normal.

There’s some tragedy here as peoples’ lives fall apart. Adults blunder and a child pays the  heavy price. Society changes a great deal over the years 1902-1940, and these changes free some of the characters. The novel begins with women not expected to get an education as “a girl’s place is at home both before and after marriage, ” and divorce is considered perfectly scandalous. We pass through WWI, the Spanish Flu, the Spanish Civil War, the growth of Socialism, the rise of Nazi Germany, and eventually WWII. Incredibly few characters become casualties given these events, and instead people more or less build their own tragic fates. While the Weatherley children grow up and move away, the story still revolves around the house and the family. This is a gentle read, even while it reinforces the idea that character is fate.  

 

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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. 

Review copy

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. 

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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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