Tag Archives: miserable marriages

A Dark Corner: Celia Dale (1971)

Why don’t we keep him, dear?”

Celia Dale (1912-2011) and Celia Fremlin (1914-2009), both authors of British crime novels (and both named Celia!) excel at establishing the ordinary, the domestic, the mundane, and then weaving in terror. Celia Dale’s A Dark Corner is a perfect example of the author’s favourite themes: Imagine then , it’s a dark, London evening, pouring with rain when Mrs. Didcot, a woman whose poor health and limited mobility keep her at home, hears someone at the front door. It’s a young black man, Errol, soaked to the skin, bent over with a terrible cough. He says he’s “come about the room,” but there must be some sort of mistake. The Didcots, a quiet couple who keep to themselves, aren’t looking for a lodger, let alone advertising for one. But Mrs. Didcot, feeling sorry for Errol, allows him into the house, puts him in front of the fire to dry off and awaits her husband’s return. …

Arthur Didcot, a methodical man who is “as neat as a cat,” decides to let Errol stay, but though he makes the decision, he’s still very cautious about Errol. Arthur checks out Errol’s story, and even rifles through his meagre belongings. Satisfied, Arthur allows Errol to stay and given the attic to sleep in, and Errol is warned not to ‘wander’ about. The idea is that Errol will keep Mrs. Didcot company in the evenings when Mr. Didcot leaves, and while this happens, it soon becomes apparent, Mr. Didcot “cultivated” Errol on Sundays.

The Didcots seem fascinated by Errol “as though he were some rare but domesticated creature whose ways were marvellous.” These are the times of Enoch Powell, and Errol’s quiet demeanor challenges the Didcots’ racial attitudes. Errol’s race plays a twist in this tale, and it’s a devilish twist, breathtaking in its evil.

The Didcots, who address each other as ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ are a joyless couple. Their only child died in an accident many years before, and now Mr. Didcot dominates his wife house-bound wife, Nelly. While he ‘takes care of her,’ the degree of control and dominance are unhealthy. It’s easy to control and dominate the infirm, and this behaviour, which would be screamingly repellent towards the healthy, isn’t quite so obvious when dealing with those with limited mobility. But just what do the Didcots want from Errol? Companionship? Or something more? As Mr. Didcot tells Errol, “you add something, something bizarre.”

There’s a marvellous description of the Didcots’ neighbourhood. It’s over a page long and it evokes a creepiness in its details of houses, mostly neglected:

Some of them were coming up a little; they have pink front doors and a carriage lamp beside it, window boxes and the walls in front of the basement windows have been taken away. Some of them are going down and await development; pale corrugated iron masks their doors and lower windows, their paths are cracked, their gates gone, rubbish is scattered among the sour grass of their gardens, and even to the topmost floor someone has broken their windows.

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An Imaginative Experience: Mary Wesley

While Mary Wesley’s novel An Imaginative Experience centres on two damaged people: Sylvester and Julia, there are other lost and lonely characters: Rebecca and Maurice who circle into Sylvester and Julia’s orbit in a somewhat vampirish fashion. Sylvester is decompressing from his unhappy marriage to Celia–a dreadful woman who has left Sylvester in order to remarry a former husband who has recently become much more affluent. Sylvester and Celia’s marriage was toxic, and Sylvester finds himself emotionally drained. Just as he’s trying to heal, Celia raids Sylvester’s home yet again to carry off loot–items to replace the ones she already took. As readers, we never meet Celia, but we have a solid idea of her character.

Similarly, we never meet Julia’s dead husband Giles–a man who could charm his way through life. Giles was living with Julia’s vile mother, Clodagh, supposedly writing a book while Clodagh footed the bills. After Clodagh broke a leg, Julia came to nurse her mother, was raped by Giles and ended up pregnant. The result was Christy, a little boy who went back and forth between his father and Julia’s house. When the book opens, Giles, who was drunk driving, had an accident which killed both father and son.

So here are the two damaged people–Sylvester and Julia–who connect in a situation involving a sheep. Former policeman, past PI Maurice, now a birdwatcher and nosy parker, begins spying on both Julia and Sylvester. Also in the loop is Rebecca, Sylvester’s pushy overly efficient, former secretary. There are not many characters in this novel, but they can be divided into two camps, the kind and the heartless. The nice people are definitely outweighed by their unpleasant counterparts. Maurice and Rebecca, who have no lives of their own (and I wonder why not???) spend a terrific amount of energy soaking up the details of Sylvester and Julia’s lives. Julia’s story, which should make the average person feel sympathy, only spurs Maurice into cruelty. The book shows the worst and the best of human nature. Kindness goes a long way and how unfortunate that so few of us can show a little kindness when it’s most needed.

The America section seemed over the top to this reader. I didn’t really ‘get’ the character of Julia–a self-punishing woman who married her rapist and nursed her dreadful mother. Similarly, Sylvester was too vanilla for my interest. This is the second Mary Wesley novel I’ve read and I would rate this below A Dubious Legacy.

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The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Act of Love: Celia Dale (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Valentino and Sagittarius: Natalia Ginzburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by Avril Bardoni

 

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You Should Have Known: Jean Hanff Korelitz

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

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

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

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

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

Physician, heal thyself.

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

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

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

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

 

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Shelter In Place: David Leavitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he launches into Barbara Kingsolver:

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

And:

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

If you can’t tell. I loved this book.

Review copy

 

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