Tag Archives: miserable marriages

High Priest of California: Charles Willeford (1953)

“By nine am the next morning, the sun decide to burn its way through the clouds and let San Francisco take a look at it.”

Used Car salesmen are apparently the High Priest[s] of California, or at least that’s the idea in Charles Willeford’s dark noir novel. The High Priest in this case is San-Francisco based Russell Haxby, a sleazy predator who looks for easy sex and easy marks. And in this world, there’s no shortage of either. Haxby is a strange character. He appears to be-laid back and easy going, but erase that image and think instead of a predator who takes his sweet time tenderizing his prey, and that’s closer to Haxby’s real nature.

The novel opens with a bored Haxby out on the prowl at a dance hall “where men come to pick up something and women come to be picked up.” At first, there seem to be no likely prospects, but he spies an attractive shapely woman in a red suit and asks her to dance. One thing leads to another, and Haxby takes the woman, Alyce, for dinner and drinks. He “pumps” her about her living situation, and after discovering that she lives with an older, female cousin, Ruthie, Haxby thinks this will be a “cinch.” Once inside her apartment, Haxby is repelled. The place smells like a “zoo,” or more precisely of cat, several tomcats, which Alyce subsequently introduces to Haxby. Haxby decides that Alyce is “too weird” for him, but partly because he’s bored and partly because he doesn’t have any other better prospects, Haxby relentlessly, gradually, dissolves Alyce’s resistance to any form of intimate, physical contact. She’s a “new type,” for Haxby. In time, Haxby learns Alyce’s big secret which explains her reluctance to have any sort of relationship, and her apparent abhorrence of sex. But her indifference to sex and fundamental naivete merely eggs Haxby on.

Given that this is written by Charles Willeford, I expected murder around the corner. Haxby is a violent man who vents his pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise, on lowly males who won’t put up a defense. At the same time, he listens to classical music to soothe the beast within, and reads James Joyce. Willeford skillfully describes a sleazy world which is ruled by the meanest, unscrupulous people who prey on the weak. Haxby is a predator, circling Alyce until her scruples simply wear down. At one point, he considers unzipping her housecoat but decides it would be “too easy.” Part of the fun for Haxby is seducing Alyce with murmurs of love everlasting, and watching her swallow his spiel.

We see Haxby on the car lot, flipping prices on various heaps, and waiting for returning servicemen with deep pockets to buy without too many questions. Alyce’s cousin, Ruthie, an older blowsy woman, is seeing a married man who is waiting for his invalid wife to die. He’s not much of a prize, but Ruthie has put the time in to the relationship and expects the pay off soon. There’s no room for tenderness. Innocence… well that’s a sign of weakness.

Women don’t eat much, foolish, foolish. I believe a person should take advantage of anything that gives them pleasure. When you figure that this rock we’re living on is spinning around once a day, every day, 365 spins a year, and with each day you get a day older. What the hell does an extra inch or two around the waistline mean? An extra inch or two, period.

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The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”

Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:

There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.

Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.

Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.

While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?

Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.

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Something Like a Love Affair: Julian Symons (1992)

After reading The Colour of Murder , I knew I had to read more Julian Symons. The Colour of Murder is an excellent crime novel: the story of a man who decides to murder his wife. She is, after all, in the way, damn it. While the basic premise is hardly new, in this author’s hands, the book is a delight. So now onto Something Like a Love Affair.

Middle-aged Judith Lassiter is married to architect, Victor. They have no children (more of that later) and live in a pretentious bungalow called Green Diamonds, which Victor designed. Victor runs his father’s company and expects to inherit it after his father’s death. In the meantime, Victor is very involved with local political business–especially town planning and new construction. Judith, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is on pills to keep her calm, has endured family tragedy and the loss of a baby, but there are other shady doings in her past too. Perhaps this is why she sometimes “felt like two people.” There’s the Judith who is the perfect wife, preparing Victor’s breakfast of oven-warmed croissants daily, just the way he likes them, and the other Judith, “Judith alone,” obsessed with a murder-for-hire case, who observes the efficient preparations of this perfect little vanilla housewife. So there’s a process of disassociation afoot.

The Lassiters have been married for 15 years, but they have had separate bedrooms for 7. Their day-to-day relationship remains superficial. The marriage lacks sex and excitement, but it’s more than that; there’s obviously something wrong under the surface, and Judith has begun sending herself passionate love letters. She even puts the letters on the breakfast table right in front of Victor, but he never asks her about these letters. Sending oneself passionate love letters which arrive in front of one’s husband seems peculiar, or “crackers” as Judith puts it, but it’s really more than that. It’s a step towards acknowledging her desires and also a provocation. Judith writes these letter, posts them and receives them predicting, accurately, her husband’s response. It’s a test. What if she had a real affair?

Victor is a weird one. He never loses his temper and is quite jocular. He’s the sort of character who has this salesman persona, and uses it on everyone–Judith included. Since this persona is just a veneer of whatever is underneath, you can’t help but wonder just who or what the real Victor is.

The unsparing eye of Judith alone might have discerned a man a little under the proper size, no taller than herself, wonderfully neat, dapper, almost always cheerful, unable to pass a looking glass without regarding himself, forever passing a hand through his thick mouse-coloured hair, or touching the streak of his moustache as if to assure himself he was still there. That was the outer man. What would Judith say about the inner one? Nothing at all, for she would be unsure whether such a man existed. Then in a moment, as darkness cancels the picture on a television at the touch of a switch, those thoughts vanished, were replaced by the actuality of the man who sat opposite her across the breakfast table, the man whose life was linked to hers.

To outsiders, prosperous Victor and colourless Judith probably seem boring, and yet a couple of people notice that there is more to Judith than meets the eye. She seems very protected, cosseted, and naïve, but this isn’t the real Judith at all. The Judith who cleans and cooks, the Judith who is the perfect housewife is just off somehow. She’s never fully present. Debbie, the libidinous wife of one of Victor’s associates chums up with Judith and suggests that Judith should have a casual affair, and to help that process along, she enrolls Judith in a driving refresher course which comes with a hunky young driving instructor. Then there’s sexually aggressive policeman Jack Craxton who makes it clear he wants to tango with Judith. A secretive husband and an unhappy wife, add to this murder, and you get more than a touch of Blanche DuBois. If you can’t tell, I loved this one.

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The Golden Couple: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

In Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s domestic thriller, Marissa and Matthew Bishop are The Golden Couple; to outsiders they are enviable. Matthew is a good-looking buff lawyer, and Marissa owns an upscale boutique. Matthew and Marissa have one child together and live in an affluent Washington suburb. The book starts rolling when Marissa seeks counseling from Avery Chambers, a “maverick” therapist who has lost her license (red flag, anyone?) and as the book rolls on, we discover just why she lost her license. Avery’s unorthodox protocol consists of 10 sessions; it’s a sort of shock therapy but without the electricity. In the first session, which, according to Avery, always includes a confession, Marissa confesses to infidelity. Usually each session brings more clarity to Avery’s understanding of her clients’ marriage, but in this case, the more sessions that take place, Avery finds it harder and harder to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the Bishops’ marriage.

To Avery, Marissa’s view of her marriage isn’t quite real–it’s more of a “curated Instagram” version of life. Matthew seems to love his wife, and although stunned by Marissa’s confession of adultery, he’s willing to work things through. So if things were normal, Avery would conduct her 10 sessions, the rot of the Bishop’s marriage would be revealed and turned over like a compost heap, and then the repair and healing would begin. Hypothetically, that is.

However, there are several complications afoot. Avery is threatened by a mega-pharmaceutical company for her role in a whistleblower event, plus she’s recently widowed and is still dealing with the finality of that situation. Then there’s Matthew who maintains some sort of a relationship with the perfect, blonde Natalie, a former girlfriend. She’s now divorced, flitting in and out of his life, and has more than a passing interest in Matthew. Then there’s Marissa, a woman who is fractured and is unravelling fast but who remains unsure why she isn’t happy in her marriage. Weird things are happening–several stalkers, a bouquet of flowers sent anonymously to Marissa, a nosy employee at Marissa’s boutique who spies on her boss, a mystery assailant and an old fling of Avery’s who shows up and starts snooping. ….

The story goes back and forth with chapters told by Marissa and Avery. This is a tense page turner; at first I thought since Avery was a therapist who lost her license, this was going to be a ‘when therapists go wrong’ book, but no. Avery feels freed by her lack of license, free to engage in therapy that doesn’t follow the rules–therapy that’s invasive. The authors fold out layers and secrets, so that it’s clear that many characters are not quite what they appear to be. I guessed the dark, core secret at the heart of the book, but I enjoyed the ride. Regular readers of this blog know I have a soft spot for therapist novels, and The Golden Couple, a domestic thriller (woman in danger in upscale suburbia) had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. In non-nonsense strong-minded Avery, I can see a series character here; she’s the most interesting character in the book (Marissa is wimpy) and in Avery’s chapters, more and more information rolls out, until we see what makes this woman tick. You don’t screw with Avery.

(And I highly recommend The Woman Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a lively, entertaining series which pokes fun of this genre–hitting all the tropes with just the right pitch.)

review copy

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The Hearts and Lives of Men: Fay Weldon (1987)

In The Hearts and Lives of Men, author Fay Weldon examines human folly through the lives of the main characters: Clifford Wexford and Helen Lally. When the novel opens, it’s 1960s London. 35-year-old Clifford Wexford is an ambitious art dealer whose current lover, the sharp-edged, unpleasant Angie, a South African Heiress, is also the daughter of Clifford’s boss. Clifford attends a party with dried-up, bitter Angie, but leaves with luminous Helen Lally, the daughter of the temperamental artist and frame maker, John Lally. This is a story of marriage, adultery, Art and greed, played out through the tumultuous relationship between Clifford and Helen.

At first, all is well between Clifford and Helen, but with Angie’s machinations, sowing discord to both Clifford and Helen, it doesn’t take long for things to go south. Thanks to Angie stirring the pot, Clifford “could see all too clearly that Helen was capable of deceit and folly, and lack of judgment, and worse of all, lack of taste.” And Helen knows that Clifford has strayed with Angie, so the Wexford marriage gets off to a bad start. Clifford and Helen’s child, Nell is born on Christmas Day, 1965, but “a marriage that is rapidly put together can rapidly unravel.” Before Nell is even a year old, Clifford and Helen split, and an ugly custody battle ensues. Nell’s childhood, which could have been idyllic, begins to unravel. Nell is left in the care of a nanny guided by Nell’s paternal grandmother’s questionable child rearing beliefs, while Helen, cruelly, is only allowed slight access. Nell becomes a “tug-of-love” baby as her parents fight for her–Helen from maternal instinct and Clifford for spite.

When Helen remarries, Clifford, in a fit of malice hires a man to kidnap Nell. The kidnapping goes horribly wrong, and this tragic event shapes the lives of Clifford, Helen, and Nell. A large amount of the book follows Nell’s life, wrapped with modern fairy tale elements (Fate, wicked stepmother, black magic) as she falls into misfortune. Clifford and Helen must overcome their own negative characteristics before they come to a happy ending. The story shows that some people are gifted with good looks, and good luck, while others, such as Angie, are unlovable. Angie is a miserably unhappy character, but she makes her own misery:

Reader, to the happy all things come. Happiness can even bring the dead back to life. It is our resentments, our dreariness, our hate and envy, unrecognized by us, which keeps us miserable. Yet these things are in our heads, not out of our hands. We own them; we can throw them out if we choose.

Marriage also comes under scrutiny through Clifford and Helen, of course, but also through artist John Lally and his wife, Evelyn. Poor Evelyn, intimidated by her husband’s temper tantrums and moods, led a miserable (short) life. John Lally’s second wife, Marjorie, however, has an even happy, placid temperament and she simply refuses to absorb her temperamental husband’s nonsense.

“Don’t be absurd, John!” she’d say, when he was unreasonable. “Oh, what a bad temper!” she’d exclaim, apparently unmoved, when he ranted and raved. “John, you can’t be talking about me. You must be talking about yourself!” shed say if he tried to call her names.

He tried in a hundred ways to get the better of her, but couldn’t. If he didn’t speak to her she seemed not to notice, but fetched the neighbours in for coffee and talked to them instead. She made plans to include him but if he didn’t turn up or was late, simply went without him.

Good for Marjorie.

Miserable people spread misery; spite and unkindness bounce back in Weldon’s fate-driven, karmic world. There’s the underlying idea in this playful novel that people can change–obviously psychos are psychos and that doesn’t alter, but apart from that, admitting our mistakes, maturing or even marrying someone more compatible all present opportunities for growth. Interesting to note that the artistic characters seem to be overall happier.

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The Blunderer: Patricia Highsmith

“He felt he was sliding down a sewer.”

In Patricia Highsmith’s psychological novel The Blunderer, two very different married men are connected by murder. The book opens with a violent murder committed by bookshop owner, Kimmel. He follows his wife who is travelling on a bus, and then when the bus stops, he lures her into a remote area with the pretense of talking. He bludgeons and stabs her to death. Walter Stackhouse, a lawyer who is miserable in his marriage to volatile, mentally ill Clara, sees an article about the murder. Since the murdered woman’s husband, Kimmel, has an alibi, and there are no leads, the case is not solved. Walter is interested in the case; he cuts out the article from the paper, and hypothesizing that Kimmel was the murderer, he foolishly visits Kimmel’s grubby bookshop, and mentions the murder. Kimmel imagines that Walter is just another nosy person come to gawk. Things should end there, but since Walter orders a book, Kimmel has Walter’s name and address.

A few scenes illustrate the miserable state of Walter’s marriage. Walter tries hard to please Clara, but she’s mentally ill and is becoming increasingly unstable and demanding. Clara has alienated all of Walter’s friends, and several social gatherings end leaving Walter embarrassed by his wife’s nastiness. We see the Stackhouses’ toxic marriage when they are on a week’s holiday with their unneutered fox terrier, Jeff. At the Lobster Pot, Clara orders her favourite dish: cold lobster with mayonnaise. Walter orders broiled fish:

I thought you’d have meat tonight, Walter. If you have fish again, Jeff gets nothing today.

Alright,” Walter said. “I’ll order a steak. Jeff can have most of it.

“You say it in such a martyred tone!”

The steaks were not very good at the Lobster Pot. Walter had ordered steak the other night because of Jeff. Jeff refused to eat fish. “It’s perfectly okay with me, Clara, let’s not argue about anything our last night.”

“Who’s arguing? You’re trying to start something.”

But after all the steak had been ordered. Clara had had her way, and she sighed and looked off into space, apparently thinking of something else.

At this point, Clara lets unneutered fox terrier off leash and he proceeds to hump people in the restaurant. She’s asked repeatedly by the waiter to curb her dog, and Walter is the one who feels embarrassed and eventually stops the dog–not Clara. The implicit idea here is that there’s a pecking order at the Stackhouse home, and Walter comes after the dog.

Clara’s controlling, manipulative behaviour becomes more hostile and bizarre, and the Stackhouse’s marriage spins out-of-control. Finally, Walter can’t take any more and he asks for a divorce. Clara’s answer is to try suicide; she’s threatened it before. Walter feels horribly guilty after Clara’s suicide attempt and is ready to try to keep the marriage afloat, but her behaviour slides immediately. This time she accuses Walter of having an affair with Ellie, a young woman who attended a party at the Stackhouse residence. Walter storms out, seeks out Ellie, and so an affair begins. Once again Walter tells Clara he wants a divorce. Clara leaves on a bus trip, ostensibly to see her dying mother–a woman she hates. Walter follows the bus–all the time in the back of his head is the idea that he will lure Clara into a remote area near the bus stop, kill her. But something goes wrong. Walter follows the bus with murderous fantasies, but his wife is not at the bus stop. The next day, Clara is found dead at the base of a cliff near the bus stop. She’s an apparent suicide

Enter another major player in the game of cat and mouse, sadistic detective, Corby. He fixates on the connections between the Kimmel murder and the death of Clara Stackhouse. Corby is convinced that there’s a connection between the two widowers, and he begins reinvestigating the Kimmel murder. Corby’s relentless pursuit of Kimmel and Stackhouse brings all three men to breaking point.

Strangers on a Train is a brilliant book about 2 men who meet, by accident on a train, and they have an exchange regarding murder. There’s a similar theme at work here–two men, unhappily married, connected by murder. Walter Stackhouse is an interesting character–a man who contemplates murder and who feels guilty because he thinks about it. He had an opportunity to be free when Clara tried to commit suicide, but he is the one who saved her. Highsmith shows us that there’s a world between thinking about murder and actually committing the deed. Walter does not have what it takes in spite of intense provocation. Kimmel, however, is pure evil.

While the story is gripping, it’s the psychological undercurrents that make this a powerful book. Walter is the blunderer, making one horrible mistake after another. Under scrutiny following his wife’s death, his life unravels. He’s a difficult, complex character–his wife suggests he’s having an affair with Ellie, and he has one. He reads a story about a murdered woman and hypothesizes that her husband is the murderer. The story places the idea to do the same thing in Walter’s mind. There’s more than an edge of masochism and weakness to Walter’s behaviour. Finally Walter has terrible taste in women. To sadistic, mentally abusive Clara, he’s a doormat, and there’s the sense that any relationship with Ellie could go in the same direction. And what’s with Ellie, hanging around sniffing after Walter while his wife is in hospital? There’s one time sex with Ellie, and she says she’s ‘not that kind of girl’ and demands he get a divorce, pronto. Of course, he doesn’t know what normal is, so he was unwise to step from one toxic relationship into another. While sex doesn’t enter the book much, there are masochistic tendencies, a sadist in charge of the case and the impotent Kimmel’s lucrative sideline, so sexual undercurrents are very much at play here. Even with the dog.

(There’s a film version of this–not nearly as good as the book.)

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

All over the world, husbands and wives routinely and somewhat pointlessly ask one another: Are you okay? It’s part of the contract; it’s the thing to do, because it implies that you care, that you’re paying attention, when in fact you might be deeply and relentlessly bored.”

Meg Wolitzer’s novel, The Wife, is the history of the long, tired marriage of the Castlemans. As with any long marriage, it’s changed over the years, but this marriage also bears the scars of innumerable infidelities, and the total absorption of the wife’s identity into her husband’s career and public persona. Joe Castleman is an author on the tail end of his career, and he and his wife Joan fly to Helsinki to attend a prize ceremony which will give Joe a prestigious award along with a large sum of money. The novel opens with the couple on the plane and with Joan deciding that she’s fed up with Joe and her marriage.

“Will you have some cookies, Mr. Castleman?” a brunette [stewardess] asked him, leaning over with a pair of tongs, and as her breasts slid forward and then withdrew. I could see the ancient mechanism of arousal start to whir like a knife sharpener inside him, a sight I’ve witnessed thousands of times over the decades. “Mrs Castleman?” the woman asked me then, in afterthought, but I declined. I didn’t want her cookies or anything else.

Now age 64, Joan is going to leave her 71-year-old husband. Joe was Joan’s married professor when they met in 1956, and just a few meetings in his office led to sex. According to Joe, his first wife, Carol was “insane. Locked-ward certifiable,” but the affair ‘freed’ him from marriage and brand-new fatherhood. Even though Joe walked out on Carol and new baby Fanny, for years he got mileage out of the idea of the tragic loss of a relationship with his daughter. Over the years, Joan has come to understand that Joe’s display of more introspective, sensitive emotions are simply for show: his ‘anguish’ about losing his baby daughter, supposed ‘sensitivity’ towards women, and he “always did self-doubt very well.” When a writer appears to shows such great sensitivity and understanding towards his subjects, it’s easy, as readers, to assume that he is actually that sensitive and caring in person. But in reality, it’s all about Joe. Always has been. Always will.

The book follows the trajectory of the Castleman’s marriage–a relationship which is established immediately with Joan as Joe’s helpmeet, cheerleader, and general fan. Yet Joan’s first glance at Joe’s early story is a shock. It’s shallow and cliched, but Joan doesn’t tell him it’s crap, because after all she exists as a mirror to reflect back Joe’s monolithic ego. Joan supported Joe after he lost his college position, and so it became very necessary to Joan that Joe succeed–that all the mess, sacrifice (her own writing) and upheaval was actually worth it. Joe’s first novel, The Walnut, a huge success, was “pure autobiography.” His success continued for decades, but his last two novels have been mediocre and his popularity, his relevance, is fading.

Yet critics had always admired Joe’s vision of contemporary American marriage, which seemed to plumb the female sensibility as thoroughly as it did the male, but amazingly without venom, without blame. And early on in his career, his novels had made the leap into Europe, where he was considered even more important than in the States. Joe’s work was from the old, postwar “marital” school–husbands and wives stranded in tiny apartments or boxy, drafty colonials in suburban streets with names like Bethany Court or Yellow Swallow Drive. The men were deep but sour, the women, sad and lovely, the children disaffected. The families were crumbling, full of factions, American. Joe included his own life, using details from his childhood, his early adulthood and then his two marriages.

Joan and Joe eventually have three children–and of course they exist only to extend, brighten or tease out Joe’s image for his friends and public. Joan, who has already sacrificed any sort of career to be Joe’s personal sounding board/ therapist/pimp, also sacrifices her relationships with her children to follow Joe around the globe. Yes no wonder their marriage is successful, because it’s all about Joe, and if Joan ever took her foot off that pedal, she would go the way of Carol in a heartbeat.

The Castleman’s marriage seems a success to outsiders, mainly because it continues, but it continues with intense repeat humiliations for Joan, with her turning a blind eye to innumerable affairs. By the time I was halfway into the book, I was waiting for the big scene where Joan told Joe what a dickhead he is, but then again she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. Like every marriage, it’s complicated, and Joan is, at times, complicit in Joe’s tackier behaviour–helping Joe with his ‘research’ on prostitutes and even orgies. …The tremendously disappointing ending undermined the book’s entire message. The story jettisoned from the launch pad with marital fury and fizzed, anticlimactically, with keeping up that old, stale image of a united marital front. With Joe’s gigantic ego and intense selfishness, I waited for him to get his comeuppance, but alas I was destined for disappointment, although there are hints of a possible future revenge.

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Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”

For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.

William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,

While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:

This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.

This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?

Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:

As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.

Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.

“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that I even wondered this.

And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.

“You messed around?” I asked.

“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”

“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”

He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.” “You were doing her then?”

“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”

Indeed.

The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.

Review copy

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The Small House at Allington: Anthony Trollope

Back to Barsetshire for the 5th novel in the 6 book series: The Small House at Allington. From the plot description, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book as much as the others in the series, but this book, while it has one subplot that’s rather sad, is also full of humour. Plus some characters get their just desserts, and that’s always satisfying. The theme of marriage dominates here, and there are many aspects to the subject: young women compromising men into marriage, a toxic marriage between two combatants, a man who thinks he’s been cheated by the absence of a dowry he expected, and a couple of old bachelors who have managed to avoid marriage.

At the centre of the novel are two sisters: Lily and Bell Dale. They are the daughters of Mary Dale, a widow whose husband died and left her with little means of support. She has accepted the ‘small house’ at Allington from Squire Christopher Dale, her dead husband’s brother, who lives at the big house. Squire Dale did not approve of his younger brother’s marriage to Mary Dale, and while he loves his nieces and allows the widow and her daughter to live on his bounty, there is no love lost between the squire and his widowed sister-in-law. Squire Dale is unmarried and his nephew Bernard will eventually inherit his uncle’s estate. Squire Dale hopes that Bernard will marry Bell, his favourite niece.

Bernard brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie, to stay at Allington, and while the Dale sisters at first make gentle fun of Crosbie, even thinking he gives himself “airs,” he all too soon wins Lily’s heart. Crosbie proposes to Lily assuming that she will receive some sort of dowry from her uncle. Crosbie, playfully nicknamed “Adonis” by the two Dale sisters, is a bit of a dandy. He earns 800 pounds a year and while he lives well on that amount as a bachelor, it’s insufficient income to support a wife–at least not without significant sacrifices: such as Crosbie’s clubs and clothes, and Crosbie, a self-worshipping creature, winces at the idea of any self-deprivation. Getting cold feet, Crosbie asks the Squire flatly if Lily is to receive a dowry, and when he discovers that she will not, Crosbie feels that he’s been tricked, or deceived somehow into making a proposal. His ‘love’ for Lily is overshadowed by his resentment, and he immediately starts backpedaling. He accepts an invitation to de Courcy Castle and there, feeling resentment about the lack of Lily’s dowry, he’s lured into the snares of Lady de Courcy and one of her unmarried daughters. …

Continuing on the theme of the turbulent layers of matrimony, John Eames, another young man who loves Lily, has become embroiled with his landlady’s wily daughter, Amelia Roper, while fellow lodger Cradell has foolishly fallen into the snares of Mrs Lupex, a conniving married woman who also lives at the boarding house. Mrs. Lupex is married to a drunkard, but there are indications that he’s been driven to drink. The prompt for Mr. Lupex’s vice is of little importance as both Mr and Mrs Lupex are trouble and are only too happy to drag others into the drama of their marital torture chamber.

On the subject of marital torture chambers, mention must be made of the ghastly Earl de Courcy. Before Trollope gives us a peek at the de Courcys’ miserable marriage, Lady de Courcy is not a sympathetic character at all. She manipulates and mistreats Crosbie (not that we mind that much) and pokes fun at Lily Dale (a low blow). Lady de Courcy is seen primarily as a snob who rides high on local society when in reality the de Courcys are an awful family–one might even say trashy. Lord de Courcy is a nasty old man, a tyrant, who insists that he has an audience with his wife every morning. These conferences, which are ostensibly to discuss the household, were “almost too much for her,” as her spouse shouts and gnashes his teeth. She tells her daughter that sometimes she is “going mad” while she listens to his tirades. Here he is exploding about his son, George.

“How long is George going to remain here with that woman?” he asked.

“I’m sure she is very harmless,” pleaded the countess.

“I always think when I see her that I’m sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How can he put up with it! But I don’t suppose he cares for anything.”

“It has made him very steady.”

“And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I’ll tell you what it is–I won’t have it. He’s better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife’s than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won’t have it. D’ye hear?” he shouted at her.

Yes, of course, I hear. I was only thinking you wouldn’t wish me to turn them out –just as her confinement is coming on.”

I know what that means. Then they’d never go. I won’t have it; and if you don’t tell them I will.

The de Courcys create the idea of the power of hierarchy within relationships: Crosbie could lord it over Lily Dale and act as though he’s doing her a favour by agreeing to marriage, but the de Courcys act as though Crosbie’s lucky to share their oxygen. In other words, some characters are nice when subordinate and they have to be pleasant but then they are nasty when off leash. Lady de Courcy treats Crosbie like some sort of peasant go-fer whenever she gets a chance, but then she stands there and takes it when her husband rails at her daily just for fun. Gazebee is in awe of the de Courcys, his in-laws, and yet when it’s his job to reel Crosbie into the family web, he relishes the role, and Crosbie, who used to look down on Gazebee, finds that he’s lower on the de Courcy ladder than even Gazebee.

Crosbie, leaning on the questionable models of Lothario, Don Juan, and Lovelace, abandons Lily in favour of an alliance with the de Courcys. He erroneously thinks he’s made the better bargain but all too soon finds that he is firmly on the “grindstone of his matrimonial settlement.” Serves him right. While some characters dive to the lowest depths of their characters, others rise: Squire Dale learns some painful lessons, and Johnny Eames has his heart broken but grows up in the process. And the de Guests, who are bystanders on the sidelines of others’ lives, become involved in the fallout of Crosbie’s scandalous behaviour, but in their case, it turns out to be a fortuitous arrangement. The de Guests, Bernard’s relations, are not particularly interesting characters–in fact Trollope tells us that Lady de Guest is a “tedious, dull, virtuous old woman” and yet she has a heart. Her brother, the Earl de Guest, has great sympathy for Lily and considers Crosbie to be a blackguard. The initially uninteresting de Guests rise in the reader’s estimation while the de Courcys plummet.

I was a little annoyed with Lily after she is jilted. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to heal. But then I decided that perhaps she’s a little mad. Her behavior rings alarm bells in spite of her outward serenity (or even because of it?). There’s also a subplot concerning Plantagenet Palliser and Griselda Dumbello which is a segue into the Palliser series. Towards the end of the book, the Battle of the Manure which involves Hopkins the loyal, territorial, irascible, gardener is very funny, and his character emphasizes the good, true, steady side of life.

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Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, examines the roles of women in society, the complex nature of parenting and exactly why highly moral people should avoid superficial spouses (relations and friends). Yet why does it seem that superficial shallow people always seem to latch on, limpet-like, to those who have scrupulous morality?

Young Molly Gibson is the only daughter of the widower Dr. Gibson. She’s on a visit to Cumnor Towers, the home of Lord and Lady Cumnor for the once-a-year festival for the peasants to oohh and ahhh while the nobility condescend to share space. Molly is stranded and taken to rest in a bedroom. She’s left to the care of Mrs. Clare Kirkpatrick, a former governess who married and left the family’s employment. But things didn’t go well for Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Her husband died, and left with a small child, Mrs. Kirkpatrick now runs a school and lives for chance invitations to the grand house of her former employer. Her child, Cynthia, is somewhat in the way, and so she’s shipped off to school in France. While Lord and Lady Cumnor give Mrs. Kirkpatrick the occasional charity invitation, she also has her uses, and so she’s put in charge of Molly. This early scene gives us a glimpse of Mrs. Kirkpatrick when she gobbles up the supper sent for Molly and then promptly forgets that the ill little girl is left in her charge. Little did Molly know that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was shortly to become her stepmother. …

This wonderful novel follows the life of Molly Gibson. She’s the only child of the hard-working Dr. Gibson who decides to remarry in order to provide Molly with a mother. Of course there’s a secondary issue of Dr. Gibson’s servants being completely out-of-control, and so a new wife will come in handy when it comes to running the household. Clare is a ‘type’ and if Dr. Gibson had taken more time to consider the matter, he would have run for the hills, but Clare knows how to charm men:

Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accents he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect on his nerves that a cat’s purring has upon some people’s.

Once Dr. Gibson’s proposal is made, Clare, who now reverts to the name Hyacinth, begins to show her true colours. Not that she is a bad woman. No, she’s vain, superficial, foolish, snobbish, selfish. Given that Clare/Hyacinth is treated so insensitively by Lady Cumnor, perhaps we could have some sympathy for the poor former governess, but Clare is always banging on about how sensitive she is–which is just an excuse for her behaviour and her perpetual demands for attention. She’s about as as sensitive as a concrete wall. The nail in the coffin of Clare’s character: marriage to Gibson has rescued Clare from all of her financial worries, but once she becomes Mrs. Gibson she starts acting as though she’s gone down in the world.

The Gibson household, having made the shift to the new mistress (several old servants depart) then adjusts to the arrival of the beautiful Cynthia, Clare’s daughter. While Molly is the heroine, and a great one at that, Cynthia is far more fascinating. And all the young men who visit the house seem to think so too. Two brothers come to visit, Osborne, the eldest and Roger Hamley, the sons of Squire Hamley. Molly has a deep rooted relationship with the family and was much loved by the Squire’s late wife. Osborne is the favourite son, or he was the favourite, and now he’s a disappointment to his father.

Wives and Daughters has a more gossipy feel than Trollope. The author recreates the world of Hollingford–a small town where everyone knows all the comings and goings of their neighbours and scandal provides great entertainment. While villagers gossip amongst themselves, the Miss Brownings act as a bridge between the villagers and the Doctor’s house when it comes to the plot twists regarding the land agent Mr. Preston and Cynthia.

Both Dr. Gibson and Molly keep confidences, and the fallout of these confidences highlights these characters’ moral integrity. Contrast this to the behaviour of the new Mrs. Gibson, who uses information gathered during eavesdropping to further Cynthia’s future. With a mother like Clare, it’s easy to see how and why Cynthia suffered and fell into trouble. While Molly is an open book, if one cares to pry open the pages, Cynthia is entirely different. She’s matured early and without a responsible parent. Both the Doctor and Molly cannot understand Cynthia, and the Doctor, who had a relatively peaceful life before he remarried, finds out the hard way that his wife is a disappointment. Cynthia, however, is a mystery:

She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp.

Molly is a gem, and yet we have probably all had experiences of seeing the quiet ‘gem’ overlooked by the more glittery, worthless types who have incredible plasticity when it comes to beguiling men. Like her father, Molly has never had the experience of dealing with someone as complex as Cynthia, and Molly is far more troubled by Cynthia’s problems than Cynthia is. Cynthia’s “real self was shrouded in mystery,” and while Molly befriends Cynthia and truly loves her, the friendship can only go so far before Molly finds that she faces “a dead wall beyond which she could not pass.” Cynthia acknowledges that she lacks “the gift for loving” (probably inherited) and that becomes painfully true when Molly sees the man she loves fall under Cynthia’s spell.

Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present.

This was a fantastic read. There were times Molly was too angelic, and I sometimes wondered why Dr Gibson didn’t strangle his wife. No wonder he starts enjoying his time away from home. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Gibson moves from annoying to dreadful, and her petulance regarding her husband’s need to treat dying patients shows her true nature and her “superficial and flimsy character.”

But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what’s the use of your father’s going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind?’

The woman just doesn’t get any notions of moral responsibility. She doesn’t act badly from malice, but simply from petulance, selfishness, immaturity and a wildly overblown sense of her own moral standing. Everyone exists to make her life easier–to please her. The sharp delineations of society are very well drawn through the characters’ interactions, and several incidents illustrate how the upper classes feel as though they have ‘the right’ to arrange the lives of the lower classes. But Gaskell also shows us what the lower classes expect from the toffs and in one scene depicts the townspeople as terribly disappointed when the nobility don’t wear any jewels to the local ball. They were cheated of an expected display.

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging -pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short– not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

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