Women Without Men: A Single Thread

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Review: A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier
Viking, 2019. 318 pp. $27

Memories of the dead beset the house in Southhampton, England, where Violet Speedwell lives with her widowed mother. It’s 1932, sixteen years since Violet’s older brother was killed in the Great War, but to Mrs. Speedwell, it’s as though he died yesterday. She grieves him and her late husband to such lengths that she has no room in her heart for Violet, nor even for her other son, Tom, though he’s given her two grandchildren. In fact, Mrs. Speedwell is so unfailingly nasty, impossible to please, and entirely self-centered — talking nonstop of how she’s been put upon — that Violet comes to the end of a very long rope. She moves to Winchester, where she rents a room in a boardinghouse and obtains a transfer to a branch of the insurance company where she works as a typist.

Be it known that Violet is thirty-eight, lost her fiancé in the war, and has moved all of twelve miles. She’s one of many Englishwomen who remain “spinsters,” as they are called, with tacit or explicit disdain, the uncounted casualties of war. But her mother has never uttered a word of sympathy or condolence. And to no surprise, when Violet leaves, Mrs. Speedwell throws a fit worthy of King Lear and is not in the least mollified by her daughter’s weekly visits. Said pilgrimages, incidentally, cost train fare that Mum would never think to underwrite, a sacrifice because Violet’s job in Winchester covers the rent and little else. Even people who don’t know her well remark on how thin she looks; she never gets enough to eat. Freedom has its price.

Then too, the other “girls” she works with, younger, less conscientious, or empathic than herself, snub her, except when they want something. They live up to their employer’s prejudices by focusing on when and whom to marry, which means they would leave his freezing, inhospitable office and bequeath a mountain of untyped insurance contracts. Heavens! Just shows you can’t trust a girl.

Looking for a social outlet, Violet volunteers to embroider cushions for Winchester Cathedral. An unusual idea, perhaps, but she loves the cathedral, which puts her in mind of other desires:

Over the centuries others had carved heads into the choir stalls, or sculpted elaborate figures of saints from marble, or designed sturdy, memorable columns and arches, or fitted together colored glass for the windows: all glorious additions to a building whose existence was meant to make you raise your eyes to Heaven to thank God. Violet wanted to do what they had done. She was unlikely to have children now, so if she was to make a mark on the world, she would have to do so in another way. A kneeler was a stupid, tiny gesture, but there it was.

I have to confess that embroidery has never interested me, but Chevalier brings the craft to life, because she invests care in who the broderers are, the egos involved, and the power struggles that inevitably result. These women can be fierce in their loyalties and ostracism, especially if they sense behavior they believe improper. Nevertheless, within this vicious sewing circle, to which Violet recruits others, she finds purpose, friendships, a measure of confidence, and, through proximity, an attraction for a cathedral bellringer, a married man twenty years her senior. Heavens, indeed.

The high altar of Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, as it appeared in 2014 (by permission of DAVID ILIFF, License: CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Chevalier has portrayed both the generosity and small-mindedness of English provincial life to a T. Another “quiet” novel, in other words, in which the author displays her well-known gift for characterization and deftly explores themes of gender roles and sexuality without earnestness. I particularly salute how she depicts women crushing other women, beating them down through social snobbery or selfishness, hurting the very people with whom they could make common cause. Without calling undue attention to the irony, Chevalier shows how Violet’s male boss exploits her, that brother Tom’s condescension and sexism undermine her, or that a man seems bent on stalking her–and still, other women find ways to cut her down, voicing the same attitudes that men do. Through that, Chevalier wants you to recognize how women often attack their sisters or others who represent their own interests, out of fear or envy.

Sometimes, quiet books speak loudly. This is one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

The Prince Who Could Not Speak Up: Lampedusa

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Review: Lampedusa, by Steven Price
FSG, 2019. 326 pp. $27

At age fifty-eight in 1955, Giuseppe di Tomasi learns that he has emphysema, and it’s incurable. Give up cigarettes, his doctor tells him. Eat less; exercise more. Follow that regimen, and you’ll have some years left.

But Giuseppe can’t; not because he’s stubborn or addicted to his ways, though he is. (He’s so stuck in his diffidence, he wrestles for months with how to tell his wife he’s dying.) Rather, he’s the prince of Lampedusa, the last of his line, and, like many Sicilians of his generation, he believes that the world in which he grew up has gone forever. So why stay in it? He bears no anger or ill will, only sadness for what has happened to his country since Mussolini took power, the ensuing war, and the striving but damaged Italy that has emerged. Is his acquiescence to his fate passivity or an act of suicide?

No. It’s an existential choice, a key part of which involves writing a book, a testament to leave behind. All his life, Giuseppe has loved literature but written nothing except an article or two. However, in his final months, he pens The Leopard, a novel about an aristocrat who witnesses the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy in the midnineteenth century, and realizes his world is dying.

Years ago, I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Leopard, as clear and penetrating a psychological study of a man, time, and place as you could ask for. Following its posthumous publication, the book became a runaway bestseller, the subject of a film directed by Luchino Visconti, and has earned at least a mention in discussions of great twentieth-century world literature. So when I saw that Price, the author of By Gaslight, a Victorian thriller par excellence, had written a biographical novel about Giuseppe di Tomasi, I had to read it.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a man shattered by the twentieth century (courtesy http://www.fondazionepiccolo.it/Xpiccolo/Area1/ITA/ITA/Static/personaggi/TomasiDiLampedusa.htm via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

I’ve come away impressed by Price’s artistic range and the way he’s rendered his subject as acutely as Giuseppe portrayed his Risorgimento prince. I also salute the courage to write about death, that singular event we all think about but dislike talking about or, heaven forfend, reading about in a novel. But as someone who has wondered what our world is coming to — and what, if anything I’ll leave behind when I depart it — I can tell you that Lampedusa speaks to me. It’s not only about literature and its creation; it is literature.

To be sure, the narrative is what publishing folk would call “quiet” (about as far a cry from By Gaslight as you can figure), but that leaves room for contemplation. Price brings across his protagonist’s withdrawn nature, his delicacy in not wishing to offend, the tremendous influence his mother had, especially after family tragedies robbed her of her natural vivaciousness, and the First World War, which left psychic wounds in Giuseppe that never healed.

Price is a gifted poet, and it shows in how he weighs every word, not overwhelming the reader with images but carefully selecting the right ones. For instance: “He was a man who had left middle age the way other men will exit a room, without a thought, as if he might go back any moment.” But, if you prefer descriptions of the Sicilian landscape or city life, there are plenty to choose from, like this one, of Palermo:

The narrow streets there were soft underfoot, the refuse and rotting fruit crushed by the crowds into a slippery grime. High up the stone walls the light would darken and then filter through the interstices of the iron balconies overflowing with potted plants in the criss-cross of laundry lines and Giuseppe would wind his way down to the market, unhurried, the crowds gradually increasing, the flatbed wagon standing with melons in tall stacks or long bolts of red and yellow cloth or gigantic silver fish laid out glistening in rows, their deep flat saucerlike eyes staring at the horrors of the world.

The only thing I dislike about Lampedusa concerns the character of Giuseppe’s wife, Alessandra, known as Licy. (She’s the only female psychoanalyst in Sicily, a fact that Price deploys only occasionally, with great care.) She’s fierce, domineering, slow to forgive, and Giuseppe lives in fear of her. I get that her remoteness offers part of her appeal to him, and how her controlled passion makes her interesting to someone who wishes to provoke it. But I’m not sure I understand how the bond between the two can be so strong and yet so distant.

Still, I admire Lampedusa, the kind of novel that leaves a deep, firm impression.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Hard Life Lessons: Dominicana

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Review: Dominicana, by Angie Cruz
Flatiron, 2019. 319 pp. $27

When Juan Ruiz marries Ana Canción, he takes her from Los Guayacanos, Dominican Republic, to New York City on New Year’s Day, 1965. That might be unremarkable, except that Ana is only fifteen, while he’s thirty-two and has been lusting after her for at least four years. Never mind that Ana doesn’t love him or that Juan wears his machismo like armor, with all that implies about his prerogatives, self-regard, and definition of marital duties. But he’s a hard worker, Ana’s mother believes, and a big thinker. Besides, what Ana wants doesn’t matter. Mamá plans to get off the island, escaping its poverty, dead-end future, and corrupt, leeching dictatorship. Ana will get free herself, then be her mother’s (and siblings’) ticket to New York. So that’s settled.

The central symbol of this engaging, heart-rending novel is Dominicana, the ceramic doll that Juan buys Ana at the Santo Domingo airport, and which Ana keeps in their apartment in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan. It’s the first and practically the last gift he buys her. Oh, he provides a few dresses, but nothing like the wardrobe she needs; just enough to look nice for him. Ana fixes his favorite Dominican foods — she’s an excellent cook — while he buys Chef Boyardee for her. And though he can go anywhere he wants, anytime, with anyone, let Juan find out that she’s walked to the corner store, and he’ll slap her face.

Though Cruz never calls attention to what the doll represents, it clearly stands in for her identity as a Dominican and her quick, brutal, much-too-early transition from childhood to womanhood in a strange, frightening city. The doll reminds Ana of who she is, and the family she’s left behind. Most important, Dominicana is Ana herself, for what is she to Juan but a faceless doll, a possession to use as he wills, or to show off to his friends? However, to Ana, Dominicana also has a practical purpose, as a hiding place for the money she manages to earn on the sly.

For Mamá, though she’s pimped her own daughter and been controlling, nasty, and cruelly withholding, has instilled one lesson in her Ana’s head. Smile at your husband and his friends, she says; be the perfect wife in all ways. But don’t forget to demand what you want, and to work around him to get something for yourself. As she has often told Ana, men can only perform like men “when women are doing everything. We’re invisible little workers so they can puff out their chests.”

That lesson saves Ana. It also prevents the novel from becoming a tale of unremitting masochism, a catalog of Juan’s bad behavior and his child bride’s helplessness, with no hope permitted (and no reason to keep reading). But Ana, though she gets burned a couple times trusting the wrong people, keeps looking for ways to grow. And when a coup erupts in the Dominican Republic–manipulated by the United States government, which sends troops–Juan leaves to try to secure his business interests on the island.

American G.I.’s in firefight in the Dominican while a child hides under a Jeep, May 1965 (United States Information Agency, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, public domain)

That respite is what Ana’s been waiting for. She shows remarkable energy, spirit, and courage in seizing her chance, aided by Juan’s brother, César, who’s everything her husband is not. Yet though Dominicana is a shorter book than the number of pages suggests, Cruz is properly careful not to push the envelope too far. Ana remains young, scared, and confused about what she wants or can be allowed to want. There’s no Hollywood transformation, complete with shimmering images and everybody applauding at how she’s grown. Besides, she’s no fool; Juan won’t be gone forever.

I like how Cruz weaves external events into the narrative. The coup naturally commands Ana’s attention the most, but there’s also Malcolm X’s murder, the World’s Fair, baseball, and, in the background, Vietnam. To this ex-New Yorker, who lived six months in Washington Heights (though twenty years after the action here), the city sings a familiar song. Generally, Cruz avoids heavily descriptive passages, but this one shows Ana’s first unescorted view of her new home:

A cluster of wig-wearing and long-skirted mothers push strollers the size of shopping carts near the subway stop. Past the triangle on 170th Street, where the trees light up at dusk and people sit watching their children play until the night takes over. I try not to look at the eyes of anyone, just at the fire hydrants, the bus stops, the iron lampposts, the uneven sidewalks cracked in parts that have imprints of hands and boot soles. Pigeons eat from the soil moistened by the recent rain. Is it true that the sewer houses the devil, and that if I get near it, it will suck me in?

The story can be hard to follow at times, because of the very brief, episodic chapters, especially when thoughts and spoken words blend for want of quotation marks. I also want the narrative to linger longer at key emotional transitions toward the end. Even so, I strongly recommend you read Dominicana, a terrific book and a necessary, important story about what immigrant life is really like.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Love, Theft, Hate: The Sisters of Summit Avenue

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Review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen
Gallery, 2019. 312 pp. $27

Coming of age in 1920s Indiana with barely a penny to their names and kindly but incompetent parents, sisters June and Ruth are fiercely attached but deadly competitive. Elder June, the popular girl, the beauty, the one with artistic talent, wants to escape their drab existence, to make something of herself. Bookish Ruth, deemed less capable, less everything, wants the attention she believes she’s never received. Accordingly, throughout their lives together, whatever June gets, Ruth wants. Shortly before Ruth’s eighteenth birthday, she settles on June’s fiancé, John, as her next goal.

But though Ruth marries John and settles down on his family farm, by 1934, she’s up against it. A heretofore rare form of encephalitis that has swept the country in the 1930s has left John mostly comatose. Their farm is failing, Ruth struggles to raise four kids, and her mother, who lives with them, is too lost in dreams of a past that never existed to have much to offer.

Marjorie Husted, the actress who portrayed Betty Crocker on the radio, ca. 1944 (courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, “Fight Food Waste in the Home,” Office for Emergency Management, Office of War Information; via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, June has married a successful doctor, a cheerful, controlling narcissist, Richard Whiteleather (now, there’s a name) and lives in a mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota. June has jewels, fashionable dresses, and a country-club membership, but she remains insecure about her origins, and she’s childless, which breaks her heart. She has a job with the flour company, answering the tons of letters lonely, frustrated, harried women write to Betty Crocker — an advertising logo, not a real person — and working up the recipes and pamphlets distributed in her name. You can guess what Ruth thinks of her sister’s job:

In between giving out recipes, Betty tipped off her followers on how to win a husband and keep him, not only by taking the proverbial shortcut through his stomach, but by keeping themselves attractive and interesting. Betty, with her on-air interviews with bachelors about what they looked for in a wife and her ten-cent booklets full of man-pleasing recipes, implied that men were like dumb beasts running free on the plains, unaware that they were being stalked, until, bang! they were shot down by “Apricot Topsy-Turvy” or “Peeps and Squeals Sandwiches,” served by a perky huntress in an apron. She wondered how her sister could live with herself, contributing to this nonsense. Of course, Sister June had always been a big game hunter.

Not only does Ruth resent June for earning money through artifice, while she herself struggles to farm (presumably raising the wheat that makes the flour), she hates it all the more that June sends her every penny she earns. Ruth, who stole John from June, has to watch while crippling illness steals him back. June, who suffers from Richard’s self-centeredness, envies Ruth’s ability to have children by the man they both love, even though he’s now lost to the world.

The family dynamic reveals so much by itself, you understand their world, no explanation required. Combine weak parents, rivalry for attention, ambivalent attachment, and thwarted desires, and you see why, for example, either sister would want John, a kind person but a man incapable of asserting himself.

However, I wish Cullen didn’t tell feelings so often when they really matter; she’s more than capable of showing them. I also wish she’d built the novel more coherently, especially in the first third, when the narrative leaps back and forth from decade to decade in three different narrator’s heads. There’s a lot of back story to cover, and no doubt Cullen settled on this narrative form after trying others, but it takes a while for the central event to occur, a visit to Ruth’s farm by June and Richard, which leads to confrontations everyone has been avoiding forever.

Still, Cullen’s keen, subtle sense of human psychology wins the day, and you can see how family resentments and foolishly kept secrets have cascaded through the years. As a storyteller, she knows how to employ emotional “no — and furthermore,” in which internal narrative, triggered by mundane events, ratchets up the tension. This requires no manipulation or contrivance: It’s character-driven narrative at its best.

That is, until the end, which I find implausible. Partly, that’s because Cullen has done such a fine job pushing her characters into tight corners that redemption is no longer an option. I don’t want to give anything away, of course, but to take one minor example, consider that Richard, the egotistical doctor, might not be so pliable a character as that. Such people don’t change easily; and, further, there’s a wonderful scene in which June’s mother-in-law freely talks about her son’s unbounded greed for what he wants. Mother knows best, I think.

If you can love ninety percent of a novel and slap your head in consternation at the remaining ten percent, that’s how I feel about The Sisters of Summit Avenue. Read it for the terrific character studies; but I think the author, who has done brilliantly portraying messy lives, may have tried to tidy up too much.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Which Side Are You on, Boys?: The Women of the Copper Country

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Review: The Women of the Copper Country, by Mary Doria Russell
Atria, 2019. 339 pp. $27

In June 1913, a man dies inside the Calumet and Hecla copper mine in Calumet, Michigan, the world’s largest. The fatality is neither remarkable nor surprising, for everyone in Calumet knows and dreads the sight of the dark-suited underling sent to inform the bereaved family — and, perhaps, repossess the house they rent from the company. Further, few people liked the dead man, stern and ill-tempered, even for a copper miner hardened by years of back-breaking, life-threatening toil for little more than pennies a day.

Nevertheless, this particular death fans the flame that has been smoldering within Annie Clements for years. What follows earns her the nickname “America’s Joan of Arc.” At first, the tale carries a whiff of Hollywood feel-good, because Annie’s efforts to unionize Calumet copper miners begin with great success and fanfare, even gain national attention. Meanwhile, James MacNaughton, the mine’s general manager, is so thoroughly despicable that even an opera librettist would hesitate to put a character like him on stage.

Anna Klobuchar Clemenc (pronounced “Clements”), as Jane Whitaker saw her in February 1914 (courtesy The Day Book, Chicago, via Wikimedia Commons)

But consider the source. Russell hews closely to biographical facts in her historical fiction, as she did with Doc, for instance; here, her afterword argues that the historical record justifies MacNaughton’s portrayal. As for Annie Clements, her miracle working meets immovable obstacles soon enough. Despite sympathy from a progressive governor, a National Guard commander who mistrusts hired strikebreakers, and even the White House–an alignment of constellations perhaps unique in the American labor firmament–MacNaughton will not be moved. He’s the definition of brutality and ruthlessness, and the company owns the town.

Russell begins every chapter with a brief quotation from Romeo and Juliet, which compares this struggle to that of Montague versus Capulet. But since nobody’s reading much Shakespeare in copper country, the device feels authorial and intrusive; and the quotations announce the mood and substance of what you’re about to read, which steals a march on the storytelling.

It also contributes to the sense of earnestness that mars the novel on occasion, visible partly in the exclamation points that pepper the pages. I agree wholeheartedly with Russell’s message, especially its resonance with today’s politics. Yet, for example, an early interior narrative from MacNaughton’s point of view feels cloying, historically accurate or not; let the man’s actions speak rather than his thoughts.

Still, there’s a lot to like about The Women of the Copper Country. Russell’s fans, of whom I’m one, shouldn’t expect the lyrical prose that drove Doc, and I’m glad she didn’t employ that style here. Annie’s trials are too hard-edged for that, and Calumet’s no place to indulge fancy. What you do get, though, is Russell’s trademark description, which can only come from a writer who knows a place or person from the inside:

You clock in and climb down flight after flight of slippery cut-stone stairs before a hike through miles of tunnels — just to start the day’s work. It’s cold underground. It’s wet. It smells of rock. Beyond that dim little funnel of light from your headlamp, there’s a hellish nothing, and Christ, the noise! After a few weeks, you’re half-deaf from the pounding of the drills. So you listen hard all the time to the crunch and scrape of shoveling, the squeal of train wheels grating on rusty rails, because a few seconds can make all the difference when a wall starts to come down.

This comes from Joe Clements, Annie’s rough, hard-drinking husband, one of the minor characters who help drive the novel. Annie’s a strong person, a gifted organizer, good soul, utterly courageous and self-sacrificing, feminist without knowing the word. But she’s also a little too good to be true, I think. You can see this especially when Mother Jones, the famously profane, tireless labor advocate, makes an appearance and steals the scene; her edges contrast with Annie’s smoothness. I also like Eva Savicki, a teenager who begins the novel besotted with a boy intent on ignoring her, only to come under Annie’s spell and grow into a committed, capable activist. That transition, one of Annie’s great accomplishments, echoes another theme, the belief that by helping one person, you help the whole world.

But what stays with me most from The Women of the Copper Country is the story. It may not seem memorable right way, because, unlike just about any novel you’ll ever read, in this one, things go well for our heroes at the start. But stay with it, for it’s hard to anticipate the manner in which so many setbacks take place, and how the characters struggle to overcome them or point out the injustice they suffer. Flawed though it is, The Women of the Copper Country makes a riveting tale that forces you to think about your own life.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

To Have Her Own Story: That Churchill Woman

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Review: That Churchill Woman, by Stephanie Barron
Ballantine, 2019. 384 pp. $28

Nineteen-year-old Jennie Jerome, heiress to a sizable New York fortune, knows what she wants: to be taken seriously for her intellect and abilities, to have the power she believes she deserves, and to matter as a person. Why shouldn’t she, when she’s a brilliant conversationalist, has all the confidence her buccaneer merchant father taught her, plays the piano with verve and virtuosity, fears nothing and no one, and turns heads whenever she enters a room? But Miss Jerome is a woman, it’s 1873, and as an American, even a rich one, she faces obstacles to finding a husband among the British nobility, for which purpose her mother has brought her to England.

When daughter falls for Lord Randolph Churchill, son of the Duke of Marlborough, a rising star in Parliament, and a noted rake, Mrs. Jerome objects, as do the Churchills—the girl has no family to speak of, sniff sniff. However, Jennie has spent her life taking risks to get what she wants, and her mother doesn’t scare her, especially when she has Papa on her side.

Lady Randolph, as she appeared around 1880, age twenty-six, artist unknown (courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

History records that Lady Randolph’s first child, Winston, would be the most famous Briton of the twentieth century. But Barron is much more interested in Jennie and what else her marriage to this particular dissolute, scandalous husband brings. Randolph grants her the freedom to do what she pleases, so long as she’s discreet, and even lets her rewrite some of his speeches, removing the intemperate parts that would hurt him politically. Randy means to be prime minister, if ever that dour, Bible-thumping twit, Gladstone, ever falls — and Jennie will help secure her husband’s victory, if she can.

Consequently, Barron intends to rehabilitate Lady Randolph from the status of historical footnote, as mere mother of a great man, and, more importantly, her reputation as a scheming adulteress who drove her poor husband crazy. The author makes her case, for Jennie’s a far more appealing, nuanced character than the scandal mongers would have it, though at times her selfishness and sense of entitlement put me off. She does have love affairs, and she loves passionately, always struggling against the double standard applied to women, in that, and in her political pursuits, the latter activities furnishing some of my favorite scenes. Apparently, she was a fabulous stump speaker.

The narrative lives on splendid descriptions. Barron has a knack for portraying the lives of the rich and famous (which she also displayed in Jack 1939, a thriller written under a pseudonym), and she renders the leading figures of the realm with ease and panache. (I particularly like her portrait of Bertie, Prince of Wales, licentious wretch, court arbiter, and trendsetter.) It takes a sure hand to convey every conceivable setting with accuracy and authority, from royal residences to the House of Commons to opium dens to a fashionable woman’s boudoir. Not only does Barron never miss a step, she connects her descriptions to the characters (and, therefore, the reader), as with this passage from Jennie’s girlhood, about her father’s library:

Jennie never set foot in Papa’s library when he was there, because then it was his place and not the secret one she kept to herself while he was at his offices on Wall Street. The mahogany paneling glowed warmly even on the dreariest days, and the draperies were crimson velvet, so heavy that not a whisper of the carriage traffic from Madison Square filtered through the glazed windows. The only sounds were the settlings of logs burning behind the brass fender and the rustle of thick paper as Jennie turned the pages. A Turkey carpet splashed carmine and indigo at her feet. The library smelled of cigars and brandy and old leather bindings, the dryness of paper in the wetness of ink. It smelled, Jennie thought, of Papa.

It’s the storytelling, I think, that fails to measure up. The novel begins not at any of the first three chapters, where it could, but at Jennie’s funeral. Though by definition unnecessary, this particular prologue is at least very well written and, typical of Barron, shows her command of history. But reading yet another prologue makes me ask whether authors today — or their editors — have mistakenly set the bar too low, fearing that if the context for an almost-famous character doesn’t appear right up front, readers will be lost. Are we that unsophisticated or impatient or have such a short attention span that we can’t appreciate a woman’s life except by looking at it backwards? Are we that star-struck and name-conscious that if we don’t know a character’s bloodlines by the first paragraph, the novel won’t sell?

Speaking of looking backward, the forward narrative often breaks off to tell a story from Jennie’s past. Few of these scenes belong, most feeling as though they’ve been plopped in to give background to the adult Jennie, tacitly—or literally—asking, Why does the protagonist behave in such a way at this particular moment? Answer: Well, it all stems from this incident from her childhood; 2 + 2 = 4.

But people aren’t formulas, psychology doesn’t work that way, and since I believe Barron’s a fine writer, with a gift for characterization, I’m guessing she fell too much in love with Jennie’s backstory. I could also do with less rib-nudging dramatic irony, as when Jennie tells young Winston to go off and be prime minister someday.

That Churchill Woman makes entertaining reading, for the most part. But I wonder whether the author tried to cram too much into it, paradoxically winding up with less than she could have had.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Five Years, and I Still Haven’t Read Everything

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Novelhistorian celebrates its fifth birthday this week with the usual retrospective of the books that have made the deepest impression on me during the past year. I’d also like to thank you, my readers, for making this blog worthwhile. I’m glad you’ve stuck with me, and I hope it’s rewarding.

There are thirteen books this year, more than normal, because I couldn’t bear to leave any out. In no particular order, they are:

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, retells the Trojan War from the point of view of Briseis, Achilles’ captive concubine, whom Agamemnon seizes and thereby causes rifts within the Greek camp. Tradition holds Briseis to blame, but, as the protagonist of this superb novel points out, the tellers of that tradition are male. Barker’s storytelling is so acute that you can imagine she has known these mythical figures all her life.

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, offers an unusual romance and coming-of-age story set against harrowing, scrupulously observed scenes at a First World War field hospital in Poland. Mason not only renders his characters in full psychological depth, he explores what medicine means for the healer as well as the patient, a fresh, compelling theme.

Sugar Money, by Jane Harris, shows you late eighteenth-century slavery in the Caribbean, and what a heart-breaking, riveting picture that is. The novel succeeds as adventure, a tale of another time, sibling rivalry, and an exposé of colonialism; the prose, vivid as a poem, relies heavily on Kréyol phrases and at times reads like music.

Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard, recounts the courtship between an up-and-coming Illinois backwoods lawyer and a Kentucky belle, revealing the lighter side of each as well as their lonely, tortured souls. Often hilarious, this novel reminds me of Austen for its wit and social observation, but you also see the president in the making.

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, tells the mystery of how a child in late nineteenth-century Oxfordshire emerges from a river apparently dead, only to revive — and no one knows who she is. The solution involves violence, loss, conspiracy, and romance; storytelling doesn’t get more seductive than this, and though the premise sounds woo-woo, it isn’t.

Wolf on a String, by Benjamin Black (pseudonym of John Banville), tells an age-old story about a young man on the make. But the year is 1599, and the court of mad Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, is a snake pit, especially if you have to solve a murder to survive. The tension never flags, and the story has the ring of historical truth, even though the author made most of it up.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar, narrates the unlikely romance between a straight-laced eighteenth-century English merchant and a courtesan. The story reminds me of a modern-day tale by Henry Fielding, complete with intricate plot, ribaldry, and social commentary, much of the latter concerning how men use women as possessions.

Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans, features a once-famous English suffragist in the 1930s who, decades after her heyday, mourns the lack of passion and radical feeling among the young—and her own irrelevance. The solution to both problems propels a funny, engaging story and involves a maddening yet sympathetic heroine.

In The Dream Peddler, by Martine Fournier Watson, sometime in the early 1900s, a well-dressed salesman with courtly manners arrives in a Midwestern rural town and offers his customers the dreams they desire, with a money-back guarantee. At first, the townspeople suppose he’s a charlatan, but he’s not; and in a way, that causes more trouble.

The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason, spins the 1859 publication of The Origin of Species into a brilliant psychological thriller involving an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria and multiple murders. I hate suspense novels whose surprise solution involves a psychopath, but here, the villain is in plain sight. So are Prince Albert, Karl Marx, Thomas Huxley, and many other figures, including three famous Charleses — Darwin, Dickens, and Field, our hero detective, a real historical figure.

The Organs of Sense, by Adam Ehrlich Sachs, tells the utterly madcap story of the seventeenth-century polymath Gottfried Leibniz visiting a recluse astronomer who, alone in Europe, has predicted a total eclipse for a certain hour. Start this novel, a howlingly funny sendup of philosophy and its practitioners, and you too will want to know whether the eclipse will happen.

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, invokes the trope du jour. This particular bookshop, vintage 1969, belongs to an effervescent Hungarian Holocaust survivor (huh?), who falls for a taciturn Australian sheep farmer who doesn’t read books and hasn’t heard of Auschwitz. Treacle? Not in the least, because nothing in this novel happens without reversals, second thoughts, mixed feelings, or a sense of dread; the author has taken his characters’ measure and renders them as mature adults.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, narrates a series of murders in 1327 at an abbey where a conclave debates such issues as whether Christ laughed. Such a premise might seem pointless or abstract. But this discursive yet mesmerizing novel explores profound philosophical and political issues; offers a page-turning mystery; and illuminates the past by its own lights, therefore revealing the present. The latter, to me, is the highest purpose of historical fiction.

If there’s a common thread here–besides the obvious upmarket/literary slant–it’s each author’s ability to show via concrete detail what another (and, in my view, lesser) writer would choose to tell. Getting closer to physical vividness has been my mantra as writer, especially in the past year, and many of these books have inspired me that way.

Thanks again for reading.

Teach Your Children: Grievous

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Review: Grievous, by H. S. Cross
FSG, 2019. 524 pp. $30

John Grieves, a.k.a. Grievous, has never felt so tested, pained, or enraged, despite a life that has given him much heartache. The cause of his current frustration and anguish is a fourteen-year-old student, Gray Riding, whom everyone says will win a scholarship to Oxford one day — unless he’s expelled from Saint Stephen’s, the public (private) school in Yorkshire where John is his housemaster.

Eton College boys wearing hats corresponding to the various rowing teams competing on the Thames, June 1932, photographer unknown (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons; Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13350 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Naturally, he’s the most sensitive housemaster at the school; the others would have caned Riding black and blue until he shaped up or shipped out. But in the year 1931, John understands that though the momentous issues of the day never penetrate Saint Stephen’s gated walls, his struggle with Gray, and how he manages his own strengths and weaknesses in that effort, matter just as much in their own small way. That knowledge, however, generally offers little consolation.

Gray follows an adolescent code of honor typical of Saint Stephen’s, and of the public-school culture: never show feeling, never flinch, never make yourself vulnerable, never betray a friend. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s rebellious schoolboy character, Stalky, the friend he chooses is one determined to break every rule, even those the school hasn’t thought of yet. Mind you, that’s even before John’s thirteen-year-old goddaughter, Cordelia, shows up and smites the boy in a heart that others suppose has been encased in lead.

The genius of this novel resides in the urgency with which Cross imbues John’s attempt to redeem young Riding, and why the boy resists. Didn’t such novels go out with saying goodbye to Mr. Chips? Well, no, as Cross amply proves here. This British public school resembles an infernal machine that stamps its inmates with snobbery, sadism, treachery, and cold-hearted contempt, while hunting down the homoerotic impulses it otherwise does so much to encourage. Any sensitive soul like Gray would howl in rage and pain, but only to himself. His outlet is a Tolkienesque story he writes during class lectures, featuring characters named Valarious and the Elf Rider. Already chained by Kipling’s Stalky, he wonders, during a very risky escapade with his reckless friend, whether stories can help him at all:

The ground was damp, his seat soaked, his teeth coated in licorice. If they could make it back intact in every sense, Gray silently vowed to devote himself to ordinary life and stop confusing it with stories. In stories, you didn’t risk your life and your arse waiting in a field to perform your heroics.… In stories, a coherent hand guided the plot; there was no tumble of make-believe just when you needed to think clearly. Friends in stories never lied to one another.

This passage, which occurs around page 60, marks the point at which, for me, the narrative overcomes obstacles that may deter even a dedicated reader. Cross explains absolutely nothing of Saint Stephen’s myriad intricacies, letting you infer them as you go along, including the schoolboy slang, which reminds me of Anthony Burgess novels in which he invents languages. How maddening. Nevertheless, you have the sense that if you can only hang on, you’ll be rewarded; and so you will. That said, the author need not have refused to clarify more of her transitions, so that I don’t have to ask myself which character’s voice I’m tuning into right now. I could also have done without the long dashes that introduce dialogue instead of quotation marks, an affectation I dislike.

Names matter in this very literary novel. John Grieves is an apt handle for a man who suffered as a conscientious objector in the Great War and who’s never gotten over a disappointment in love. Dr. Sebastian, the headmaster, acts as though he’s been pierced by many arrows, though John, a lifelong friend, actually takes more of them. Most importantly, I think, Gray’s first name is Thomas, and because the two names and their initials appear several times, I can’t help think of Thomas Gray, the eighteenth-century poet whose masterpiece, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” hung in the back of my mind while I was reading. You can apply the poem’s most famous line, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” to John’s story, and, even more significantly, Gray’s father. And John’s initial motive to help Gray, one that many teachers must feel, appears in this subsequent couplet: “Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

I wish Cross had given Grievous a more fully resolved ending. But, as a sequel to Wilberforce (whose title derives not from the famous British abolitionist but an older student who tries to liberate Gray from his self-imposed emotional shackles), I expect another volume in the series to bring the story further.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.

Land, Fens, Love: Call Upon the Water

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Review: Call Upon the Water, by Stella Tillyard
Atria, 2019. 269 pp. $26

Summoned to England in 1649 to help oversee the draining and development of wetlands called the Great Level, Jan Brunt, a Dutch engineer, seeks professional advancement. A reserved, taciturn man who outwardly reveals little other than his seriousness of purpose, within, he harbors great passion for the natural world he would master. Sharp-eyed and introspective, Jan follows currents of thought like the watercourses he strives to control, both of which lead him to startling places. Most significantly, his ramblings bring him to Eliza, a reactive, passionate woman of the fens where he measures and surveys. Such people, according to Jan’s informants, are half-savage and of no account. But Eliza and Jan begin an affair that prompts him to question much of what he thought he knew of life.

From this tantalizing premise, Tillyard weaves a narrative at once physical and metaphysical, using the most basic elements, water and land. With an elegant simplicity I admire, Call Upon the Water explores what land and water mean, how will and freedom struggle against natural and human-made obstacles, and what that implies for love between two people of very different worlds and outlooks. Consequently, Tillyard offers a profound look into our essential surroundings, which usually pass unnoticed because they’re constantly within sight. Her novel gradually takes you over, giving you much to ponder, a magic that begins with her deceptively simple prose:

I am a Dutchman and an islander. Water and the sky are safe to me as my mother’s skirts. I know an empty silence and a full silence. Stand still in a full silence and it’s loud with noises. A heron takes flight; he creaks like a ship in sail. Ducks scuffle in the reeds. I hear the beat of wings, the movement of creatures in the grass, water rippling, and the wind that accompanies me everywhere, sighing and roaring. Nature, that seems so quiet, pours out its songs. Even in the darkness there is a velvet purr of sound, of moles underground and field mice above.

Tillyard uses similar pared-down, evocative language to establish the way things work in the 1650s, whether she’s recounting Jan’s surveying procedures, describing the harbor of Nieuw Amsterdam (which figures in the story), or narrating how indentured servants live in North America. These vivid pictures show Tillyard’s grasp of social history, and a deep one it is. What a shame, then, that the jacket flap reduces this rich, complex portrait to a bland recitation that goes out of its way to spoil the story, recounting the action up until about the last thirty pages. If you read Call Upon the Water — and there are good reasons to do so — do not, repeat, not look at the jacket flap.

Now that I’ve said that, I confess I wound up liking the book less than I thought I would. That’s partly because the storytelling jumps around from the Great Level to Nieuw Amsterdam and elsewhere like a restless traveler. It’s as though Tillyard has set her sights on a circular narrative with two beginnings that eventually meet, and she’s invested too much in this device to back away from it. But if we’re meant to be surprised on reaching that long-awaited junction, the resulting aha! doesn’t justify the heavy lifting required to get there. Similarly, when Jan realizes he loves Eliza, a shift in narrative perspective calls undue attention to itself, an affectation particularly unnecessary, since the words already convey how smitten he is. Tillyard doesn’t need artifice to tell this, or any other, story.

Conversely, she seems oddly unwilling to clarify certain aspects of her narrative, perhaps because she fears to show or tell too much, another form of artifice. Still, I want to know why Eliza behaves in certain ways, or what she sees in Jan, worthy though he is; yet, for much of the novel, she’s a shadow figure. When her voice finally appears toward the end, it’s a shock, more so because I don’t find her entirely credible. To cite one example, I like her feminism, which she sums up as, “No man should think because I am a woman and a slighter shaped, that my eyes and my thoughts are smaller than theirs. That is a mistake easy to fall into, as others have done.”

But I don’t know how she comes to this attitude, which surely begs for explanation, especially in 1650. Nor do I understand how Jan and Eliza manage to ignore conflicts inherent in their relationship—not that they have to talk them through, but they should at least recognize that they’re there. All you know is that Eliza claims a preternatural ability to house deep or inconvenient feelings in well-contained, separate compartments. I’m not convinced.

Despite these reservations though, I can recommend Call Upon the Water as a portrayal of life seldom seen, with much to reflect on, told in marvelous prose. For many, that will be more than enough.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher, in return for an honest review.

Lost, and Found: The Redeemed

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Review: The Redeemed, by Tim Pears
Bloomsbury, 2019. 382 pp. $29

Sixteen-year-old Leo Sercombe, a native of North Devon and a skilled horseman with a deep love of the natural world, sails with the Royal Navy from Scapa Flow in late May 1916 to do battle against the Germans. That alone would be a peculiar irony, but, even worse, Leo’s encased in a steel-plated gun turret on the heavy cruiser Queen Mary, without fresh air or a window to the exterior. I probably don’t need to tell you that the Queen Mary will fare poorly in the imminent Battle of Jutland. But I should note that Pears suggests how British complacency and pride in an outdated warship brings disaster, and that the sailors pay the price.

HMS Queen Mary leaving the River Tyne, 1913. Almost 1,300 men went down with her when she sank at the Battle of Jutland (courtesy Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Charlotte (Lottie) Prideaux, an earl’s daughter roughly Leo’s age and a childhood companion (their illicit friendship having caused great trouble in an earlier volume), studies veterinary medicine on the sly. Lottie watches, pained, as her father’s estate transforms under the pressures of war and modernity. But she’s determined to follow this career denied young women, especially the well-born, and in her zeal, she trusts the wrong party, enduring violence and betrayal. There are no protections in this world.

The Redeemed is the final installment of Pears’s West Country Trilogy and makes a fitting sequel to The Wanderers, a mesmerizing novel of grace and beauty. As with the previous work, in The Redeemed, the prose remains luminous and fixed on the physical world, especially through Leo’s part of the narrative. Many writers try to do this, but Pears has the particular knack of rendering Leo through the natural and metaphysical at once, whether he’s in his gun turret or at anchor at Scapa Flow:

The Flow was a bleak immensity of water, surrounded by low, barren hills. The spanking wind gave an edge to a long summer’s day, and turned into gales in winter. They blew in carrying salt from the sea, and men on deck had to yell to each other to be heard. Though snow was rare, when it did fall the wind blew it into drifts against the gun turrets. The winter days were short and mostly wet. But Leo did not mind the changing weather. With few companions on the ship, he looked outward and felt less imprisoned by their confinement than most. There were frequent, vivid rainbows, and clear nights when the aurora borealis flooded the sky. The first time Leo saw it he thought that the powers of the heavens had been made manifest. That he would see the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

Lottie’s world involves going on rounds as a veterinarian’s assistant, pretending to be male; learning how to help a mare get through a breech birth; getting angry when a farmer mistreats his animals, all rendered in painstaking detail. But she’s also the daughter of the manor, with a stepmother not much older than herself, and the precarious emotional territory that entails. Through her and the constraints she faces, the reader sees England of the past fade forever, a touching elegy to what once was.

I like both narratives very much, though I think Leo’s succeeds more fully, portraying his social skittishness and fierce desire for independence, much like the horses he loves, and his fear to ask for friendship, which he subsumes in a remarkably disciplined dedication for work. You also see how the machine has come to dominate — the gun turret, the tractor that replaces farm horses, the people he once knew who’ve changed their rural ways of life to accommodate the trend — and what gets lost in the exchange.

Throughout, whether from the narrative, the title, or the jacket cover, you sense that Lottie and Leo are meant to find one another again, but you know the path won’t be easy. Pears strings out the tension to the utmost. Along the way, both characters blunder, especially Leo, who trusts very little and has trouble claiming his own.

Compared to The Wanderers, The Redeemed doesn’t hang together as tightly, and though the story unfolds with riveting detail, it’s not always clear why and how the pieces belong or fit together. Though Pears doesn’t waste words, his discursive style may not be for everyone, though I find it enthralling.

I did bump up against one contrivance. The story implies that Leo enlists in the navy at sixteen to avoid the trenches; but if so, why didn’t he wait a couple years to see whether the war would end first? Had he done so, however, I suspect that those two years would have posed a serious problem for the novelist. What would Leo do in all that time, and might he seek out Lottie too soon? Not only that, Jutland was the only major naval battle of the war, and you can see why Pears wants to include it, for he does a magnificent job of rendering it and linking it to Leo’s character.

But that’s a minor point and in no way detracts from The Redeemed. I think I enjoyed the book more for having read its predecessor, but it’s not essential.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.