Rusalka: The Huntress

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Review: The Huntress, by Kate Quinn
Morrow, 2019. 531 pp. $27

In spring 1946, memories of the war are just beginning to fade — for some. Seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride, who lives with her widowed father in Boston, meets his new fiancée, an Austrian widow. Jordan welcomes her future stepmother and half-sister Ruth and takes them into her heart, luxuriating in the warmth and support she receives in return. Even better, Jordan’s stepmother encourages her to dream of higher education, something Dad doesn’t think a girl needs.

Four years later, in 1950, former British war correspondent Ian Graham; his assistant and translator, Tony Rodomovsky, an American; and Nina Markova, a former pilot with the Red Air Force, join forces in Vienna to track down Nazi war criminals. The Nuremberg Trials have focused on the big fish, but thousands of minnows have swum to safety, whether in various corners of Europe or the New World. They may be former assassins, concentration-camp guards, or petty functionaries who oiled the machinery of murder and appropriation, and Ian and Tony want them all, though they know that’s impossible.

Rare color photo of defendants at Nuremberg, taken by Raymond D’Addario, November 1945 (courtesy U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Nina, however, wants one in particular, a woman nicknamed die Jägerin (The Huntress), with whom she has a score to settle. So does Ian; and in one of the strange but clever twists in this thriller, Nina and Ian are married, though they’ve met only once, five years before for a couple days, and haven’t seen each other since.

Confused? Read The Huntress, and you won’t be. Quinn’s a fine storyteller, and she does an excellent job of stitching together many disparate pieces to make a coherent, exciting whole. The pages turn quickly, nothing happens too easily (except for a happy coincidence or two toward the end), and the stakes are plenty high enough. The reader knows long before the main characters who die Jägerin is, and where, but Quinn strings the inevitable confrontation out beautifully.

Of all the essential elements, I like the plot of The Huntress best. I do salute Quinn for calling attention to the problems of tracking down war criminals after Nuremberg, a forgotten cause. And I also like her attempt to explore the means one is permitted to use to see justice done. Ian rejects violence; Tony wouldn’t mind slapping around a witness or three; and Nina always carries a knife.

She’s the most interesting, fullest character by far. She’s done her best to amputate her heart, yet she comes across in part because she’s the only one with a developed past. Born by the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, she styles herself a rusalka, a water witch, the type who drags down the unsuspecting victim. That lake figures heavily in her psyche:

The lake was frozen in a sheet of dark green glass, so clear you could see the bottom far below. When the surface ice warmed during the day, crevasses would open, crackling and booming as if the lake’s rusalki were fighting a war in the depths. Close to shore, hummocks of turquoise-colored ice heaved up over each other in blocks taller than Nina, shoved onto the bank by the winter wind.… Nina stood in her shabby winter coat, hands thrust into her pockets, wondering if she would still be here to see the lake freeze next year. She was sixteen years old; all her sisters had left home before they reached that age, mostly with swelling bellies.

Nina’s half-savage, knows it, and likes scaring her friends. But scaring her enemies feels even better, for in a life lived without sweetness, revenge is the only substitute.

The other characters don’t grab me particularly. Jordan, though she represents feminism in wanting a photojournalism career, lacks angles or corners and seems too all-American. Tony’s too good to be true, a composition of charm, chutzpah, and linguistic wizardry. (The narrative rather dubiously depends on the relative ease with which certain characters pick up, say, fluent German or Russian in a matter of months.) Ian feels like a compendium of elements rather than a complete person, and though his heart’s in the right place, I don’t entirely believe him.

But the story’s the thing, here, and aside from the occasional detail that makes me raise an eyebrow (having mostly to do with photography or firearms), Quinn has researched her ground thoroughly. I note a few present-day idioms that someone should have flagged, and too many bizarre verbs replace said, often followed by unnecessary explanations of what the character means by what she says. But The Huntress is a top-notch thriller with an unusual premise, and I think it’s worth your time.

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

From Auschwitz to Australia: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted

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Review: The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman
Putnam, 2018. 293 pp. $26

Dutiful, reliable, bewildered by life, unsure what happiness is or whether he’s ever experienced it, that’s Tom Hope — until he meets Hannah Babel. Hometown, Australia, has never seen anything like her, and even in 1968, the changes sweeping the West seem to have skipped this rural, agrarian corner of Down Under. Hannah, an effervescent Hungarian Holocaust survivor (a phrase probably seldom used, but it fits) plans to open a bookshop, of all things, and she hires Tom, a sheep rancher and orchardist, to do welding and carpentry to prepare for the opening. She’s utterly mercurial, older than he by fifteen years, speaks inflected English he can’t always fathom, and when she lets her canary, David, fly freely, the bird settles on Tom’s shoulder, further discomfiting him.

Hannah settles on him too, in a passionate rush that made me think, for a moment, that The Bookshop of the Brokenhearted derives from a male fantasy. But no; though their instant mutual attraction burns intensely, plenty of obstacles stand between them, least of which is that Tom has never read a book. A few years before, Tom married Trudy, a psychologically unstable woman who has left him, twice, and scarred him so badly that happiness is “a fugitive,” to “be roused to confidence, encouraged,” but, if grasped too strongly, might “slip back into the shadows, forever.” (Trudy’s legacy continues in other ways, but I don’t want to reveal too much.) Hannah has had two husbands, both dead, but she suffered her worst loss at Auschwitz, which stays with her, always. Metaphorically, that loss connects her to Trudy, something that neither Tom nor Hannah expected.

Poddy lambs, or orphans, drinking milk at a sheep station (ranch) in Australia (courtesy Figaro at English Wikipedia)

In lesser hands, a premise like this could easily turn sticky with treacle, melodrama, clichéd predictability, or a combination of these. Books, bookshops, and libraries are a hot thing in fiction these days, soon to be a trope, perhaps. Nevertheless, nothing happens here without second thoughts, reversals, mixed feelings, and a sense of dread, collectively the best tonic for treacle. Hillman never loses sight of his characters’ age, maturity, or makeup, and his narrative takes no adolescent flights of fancy, relying on simple prose, grounded in the everyday, again staying in character. Consider this passage early on, just after Trudy leaves, and Tom, in his workshop, wonders whether she’ll write:

With the soldering, it was the work of a good two hours. An old, demented ram he treated as a friend butted him repeatedly as he sanded and primed — not hard, just affectionately. And Beau [his dog] in turn chewed on the old ram’s leg. Tom asked himself aloud: ‘What do you expect her [Trudy] to say to you, you nong? “Hello, it’s a nice day?” For God’s sake.’ He was a practical person who never thought of fate and things that were meant to be. He could take apart an engine, stand surrounded by its thousand parts, find what was causing the problem, put the engine back together. He might daydream, but he knew that the dreams were foolish.

How can you resist a scene like that, which shows another side to a man not given to reflection?

Besides the treacle, it would be easy for a writer to adopt Hannah as a Jew of convenience, visible to a knowledgeable reader as unfamiliar with her own faith, which she’s also conveniently let slide. That’s a favorite device, as I’ve noted before in other posts. But Hillman knows his ground, rendering Hannah’s flashbacks with authority and depicting her Jewishness as well as the casual anti-Semitism of Tom’s neighbors. But their reaction is an aside; Tom has never heard of Auschwitz and has the barest notions of the Holocaust, about which Hannah refuses to tell him. So it’s the hidden past that lies between them, not what the neighbors say, about which Tom wouldn’t care anyway.

Names matter in this novel, at times too obviously. Tom Hope? Check. Does Babel refer to the tower of, given Hannah’s multilingual, sometimes chaotic persona; or Isaac, the great Russian writer murdered by Stalin? No question where Pastor Bligh comes from, a vicious, self-righteous disciplinarian who lives up to his namesake, except that he’s incompetent at his job. I have no sympathy for fundamentalist Christian cultist lunatic sadists, and I suppose that’s fair. Yet I want this man to have a three-dimensional rendering, and he doesn’t get one.

Even so, that’s the major glitch in The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, a warm, satisfying, decidedly unsticky novel, which I highly recommend.

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

Burning Reason: The Name of the Rose

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Review: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian by William Weaver
Houghton Mifflin, 2014 [1980, 1983] 579 pp. $16

As Brother William of Baskerville, an English Franciscan monk, nears the Italian abbey where he’s to attend a conclave, he correctly deduces from tracks in the snow and other minute details that the party of brethren approaching him on the road are seeking a horse — whose name he also guesses. Naturally, this astonishes both the search party and William’s companion, his scribe, a German novice named Adso. It also pleases the abbot, who’s delighted to have so keen an observer on hand, because a young monk has died under suspicious circumstances, and the mystery must be solved before the conclave takes place in a few days’ time.

Or, to be precise, the abbot seems pleased, but the readily apparent struggle between truth and expediency dividing the abbey’s occupants, heightened by the anticipated high-level meeting, clouds his motives. The year is 1327, and the church is fighting itself, with one pope in Rome, and the other in Avignon. The expected French envoys — and, menacingly, their accompanying armed force — include a charismatic, unscrupulous inquisitor whom William knows and fears; he was once an inquisitor himself but gave it up because he felt the entire process of hunting heretics was irrational and unjust. Since then, he has openly avowed the empirical philosophy of Roger Bacon and William Occam (he of the famous razor), beliefs that unsettle many other monks and, in their eyes, skate dangerously close to heresy.

Pope John XXII, a protégé of the French crown, lived a princely life in Avignon and opposed the Franciscan doctrine of poverty (image by an unknown nineteenth-century painter; courtesy Palais des Papes, Avignon, via Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, the abbot has forbidden William to investigate the library stacks, labyrinthine rooms that no one save the librarian himself may enter. This restriction cripples William’s efforts, particularly after more monks die, and he supposes that a hidden text holds the key. So, with Adso in tow, he invades the abbey’s sanctum sanctorum, with ever-startling results.

Adso makes a superb narrator and foil, a Watson scared of where knowledge will lead, to William’s Holmes, who thinks knowledge itself can be neither good nor evil. A weighty theme, and The Name of the Rose tips the scales at almost 600 pages, but Eco does a brilliant job focusing on two issues that, at first glance, seem too ridiculous to kill for, whether for personal motives, to serve the church, or for reasons of state. First, did Christ ever laugh? And second, did he and his apostles choose poverty, the belief on which the Franciscan order rests?

But the narrative, if at length, shows why these questions matter in 1327 and today. If Christ did not laugh, the official reasoning goes, satire, jokes, and humor are either vile, a threat to faith, or both. However, William argues that if a devout person must have only a certain sober, humorless mind, then the inquisitors rule, as in fact they do, and the crucial precept of accepting faith through free will ceases to exist. As William warns Adso, “The Antichrist can be born from piety itself, from excessive love of God or of the truth, as the heretic is born from the saint and the possessed from the seer. Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”

The question of poverty has a more immediate political implication. The Franciscan order has splintered, prompting rebellions against church power, to which the church has responded by burning heretics, charging the use of magic, and accusing their opponents of free love and appalling butchery. But as William tells Adso, the rebels don’t care about church doctrines, especially; they resent the extreme wealth of the church and the regimes it supports, both of which contribute to keep the poor as they are.

Amid all this, monks continue to die, and William must divert his efforts from solving the mystery to play politician during the conclave, standing up for his beliefs while avoiding condemnation. As you may have figured out by now (how did I give it away?), The Name of the Rose is a discursive book, but no less mesmerizing for that:

The creature behind us was apparently a monk, though his torn and dirty habit made him look like a vagabond. Unlike many of my brothers, I have never in my whole life been visited by the Devil; but I believe that if he were to appear to me one day, he would have the very features of our interlocutor. His head was hairless, not shaved in penance but as the result of the past action of some viscid eczema; the brow was so low that if he had had hair on his head it would have mingled with his eyebrows (which were thick and shaggy); the eyes were round, with tiny mobile pupils, and whether the gaze was innocent or malign I could not tell: perhaps it was both, in different moods, in flashes.

The Name of the Rose does what the best historical fiction should: illuminate the past by its own lights and therefore reveal the present. As a mystery, it is excellent; to that, add profundity and power.

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

Big Pharma, 1899: Deadly Cure

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Review: Deadly Cure, by Lawrence Goldstone
Pegasus, 2017. 295 pp. $26

As the nineteenth century lurches to a gaudy, jingoistic close, Brooklyn physician Noah Whitestone has much to hope for. He has a busy, satisfying medical practice in partnership with his father, a fiancée as intelligent and independent-minded as she is devoted to him, and a cause to inspire him: preaching against patent medicines, which kill as often as cure, usually through appallingly large doses of opiates.

Still, Noah carries the scars from the death of his stillborn son and first wife, and worries that though he admires his fiancée, he feels no passion for her, beautiful and vivacious though she is. He’s also piqued that his father and he have to run themselves ragged to earn a living, while Noah’s hoity-toity neighbors consult Dr. Arnold Frias, an unctuous glad-hander far more gifted at politics than medicine.

That envy causes Noah no end of trouble, for when Dr. Frias is busy hobnobbing with Admiral Dewey and other military heroes recently returned from the Spanish-American War, one of said hoity-toity neighbors sends for Noah. Her five-year-old son, just getting over a cough, has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Dr. Whitestone suspects opiate poisoning, but he must stabilize the child’s respiratory difficulties first, and does so with two drops of laudanum, a dose too low to hurt the boy. When Noah returns a few hours later, however, the child is dying, beyond help.

Noah’s convinced that Frias must have prescribed too much dope to cure the boy’s cough; or someone else was concurrently dosing the lad with patent medicines; or both. But such is Frias’s social position that Noah’s left holding the bag. He’ll be lucky not to face prosecution for murder, while revocation of his medical license seems likely.

Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, as it appeared in Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz [Flora of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland] 1885, Gera, Germany (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, a reporter for a radical newspaper buttonholes him and claims that the boy’s death is one of many such, victim of experimentation by unscrupulous doctors testing the effects of heroin, a new morphine derivative. Noah finds that hard to believe, and the reporter’s general political outlook, highly critical of American military atrocities in the Philippines, leaves him skeptical as to motive. But as the trail to discover what killed the boy leads to German drug companies and the deaths of whistleblowers, the good doctor doesn’t know whom to trust.

Having recently read Lucy Inglis’s Milk of Paradise, a rambling, informative history of opium, I learned that the German chemist credited with deriving heroin from morphine was looking for a cough suppressant powerful enough to help even consumptives, yet would not be addictive. Medical science believed that he had succeeded, a persistent, misguided theory that matters here. So does the chemist’s other claim to fame, the synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid, soon to be known as aspirin (a discovery he made the same week as that of heroin, by the way).

The political and medical contexts of these two drugs therefore shape the narrative, with patents and royalties as a possible motive for mayhem. But Noah, who falls easy prey to moral certainties, learns that with lives and money at stake, right and wrong become more difficult to distinguish, so that he winds up doubting himself, his father, and cherished beliefs. The potential involvement of Big Pharma in nefarious activities could be today’s headlines, as could the debate over American behavior in a colonial war.

Goldstone excels at period detail, especially that of medical science, and his authorial voice carries authority. When he writes that Frias’s Benz automobile, specially brought over from Germany, costs a thousand dollars, I’m sure it does, and that it looks exactly as described. Some authors might suggest rather than state, saving themselves the trouble of knowing absolutely everything, but Goldstone sweats these details. When two doctors discuss a diagnosis, for instance, they’re utterly believable as medical colleagues — to this layman, at least. The only slip I noticed was talk about allergies, a word that hadn’t yet entered the language. But overall, he creates a pretty impressive effect.

At times, that zeal for minutiae leads to information dumps, but mostly, the atmosphere keeps you turning the pages — that, and the “no — and furthermore.” Whether it’s new evidence that challenges Noah’s perceptions of truth, or unexpected obstacles that make him stumble, the path to the resolution remains properly bumpy until the very end. Along the way, Goldstone offers priceless dialogue, especially for Maribeth, Noah’s fiancée, and her brother, a medical colleague of his whose iconoclasm made me laugh.

Where Deadly Cure falls short is the absolutely improbable derring-do of the last few chapters, the cartoon villains, and the melodrama that results. Sometimes, when a writer is so convincing about the troubles the protagonist faces, there’s no believable solution. But if you can suspend your doubts, Deadly Cure is an entertaining thriller and a reminder that controversies involving industrial medicine go back a long way.

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

Playing Favorites: The Wartime Sisters

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Review: The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martins, 2019. 285 pp. $28

Talk about sibling rivalry. From the moment Ruth Kaplan’s younger sister, Millie, first breathes oxygen, the older girl ceases to exist. No one sees her, pays attention, listens, or thinks she has any talents a girl needs. Oh, sure, she’s bright, bookish, and well organized, but since when have those qualities attracted a husband? Not in Brooklyn in the late 1930s, at any rate, when Ruth comes of age, as a serious young woman studying accounting at college. And not so long as thoroughly modern Millie’s around, cheerful, pretty in a way that turns heads, and easygoing.

Do Mama and Papa Kaplan try to balance the rivalry or combat it in any way? On the contrary; they do their best to create and perpetuate it:

Though Ruth’s tiny transgressions were few and far between, they never seemed to escape her mother’s notice. Any misstep Ruth made was a short, shallow wrinkle on an otherwise smooth and pristine tablecloth. Millie’s slipups, by contrast, were like a full glass of burgundy tipped over onto clean white damask. To their mother’s discerning eye, Ruth’s wrinkles were conspicuous. But her sister’s stains were overlooked and hastily covered — anything so that the meal could continue being served.

What a chilly portrait Loigman has created, a premise so simply elegant, with so few moving parts, that there should be no heavy machinery required to create power, poignancy, or depth. Ruth escapes Brooklyn, marrying Arthur, a decent guy, supposedly as dull and plodding as herself, a whiz kid who, in the war years, gets posted to the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, to do weapons research. Millie’s no-good boyfriend, handsome and dashing but worthless to all eyes but hers, marries her and enlists after Pearl Harbor, also leaving behind a young son, Michael.

The Springfield Armory’s experimental workshop, 1923. In the right background, wearing a lab coat, stands John Garand, inventor of the rifle that became standard army issue in World War II (courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

I like this part of the story best. Told in flashback, the narrative shows how the sisters’ estrangement only hardens with time. Kaplan mère is quite a piece of work, vicious and controlling. Love is sweet, she says, but it tastes better with bread, and she preaches to Millie the unalterable fantasy that the girl will marry a fabulously rich man who takes care of all her wants, every single second, smitten by her beauty and charm. My grandmother’s version was, “It’s just as easy to marry a rich girl as a poor one,” which led her to campaign, hard, against my father choosing my mother. So I’m right there with Loigman in all this.

Indeed, when Loigman lets character drive her narrative, which she does until about the halfway point, The Wartime Sisters packs a punch. After that, however, the contrived story takes over. The sibling rivalry, though still essential, gets diluted by the presence of too many other voices, and the narrative descends into predictable melodrama. Loigman might have redeemed this had the sisters confronted one another properly, with a knockdown, drag-out fight that’s been brewing all their lives. Instead, when their obligatory battle arrives, it peters out much too soon — and, even worse, I get the impression that the author has played favorites, tipping the scales. One sister apologizes; one doesn’t, pleading that she wasn’t responsible. Baloney. It takes two to tango.

The prose style reads almost like nonfiction, practically devoid of metaphor. However, I like the dialogue very much, and the author uses it to create short, powerful scenes. The best concern the sisters and, later, Lillian, wife of the commanding officer at the armory, whose upbringing was even more harrowing than theirs and forms a point of comparison. But too many characters seem vacant, whether Ruth’s daughters, the nasty, bigoted busybody wife that probably every military installation must have, or the caricature of Mama Kaplan, a dreadful person with no apparent redeeming features.

Strangely, The Wartime Sisters might have worked had Loigman merely let the sisters slug it out. But once a subplot takes over, the sisters have no chance to get at one another, and the narrative follows the expected route. Ironically, making those extra pieces fit probably demands more work, when filling out the characters already present might have sufficed. It’s too bad; The Wartime Sisters has its moments. I just wish there were more of them.

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

What a Tangled Web We Weave: The Poison Bed

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Review: The Poison Bed, by Elizabeth Fremantle
Pegasus, 2019. 403 pp. $26

In 1615, England’s golden couple, Robert and Frances Carr, face trial for murder, and the only question is whether both will swing or only one. At first glance, their predicament sounds highly improbable, given how far they have fallen and how quickly. Why, it seems only yesterday that Frances was a star at the court of King James I, celebrated for her charismatic beauty, wit, and sharp intelligence. Further, as a member of the powerful Howard family, she’s a force one does well not to dismiss. Her husband, who rose from obscurity as the orphan of a minor nobleman to become the king’s lover, trusted advisor, and a rich man, cuts an equally brilliant figure. (To read what Winston Churchill had to say about that as a historian, click here.) Not only that, he rescued Frances from an abusive marriage — not without help, of course, and therein hangs a tale.

As Robert observes, “If people know what you love most, it is a fault line they can exploit to break you.” And success breeds enemies who’d like nothing better than to bring down the blessed and seize their substance. So as the novel begins, and guards sweep the Carrs away to prison, the narrative gradually leads you to wonder who’s behind the arrests, and why. But nothing’s as it seems. Robert and Frances both love wealth and power, and her family — well, they’re venal and vicious as they come — and maybe the golden couple cut corners (or throats) on their way to the top. So who’s guilty, and what did he — or she, or they — do, exactly? You won’t find out until the very end.

Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, as William Larkin painted her in 1615 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What a brilliant thriller this is, with enough thrust, counterthrust, and deception to make a Jacobean revenge tragedy. (John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi even makes a cameo appearance as a theatrical offering.) Fremantle tells her story in two directions, like halves of a sliding door that roll from opposite sides until they meet. This is exceptionally hard to bring off, and many such narratives feel forced or shoehorned simply to fulfill a literary conceit. Not here. Told in alternating chapters, titled Her and Him, with rare exceptions — all early on — the storytelling feels coherent, almost seamless, despite shifting verb tenses, from present to past, and back.

The Poison Bed succeeds, in large part, because of the prose, which puts the two main characters so vividly on the page, they’re practically sitting next to you. Take, for example, this passage from before their marriage, when Robert sees Frances for the first time in years:

In the intervening years, she’d become a woman. I watched her with [Prince] Henry, laughing about something, their heads flung back, mouths open, but she stopped suddenly, turning away from him, her gaze locking on me, as if she were a hawk and I a hare. I like to imagine it was the force of my desire that drew her attention. I had never seen such eyes, dark glossy ovals. Just a square of white in each, a reflection of the window behind me, and my own tiny form etched there. She said nothing, just smiled, displaying teeth as neat as a string of pearls.

Rest assured that Frances’s view of Robert in the same scene is equally feral. But Fremantle’s approach goes deeper. She extends such metaphors throughout the book, always taking pains to imbue emotional transitions with physical parallels, often concerning animals. During one conversation with the king, while hunting with falcons, Robert’s keenly aware that James’s bird, much larger than his kestrel, could destroy her if it wished, and there’d be nothing Robert could do. That’s the same position he’s in with his monarch. Similarly, when Frances wonders what to do regarding her husband’s anxieties, she watches a groom calming a skittish horse and gets her answer. I like that approach much more than rhetorical questions, such as, What do I do now?

But if The Poison Bed has a flaw, it’s an unfair shift in which it comes out that not all the narration may be trusted. Having called out Samantha Harvey for that in The Western Wind, I’m bound to mention it here, while trying not to reveal too much. When the change first happens, if you’re like me, you’ll resent it and feel manipulated. But if there’s a saving grace, it’s that the revelation can’t be a complete surprise, given the court atmosphere, the power games the characters have played, and the lies they tell themselves in justification — assuming they even bother. In all that falseness, some readers may be put off; after all, for whom is the reader meant to feel empathy?

Still, maybe that’s what Jacobean court life was like — and even if it wasn’t, The Poison Bed has created that world in fine, plausible detail. Despite the rude surprise, it’s one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time.

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

Robber Baron Philanthropist: Carnegie’s Maid

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Review: Carnegie’s Maid, by Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks, 2018. 281 pp. $26

Why did Andrew Carnegie, arguably the most cutthroat robber baron ever — which is saying something — turn philanthropist? That’s the question Benedict tries to answer in this engaging, if half-fulfilled, novel. Her catalyst is Clara Kelley, who leaves Galway for New York in November 1863, on a mission that feels desperate. Her once-prosperous farm family faces poverty, if not destitution, because of her father’s political activity. Clara, healthy, vigorous, and intelligent, is the daughter chosen to cross the Atlantic, find gainful employment, and send money home.

Well versed in horror stories about conmen who fleece new immigrants, Clara makes an instinctive decision on arrival. A man in livery asks her whether she’s Clara Kelley, to which she naturally says yes. But it’s quickly apparent that she’s not the young woman he’s expecting. Nevertheless, she plays the part to the hilt—-who’s fleecing whom?–and he helps her into his carriage, which will bring them to Pittsburgh. During the ride, Clara gleans that she’s to be ladies’ maid to a Mrs. Carnegie, a notion that both excites and terrifies her, because she has no idea what a lady’s maid does or who her new employer is, aside from having a wealthy son. I like this part of the novel best, for Clara must suss out what people want to hear before they even ask, an exercise fraught with tension and, sometimes, humor.

Andrew Carnegie’s birthplace, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland (courtesy user: kilnburn via Wikimedia Commons)

But our heroine has two aces up her puffy sleeves. First, her betters talk about her as though she weren’t there — a servant’s lot — and from the information gained, she infers ways to keep one step ahead of exposure. Secondly, Clara senses that Mrs. Carnegie asks so many questions about how her former employers dressed, took tea, or buffed their nails not to uncover her maid’s falsehoods, but because she’s unsure of herself. She has money, of course, and a son who’s like a god to her, but no name or social standing, and that scares her. She needs to know How Things Are Done, without giving herself away. In other words, she’s more like her maid than she knows.

Clara can’t ever breathe a syllable of her discovery, yet the knowledge gives her courage and the means with which to flatter. And when she has the rare luxury to breathe, she’s free to observe that her made-of-iron mistress manufactures and sells that product, and her escritoire holds business papers instead of invitations or calling cards. That opens a world for Clara — a woman can enter business and compete with men — a feminist touch I like, and which Benedict wisely refrains from overplaying.

Despite such an ingenious premise and engaging protagonist, though, several obstacles hold the story back. First is Pointless Prologue No. 1728, in which Andrew pens an unsent letter to Clara bemoaning her departure, expressing his love, and promising to devote his fortune to charitable causes. A version of this letter apparently exists, which prompts the central historical question — why did he write it? — but sabotages the plot. Narrative questions do remain, but I think they pale beside the larger issues, not least whose story this is, the male industrialist’s or that of the fictive woman who influences him. I find Clara’s predicament compelling enough at the outset without a Famous Person waiting in the wings.

Also, rather than evoke Clara’s conflicts through physical detail, such as memories of her home and family, she asks rhetorical questions of herself, often the same ones. So many authors settle for that, and some readers might say that’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction. I disagree. A confident storyteller in any genre realizes that a three-sentence digression that offers a window on inner life connects with the reader and creates tension. It’s also subtler and more effective than three rhetorical questions in a row.

Carnegie’s Maid does draw some lovely parallels. Carnegie and Clara realize that they’re both immigrants, yet the distance between them is enormous. I wish Clara had gone a little further, recognizing that her lie is no worse than those he tells in his business, and that unlike him, she hasn’t hurt anybody. Her pretense, in fact, is precisely the sort of boldness that can decide success or failure, especially for a poor immigrant, and it’s certainly what has built the Carnegie empire. She can never say so, but I wanted her to think it.

Benedict also juxtaposes Clara’s family situation with that of Mr. Ford, the household chef and former slave, and her only ally among the servants. I like this very much, but again, I would have liked it even better had Clara imagined slavery or how her friend must have suffered. Likewise, I would have welcomed a passage or two in which she wonders what she would do if she had riches, or what it might feel like to be sexually touched, an issue that arises because of Andrew’s attraction for her. We’re told only that no one in Galway wanted to marry her, but surely, she felt some sexual pull, sometime. I’d have expected her to measure that fantasy against Andrew’s physical reality and to struggle with that.

Consequently, Carnegie’s Maid feels restrained, in a way, because of risks not taken. But I still like this novel, which has much to recommend it.

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

Why Prologues (Almost) Never Work: After the Party

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Not Exactly a Review: After the Party, by Cressida Connolly
Pegasus, 2019. 272 pp. $26

Phyllis Forrester enjoys a sheltered life in 1938 Sussex, frightened only of her priggish, domineering husband, Hugh, and her two grasping, manipulative sisters, who live nearby. At a fancy-dress ball, the party of the title, Phyllis fails to protect a friend and suffers for it ever afterward — or so she says.

But the novel really concerns the Forresters’ support for a political movement that preaches “England first,” rejection of foreigners, and nonintervention in the European war that threatens. Students of that era will guess that it’s Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union, but Connolly, a subtle storyteller, doesn’t reveal that identifier right away. I suspect that before she pastes the Fascist label on her characters, she wants you to realize that they’re little different from people everyone has met, if perhaps more selfish or snobbish than most. Likewise, Phyllis’s refusal to examine or even admit to her spouse’s and siblings’ condescension and cruelty toward her evokes her inability to read fascism for what it is.

As political observation, After the Party has much to recommend it, especially the spare yet vivid portrayal of attitudes. As a novel, however, it frustrates me; and because explaining why involves spoilers, I suggest that anyone who plans to read the book should stop here.

The narrative actually begins in 1979, in Phyllis’s internal monologue looking back at the terrible event after the party and her subsequent imprisonment. When I read historical fiction, I like to lose myself in the past, so I avoid novels that feature a parallel, contemporary narrative (this one got in under my radar). But that’s not my beef here.

For those of you who don’t write novels, let me plead for those who do. One of the hardest decisions is where and how to begin, and if you choose wrongly, you can doom your narrative from the get-go. It sounds easy to fix or recognize, but it isn’t; just think of how many novels burden the narrative with too much backstory, too soon. In this case, Connolly’s prologue, which precedes a very long backstory, suggests that the party and Phyllis’s imprisonment are connected. In fact, they occur two years apart, and Phyllis later backs off her belief that she regards her prison time as just punishment for her mistake. Consequently, when you reach the party scene and realize there’s no connection, if you’re like me, you feel a letdown and wonder why the author thought she had to manipulate you with that prologue.

I think Connolly hopes to tie together disparate elements that don’t fit in the order they appear. If she does this to save her description of what makes a Fascist, that’s an idea, a theme, not a story, however interesting or cogent it might be. But two-thirds of the way through the book, after the war starts, Phyllis and Hugh are arrested and interned without trial or even legal counsel for having supported the British Union. That’s a story, especially because one of her sisters, active in the movement far longer, somehow remains free. Should the novel begin there, then? Maybe.

I can’t presume to know whether Connolly fell in love with her backstory and tries to save it through Phyllis’s occasional latter-day observations (which, incidentally, interrupt the forward narrative with privileged information). All I can say is that, as a writer, I’ve messed up enough novels by falling in love with backstory that either doesn’t belong or should go somewhere else. If I’ve learned my lesson, it’s because of the more than three hundred novels I’ve read so as to write in these pages. Many have prologues, yet only once do I recall an instance where that technique works — Andrew Hilleman’s World, Chase Me Down. And he succeeds not because he shows a crime, a high-wire act, a steamy love scene, or a courtroom verdict, teasing the reader with the mystery or romance to come. Rather, within the first lines, he establishes the sense of urgency that all compelling stories have — and if a novel lacks that, it doesn’t matter what the author dangles in your face to keep your interest.

Test this for yourself. The next time you start a novel, see whether you feel connected to the protagonist’s urgency about what makes this moment different, special, even earthshaking. I’m willing to bet that if you don’t feel this within the first five pages, you’re not likely to make it to page 50. And if you do read that far, it’s not because of a prologue.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this commentary appears in a different, shorter form.

Daring Rescues: The Flight Portfolio

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Review: The Flight Portfolio, by Julie Orringer
Knopf, 2019. 553 pp. $28

In 1940, Varian Fry, literary scholar and foreign policy historian, arrives in Marseille facing an impossible job: pry a handful of stateless, mostly Jewish refugees out of Vichy France and get them to safety. They belong to the intellectual and artistic cream of Europe, which poses a difficult question, whether it’s moral to save Marc Chagall or André Breton while letting nobodies die. In any event, Vichy won’t grant exit visas; the police have informers everywhere; the American consul in Marseilles, Hugh Fullerton, won’t help; and the U.S. State Department, patently anti-Semitic, sends threatening cables to Varian.

Varian Fry has long been a hero of mine; you’ll know why if you see the small exhibit about him at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. So I was very much looking forward to reading The Flight Portfolio, whose first hundred pages will take your breath away. You get the full flavor of Marseille, the perilous work of escape, the constant setbacks, arrests, exposures — did I say, “No; and furthermore”? — and how absolutely out of touch Varian’s Stateside supervisors are about the danger, the stakes, the costs, the methods required.

On the bright side, helpful people just show up at the committee office in Marseille, like Miriam Davenport and Mary Jayne Gold, whose skill, coolness under fire, judgment, and private funds keep the effort afloat. Orringer does a terrific job with these secondary characters (these two women, incidentally, are real historical figures) and how Varian learns from them to handle a job no one could have prepared him for. Together, their inventions are ingenious, their subterfuge and play-acting essential, their courage and humanity the stuff of legend.

Meanwhile, you read this in prose that could only come from a Muse herself:

The walk from his hotel took him down the boulevard d’Athènes and across the aorta of Marseille, the Canebière, where diners lounged at café tables and jazz angled from the open restaurant windows despite the post-occupation ban. The street smelled of diesel fuel and cardamom and wet gutters, of tobacco and women’s perfume.… At this hour the port was still faintly illuminated by a horizon line of brilliant yellow, the last liquid dregs of a sunset that had insisted its corals and ochres through the fog. But in the streets, darkness had already fallen; the alleys of the port district snaked into ill-lit caverns on either side of the boulevard.

Yet despite all that, The Flight Portfolio disappoints me. Partly that comes from the repetitive rescue process, similar to a revolving door. For instance, when Chagall refuses, at first, to heed Varian’s warnings that he’s in danger, there’s Walter Benjamin, the eminent philosopher, to consider; and after him, Walter Mehring, the poet and satirist of the Nazi regime. Each person’s case differs, and the traps and obstacles vary too. Yet, when one refugee makes it through the door (or not), another steps up. Despite the myriad complications and tension that results, it never spirals upward. That’s the nature of the story.

Perhaps to add context — personal and political — Orringer invents Elliott Grant, a former lover from Varian’s Harvard days, and ties him to the escape narrative. (Varian is bisexual; his wife, Eileen, remains an off-stage presence.) Grant doesn’t appeal to me; he seems like a golden boy too conscious of his aura, and a snob to boot. He’s there to teach Varian the symbolic link between saving hunted refugees and being hunted oneself as a homosexual, but that doesn’t click into place until the last hundred pages. During the huge chunk in the middle, Grant’s presence almost always leads me to ask why I’m reading about him when the clock is running out on the great intellectuals of Europe. The revolving door gains no tension, and in fact slows down.

Orringer wishes to argue that Varian’s devotion to the cause results partly from his sexual identification. Fair enough; but if so, must this home truth elude him for so long? I’m particularly puzzled because he readily grasps a different moral parallel, regarding a shameful incident from his past, which Orringer introduces as though it’s crucial, yet makes little use of it. I could have read more about that. I’d have also liked to hear more about Miriam Davenport, Mary Jayne Gold, and Vice-Consul Harry Bingham, who disobeys his boss to aid Varian, and about the others who do much of the clandestine work.

It’s a daunting task, biographical fiction — what do you include, omit, embellish, or invent? Orringer pours her heart out for The Flight Portfolio, and I admire her imagination and gift for putting it on the page. All the same, for me, this novel remains earthbound.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, where this post appeared in shorter, different form.

About a Marriage: Thomas and Beal in the Midi

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Review: Thomas and Beal in the Midi, by Christopher Tilghman
FSG, 2019. 371 pp. $27

In the early 1890s, childhood friends, now newlyweds Beal Terrell and Thomas Bayly, leave their native Maryland for a new life abroad. Their displacement would be unremarkable, except that Thomas’s father owned the extensive farm and peach orchards on which Beal grew up, as the child of former slaves. Since interracial marriage is illegal in Maryland — and dangerous anywhere in the United States — the couple has chosen France. Or, rather, Thomas has. Beal, though she loves Thomas and has agreed to the plan as the most practical, sensible way to have a life together, hasn’t chosen anything, and therein hangs a tale.

Thomas and Beal in the Midi offers an unusual twist on interracial marriage. Between the two participants, race causes no rifts. Other people construct what they will about the Baylys, often to indulge their bigotry, but their reactions leave no scars. The real problem is that the two exiles have married young; their inexperience makes for growing pains, specifically Beal’s difficulties being a beautiful woman. She’s tired of having men tell her who she is or must be, which is perfectly understandable, especially because that would put her in their power. But Thomas doesn’t do that, so when she lets herself be put upon or even drawn to other men who do, it’s perverse.

True, Thomas does decide, after a few months’ research in Paris, that they’ll move to Languedoc and grow grapes, and, as the man of the couple, he’s expected to be the planner. But the way Tilghman portrays his protagonists, Thomas would like nothing better than to share his enthusiasm, and Beal acts as if she couldn’t care less. Consequently, her rebellion — if such it is — takes the form of permitting approaches from precisely those men who look upon her as an object for their own admiration, a self-defeating and hurtful choice all around.

To be fair, Thomas has a certain reserve about him, a delicacy that keeps him from assuming too much. It can be maddening and charming, both, and one thing about Beal’s secret admirers, they’re not shy about talking. Meanwhile, Thomas has a mild flirtation of his own, looking for the intellectual passion Beal withholds, so the wrong doesn’t go only one direction. But he’s more honorable, with a firmer conscience. I find him far more sympathetic than his wife, who acts like an immature ninny, at times. That’s why I like the novel less than I wanted to.

For all that, though, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Tilghman has a terrific eye for emotional nuance, as in this scene between Thomas and a nun, a contact of the young man’s in Paris:

One thing he did not want to hear was some nun expounding on the challenges he faced, on the barriers Beal would encounter as — he had expected her to use this word and she had — a ‘Negress.’ But of course, expounding on challenges was what she had done. Thomas could only take refuge in the fact that she clearly held him in no higher regard than she did Beal.… When he said he was exploring various possibilities for a career in business, she acted as if this were code for doing nothing at all. She looked at Thomas and saw idleness; she thought he was stupid. He was supposed to think she was treating him perfectly properly, but he was also supposed to feel bad without really knowing why, to go away with a gnawing disquiet. He’d seen this performance from his mother dozens and dozens of times: how perfectly fascinating, she would say.

Compared with many novels, this one has a less-than-busy plot. Yet the writing, which finds unexpected meaning in small moments, fills the spaces with tension. In fact, the last part of the narrative seems rushed, a little, as though the author (or agent or editor?) wanted a quicker resolution, even at the expense of a confrontation or two that need to happen before the reader’s eyes. Nothing like destroying a climax before it starts.

Aside from the marvelous prose, I also like the symbolism. Thomas’s grape-growing experiment comes on the heels of an agricultural disaster, the invasion of phylloxera, an aphid that laid waste to much of France’s grape rootstock. To keep his vineyards alive, he must therefore graft resistant American stock on to what already grows, while uprooting the one hardy local varietal that makes insipid wine, and whose market is glutted. Since Thomas’s father’s peach orchards died off from blight (symbolic of the slavery that existed there), you can take the grafting metaphor in any direction you wish — Beal and Thomas’s marriage; America and Europe; Thomas repairing his father’s mistakes; a rebuilding of tolerance; new life in general.

Having worked for a wine merchant and traveled widely in France, I could have happily read more about the wine business. But Thomas and Beal in the Midi is a pretty good love story, and there’s much to admire in it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher via Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.