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.

Lonely Hearts: Courting Mr. Lincoln

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Review: Courting Mr. Lincoln, by Louis Bayard
Algonquin, 2019. 379 pp. $28

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of ambitions in politics must be in want of a wife.”

No, that’s not how this richly imagined novel about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd begins, but it could have. For Bayard’s tale recalls Jane Austen in its wit, keenly observed social conventions, and chief object, finding love amid the teacups and calling cards, the glances and tacit declarations of acceptance or rejection. But this is Austen with broader humor, because Lincoln arrives in Springfield, Illinois, blissfully unaware of said social conventions, and the way he learns, and his reaction to his studies, is often hilarious.

Then, too, the narrative has a sharper, more serious tone, because the mud-plagued streets of Springfield have nothing like the gentility that Elizabeth Bennet & Co. would recognize, and some of the mud is metaphorical, flung by politicians at one another. The two principals here are lonely, tortured people, for whom marriage, as every reader surely knows, will bring many heartrending trials. And the chief obstacle to their betrothal isn’t Mary’s snobby, married sister Elizabeth, with whom she lives, but the psychological pain with which Lincoln lives.

With that inescapable, tragic overlay, Bayard does a remarkable job of evoking the lightness in both lovers; her wit and intelligence, his qualities that other men lack. As his close friend Joshua Speed puts it, Lincoln says what he believes and believes what he says. This characteristic is so startling that other men beg for his opinion on every matter under the sun. Be it known also that when Mary first meets him, he reminds her of a spindly pine tree, so a little moral strength helps.

Joshua and Mary are the two point-of-view characters, not Lincoln. That choice offers three crucial advantages, which Bayard deftly exploits. First, Lincoln’s intense feelings of unworthiness, which often prompt a deep withdrawal into himself, remain suggested but properly enigmatic, so the reader shares Speed’s and Mary’s frustration that he’s unreachable. Second, Speed has undertaken to school Lincoln in etiquette and social graces; since they both live above Speed’s dry-goods store (with two other men), they’re often together. Though aware that a more refined Lincoln will make him fitter for female company — partly the purpose, for he’ll need a wife if he’s to advance in politics — Speed resents his friend’s success with Mary. Jealous of Lincoln for getting the belle of Springfield, and of the belle for intruding on a perfectly good bachelor friendship, Speed has mixed motives throughout.

That unusual window allows the narrative to explore and comment on the bounds of friendship and courtship in a deep, thought-provoking way. Friendship is much easier to test, define, and judge, whereas marriage is a speculative option, at best. It’s also apparent that Speed is courting Lincoln too, for his own purposes — hence the title. Yet none of that prevents Lincoln’s preparation for social respectability from reaching high comedy, especially when the merchant tries to teach the backwoods lawyer how to waltz.

But if dancing befuddles the long-limbed Lincoln, friendship can be just as awkward:

They had taken their time warming to each other. Joshua at first blamed the difference in their upbringings, but he came to see that it ran deeper, that his own reticence was in the nature of a host unwilling to presume too much on his guest, whereas Lincoln’s was soul deep. It didn’t matter how innocent the question Joshua lobbed his way. How do you take your coffee? Would you care for some hardtack? Would you like Charlotte to wash your linen? Lincoln enfolded himself around each query, then disgorged the briefest and least revealing of replies. Always with the faint air of regret, as if he had been tricked into abandoning his Fifth Amendment protections.

If Courting Mr. Lincoln has a notable flaw, it’s the repetition, the alternating perspective of Mary and Speed going over the same events. To be sure, they offer very different views of them. But even though I understood the literary convention, which Bayard invokes without calling attention to it — the characters wouldn’t, would they? — the narrative still surprised me. I wound up thinking, Wait a minute; I read this before.

But that’s no reason to fault a superb love story, which I highly recommend. And though each of us likely imbues Lincoln with the virtues we wish to see in him, I came away from this portrayal marveling at how our most thoughtful, compassionate president, mortified at hurting anyone or anything, oversaw our country during its deadliest, most divisive conflict.

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

Larger Than Life: The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King

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Review: The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, by Jerome Charyn
Liveright, 2019. 283 pp. $27

Imagine that Teddy Roosevelt is telling his life story, and you have the premise of this enthralling, imaginative novel. Simple, yet anything but. Predictable, to a point, if you know the man’s past, yet not really. Maybe I’m more interested in TR than most, having read Theodore Rex, the final volume of Edmund Morris’s biography. And if you asked me which historical figure I’d invite to dinner, TR would be first on the list.

But none of that entirely prepared me for Charyn’s bravura narrative, which begins when our hero is four. The story goes until 1901, when, in the immortal words of Republican fixer Mark Hanna, which don’t appear in the novel, “That damn cowboy is now President of the United States!” So those hoping to hear just how rex Theodore was, in Charyn’s invented voice for him, will be disappointed.

From the second story of their grandfather’s mansion on Broadway (facing the camera), six-year-old Theodore Roosevelt and his brother Elliott watch Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in April 1865 (courtesy New-York Historical Society and the New York Times, via Wikimedia Commons)

Never mind that. Cowboy King reads like a dime novel (or so I assume, never having read one). The fabulous cover, one of the best I’ve ever seen, has a mock 15¢ sticker on it. So you know what you’re getting: a rough-and-tumble narrative about a rough-and-tumble life. You see little “Teedie,” as he’s known to intimates, wheezing from asthma, and how his larger-than-life father, known to many as Brave Heart, grabs him and wills the air into his body, bundling the boy up for a breakneck carriage ride around Manhattan at all hours, if a stream of wind is deemed necessary. There’s the boy collecting zoological specimens, never without his pet garter snake, Zeus, in his pocket, activities that shape the future trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo, and the president who preserved national parks as a gift to the nation.

Through these scenes of youth, Charyn shows the man who would later drive himself physically to prove he was no weakling, and whose response to loss or rejection would invariably involve action rather than reflection or emotional confrontation. Hence his two-year sojourn in the Badlands as a rancher and sheriff following a tragic, early death of a loved one, leaving behind an infant child. Astutely, Charyn gives his protagonist disturbing dreams, because the pain will out; these nightmares provide the emotional threads that bind the narrative.

But if TR shies from emotional confrontation, he relishes the other kind, and not just in the Badlands. In this tale, Teddy, having boxed bantamweight at Harvard, readily trades blows while building his New York City political career, battling henchmen and even kingpins of both Democratic and Republican machines, a dangerous hobby. Whether this is real or dime-novel legend, I can’t say, but you do get the pugnacity, the preference to go down fighting rather than be anyone’s pawn.

Interestingly, TR’s charitable impulses lag well behind his hatred of corporate or political bosses. Brave Heart, who tries to teach him greater generosity, has set up a house for orphans who become newsboys, and he’s forever watching out for them, to Teedie’s chagrin. And when the young man comes rushing back from college at the news of his father’s imminent death, he finds this scene:

There was an ominous vigil in front of the house; a hundred newsboys stood waiting in the slush and snow, cap in hand, like a choir robbed of song.… They were each clutching a candle, every one. The flames flickered in the wind and revealed their unwashed faces with a crooked glow. Their pockets were loaded with coins, I could tell. They’d come right from their routes to Papa’s vigil with penny candles. They didn’t cry… The newsies swayed with their candles that burnt down to a nub. I cursed their devotion to Papa. It frightened me. But I could hear their silent chorus.
Too late, Teedie, you’ve come too late.

For all these marvels, Cowboy King’s a little too clean in its presentation. You don’t see TR’s credo of the triumph of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” his belief in eugenics, or his mistrust of immigrants, the “hyphenated Americans,” whom he thought should assimilate as quickly as possible. You don’t see his efforts to provoke the Spanish-American War, though other characters blame him for that. But this isn’t nonfiction. It’s how TR might have narrated his life before becoming president, given a cigar, a fire, a comfortable chair, and a willing audience. I’m there.

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

No Novocain Required: Bowlaway

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Review: Bowlaway, by Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco, 2019. 373 pp. $28

Around the turn of the last century in Salford, Massachusetts — don’t bother to search your atlas — two men discover a woman lying aboveground in a cemetery. A bag beside her contains a corset, a small bowling ball, a candlepin, and fifteen pounds of gold bars. When Bertha Truitt wakes up (for she was asleep, not dead), she sets eyes on Dr. Leviticus Sprague, one of her discoverers, and decides to marry him. She hires the other, Joe Wear, for the candlepin bowling alley she opens.

No one knows how Bertha got there, where she was before, or who she is. But that doesn’t prevent the townsfolk from making myths about her, and not all are complimentary. Her marriage to Dr. Sprague, who’s African-American, causes tongues to wag, as does her bowling alley’s approach to the sport — all welcome, men and women together, which can hardly be ladylike. But the young women Bertha cultivates like it fine, and the alley and its owner become town icons.

A postcard, ca. 1910, of the Windsor Club candlepin lanes in Windsor, Vermont. The signs prohibit players from stepping or sliding into the lanes. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Bowlaway resists classification as a historical novel, except in the most inclusive sense, for few outside events intrude on the alley and its denizens, though common social attitudes do. I suspect that McCracken chose her time and place because that’s when candlepin was popular in New England, “a game of purity for former puritans.” But as she says in her acknowledgments, “This book is highly inaccurate, even for a novel.” And that’s what Bowlaway is, really, a kind-hearted, whimsical musing about the eccentricities that permit (but more often inhibit) love. The prose is literary, yes, but to engage the reader, not call attention to itself.

On principle, I dislike quirky. I must be one of the few readers of literary fiction who can’t abide Anne Tyler; putting up with her asylum of self-destructive masochists makes me feel as if I’m having a tooth drilled. Pass the Novocain, please. But Bowlaway needs no painkillers. Maybe it’s because the characters sense that they’re lost and therefore can’t take themselves too seriously or fool anyone else into doing so. They’re just trying to figure out which front to put up, an internal shell game that makes them more recognizable, for all their madness.
A narrative that depended on cutesy plot twists in which to display these weirdnesses would quickly wear thin.

McCracken goes the other way, relying on character through physical description. Her great gift here involves the expansion of consciousness to include perspectives that are unusual, to say the least. For instance, I’ve never read a paragraph about a child in utero who has the advantage over her mother, because, like a scientist, “she had known Bertha’s literal depths, had elbowed her organs and heard the racket of her various systems.” I have to laugh at that; I laughed often, reading Bowlaway.

How many books do you read in which the author can launch a perfect metaphor that’s equally funny and painful, like this: “Her relatives were doomed stocks in which she had better not invest, but she had come into love like a late inheritance.” Or descriptions that reveal an emotional atmosphere, so that a bowling alley becomes a character:

Nobody stands behind the wooden counter at the front — a large oak structure like a pulpit, with a spectacular cash register that looks ready to admit steam-powered music, a calliope of money. Nobody sits at the bar along the other wall, though the jar of pickled eggs glows like a fortune-teller. The tables and chairs in the middle of the room await lollygaggers. The ceilings are warehouse high, so that the eventual smoke coming off all those eventual people (cigarette, cigar, desire, effort) might be stored aloft.

To be sure, not everyone in this absurd candlepin universe pleases the heart or soul. Two important characters in particular are extremely irritating, whether because of selfishness like an art form, bad faith, or the sort of masochism that just isn’t funny or winning, no matter how you look at it. Maybe that’s the trouble with a novel that rests on good-heartedness; since the outliers don’t really belong, they test the boundaries of that place and, perhaps, the reader’s patience. Still, as a tale of a star-crossed family over several generations, with its legends, secrets, and resentments, Bowlaway will make you laugh and think.

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

Mythic Seduction: Once Upon a River

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Review: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield
Atria, 2018. 464 pp. $28

The night of the 1887 winter solstice, drinkers and storytellers at the Swan, an inn that has served generations of villagers hard by the Thames in Oxfordshire, witness an event capable of stirring the mind for generations. A badly injured, comatose man is dragged in with a child, a four-year-old girl, dead, to all appearances. The revelers immediately send for Rita Sunday, their exceptionally gifted nurse practitioner, who tends the wounded man and checks the girl’s vital signs. A shake of Rita’s head tells everyone what they’ve already feared. And yet, as the nurse studies the girl laid out on a table, she’s less than absolutely certain.

The Thames at Oxford (courtesy Zxb via Wikimedia Commons)

Sure enough, within hours, the girl stirs. She can’t speak — whether from psychological trauma remains unclear, for she bears no apparent physical injury — and at first, she doesn’t bother to track any conversation or stimulus around her. But alive, she is. The question is, whose daughter is she? Is she Amelia Vaughn, abducted from her parents two years before? Or Alice Armstrong, born to parents who no longer live together, and who has herself disappeared, poor mite?

The solution to this mystery involves violence, loss, conspiracy, romance, and some of the most beautiful prose you’ll ever read, elegantly simple, unhurried, like the river. This is storytelling at its finest, as befits the tradition of the Swan. Once Upon a River conveys that benevolent, all-knowing authorial mood of folklore or fable, and if it didn’t, I’m not sure the novel would work, or at least not for me. The bad guys are truly bad, and the good guys, though they may have a foible or two, could never do anything really hurtful. They never get angry, jealous, or aggressive, nor do they have any grudges, never mind holding onto them.

Robert Armstrong, grandfather to Alice, is the son of a lord and a black serving girl, well educated, thoughtful, and sensitive. You have to like Robert, and though he’s keenly aware that his dark skin scares many people, he has infinite charm that wins just about anyone over within a minute or less. Does he resent the prejudice that makes him a feared, hated object on sight? No, he doesn’t. Should he? If we’re talking about the real world, why, of course. But Once Upon a River mixes fantasy with reality, and though a Woo-Woo Meter, if such a thing existed, would flicker occasionally, I’m glad that Rita’s there to scoff at magic. She’s ably aided in her skepticism by Henry Daunt, the badly injured man, who turns out to be a photographer, and therefore skilled at observation.

Yet Setterfield can seduce even a crotchety skeptic like me. I particularly like her creation of Quietly, a spirit boatman credited with rescuing many of his living brethren from certain drowning when it’s not their time, while, conversely, escorting to the next world those whose moment has come.

But mostly, I think the writing carries the novel. Take, for only one example among many, a passage about a man as he leaves the Swan the fateful night, trying to make sense of having witnessed a girl seemingly return from the dead:

Usually the walk home from the Swan was a time for regret — regret that his joints ached so badly, that he had drunk too much, that the best of life had passed him by and he had only aches and pains ahead of him now, a gradual decline till at the end he would sink into the grave. But having witnessed one miracle he now saw miracles everywhere: the dark night sky his old eyes had ignored thousands of times before tonight unfolded itself above his head with the vastness of eternal mystery. He stopped to stare up and marvel. The river was splashing and chiming like silver on glass; the sound spilled into his ear, resonated in chambers of his mind he’d never known existed. He lowered his head to look at the water. For the first time in a lifetime by the river he noticed — really noticed — that under a moonless sky the river makes its own mercurial light. Light that is also darkness, darkness that is also light.

Note how Setterfield’s description remains understated. No raptures or verbal fireworks here; only the river and sky as someone who’d watched them all his long life would view them. And because he sees them afresh, you catch his sense of wonder, joy in being alive, and gratitude that he’s lived this long to appreciate the heavens and the water. Lightly done, and all the more affecting for that.

That’s Once Upon a River. Read, and be seduced.

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

Vienna Blood: The Second Rider

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Review: The Second Rider, by Alex Beer
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Europa, 2018. 319 pp. $17

When police Inspector August Emmerich stumbles across a corpse while pursuing a black-market ring in 1919 Vienna, he refuses to do what his superiors tell him. That’s nothing new, apparently. Emmerich, a gifted detective who longs to work in homicide, the elite police unit, has made no secret of his ambition or his contempt for idiotic rules and the men who make them.

Karl-Marx-Hof,, a tenement built during the Socialist era in Vienna (courtesy © Bwag/Wikimedia)

Unfortunately for August, however, the mayor has been leaning on the police to break the black marketeering that has caused such misery in this freezing, starving, ill-clad, impoverished postwar city. Which means that even though the dead man August happens on couldn’t have committed suicide the way the coroner insists — the deceased was a shell-shocked veteran with such a debilitating tremor, he couldn’t have loaded a pistol and held it to his head — the inspector’s under orders to leave that case and crush the black market.

Naturally, his disobedience gets him into trouble, which happens about every half hour. You can’t blame him, exactly, because his superiors are much less competent than the criminals, an irony that leads to an unusual alliance. But Emmerich’s troubles aren’t always of his own making. Beer spares him nothing, so that whatever loss or indignity he can possibly endure will no doubt come his way, and soon. “No — and furthermore” doesn’t simply live here; these pages are that concept. Money trouble? Absolutely. Physical pain? He’s got it, limping from an old war wound that he dares not reveal, for fear that he’ll be farmed out to a desk job.

At times, the plot spins a little too often, too neatly, and many, many bodies fall. But Beer’s adept at testing her hero’s flair for getting out of tight spaces, and the results are often hilarious. (My favorite is the time he’s forced to impersonate a medical student during hospital rounds, during which Emmerich proves ingenious as well as lucky.) Most of these situations occur because, after sizing up the incredible risks he faces, he goes ahead nevertheless.

Along the way, he tries to train his newbie assistant, Ferdinand Winter, a young man whose sensitivities, desire to follow the rules, and privileged background earn his boss’s disdain. Winter’s grandmother, who openly mourns the kaiser and seems to blame Emmerich for his abdication, adds a little spice — and thievery — to the relationship between the two men. But Emmerich, who’s had a hard life, is compassionate at heart, showing regard for anyone in Vienna struggling to get by, especially veterans like himself, so you sense that eventually, he’ll warm to Ferdinand.

Meanwhile, though, the pair witness a city still reeling from the war, suffering hopelessness, tuberculosis, pervasive crime, and crushing poverty. It’s enough to break anyone’s heart:

As he had feared, inside they encountered the most miserable squalor. The dwelling — this form of lodging didn’t deserve the name home — was a dark hole with barely any air to breathe. Passing through the musty kitchen, its walls covered with mold, they entered a room that served as the living room, bedroom, and work space. It was perhaps four strides across, six strides long, and dimly lit by a flickering petroleum lamp. That was it. No other space.

The atmosphere in which Beer immerses her characters provides more than background. The homeless shelters (five-night limit), the incessant thievery, degradation, and sickness contrast sharply with the few oases of wealth and privilege. Beer knows her postwar Vienna thoroughly, selecting just the right details, and you breathe the same foul air as her characters, smell the same vile odors.

The Second Rider (which, by the way, refers to the Four Horsemen) introduces a series. If the subsequent installments are anything like this one, I predict many successful adventures for August Emmerich.

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