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.

St. Peter, Don’t You Call Me… : The Widows


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Review: The Widows, by Jess Montgomery
Minotaur, 2018. 317 pp. $27

When Lily Ross’s husband, Daniel, sheriff of Bronwyn County, Ohio, is shot to death in March 1925 under circumstances that beg for investigation, the widow undertakes to learn the truth. Though the bereaved spouse/lover detective is by now a trope, you couldn’t ask for a more compelling premise than Montgomery provides. Not only does Lily quickly learn that Daniel led a secret life with another woman — again, something we’ve heard before — but that woman, Marvena, is recently widowed herself and a union organizer. Bronwyn County is coal country, and the mine owners’ exploitative practices loom large — wages paid in scrip instead of cash, the company store, yellow-dog contracts, Pinkerton thugs; the whole nine yards.

“Keeping Warm,” a cartoon appearing in the Los Angeles Times in November 1919, reveals a common attitude of that time about mine labor disputes (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The miners’ cause lends potent substance and background to Daniel’s death and Lily’s investigation, not least because Daniel’s half-brother, Luther, owns the mines. Accordingly, the story involves many more deaths, beatings, and threats of violence, whether from mobs or individuals, authentic to labor history in the coalfields. Montgomery makes Daniel a violent man too, an erstwhile prizefighter capable of great rages. Lily’s least pleasant discoveries concern aspects of his past that show how he hid his violent side from her.

Much of this she learns from Marvena, who shares the narrative point of view. Though the story wouldn’t work without her, Marvena’s a weak link. She’s an admirable person who has suffered for her beliefs, but maybe that’s the problem — either she’s too earnest, or Montgomery was in creating her. Marvena plays two notes, over and over — whom can I trust? how can I keep the miners together when the union-busters have all the power? — and you can’t argue, but she needs more. Marvena’s emotional world feels too narrow, despite a passage or two about what her two daughters mean to her. What the miners endure is absolutely heartbreaking, and the way management maintains power at all costs reads like a combination of serfdom and three-card Monte. Nevertheless, to me, Marvena remains a symbol, an icon of resistance, rather than a complete person, and if she had a flaw other than the suspicious nature she has honestly earned, I’d believe her more readily.

Lily needs flaws as well. Men call her stubborn and foolhardy, but they would. Though she suffers from Daniel’s silences when he’s alive, she never regrets having married him, and though she briefly resents him for having died, that doesn’t stick. Why the whitewash? Even so, she comes across more fully than Marvena, particularly in passages like the following, a flashback to her courtship of Daniel — in a delightful switch, she’s the aggressor — when she spies on him training for a fight:

She took in every bit of him with her gaze — the bow of his head as if he worshiped at the swing of the bag, the pull and stretch of his muscles with each wrathful thrum, thrum, thrum of his fists against the bag. She felt in that beating rhythm his intention to keep going until mind and memory and muscle all melted to mere spoonfuls of sopping grayness.

Montgomery writes well, if unevenly— occasionally, her dialogue dumps information — but I wish she had more confidence in her skill. I want especially to see more emotional moments like the one quoted above, in which her protagonists’ inner lives expand to take in what they love, hate, or dream of. Instead, the author focuses on action-reaction moments, in which Lily or Marvena take in what they’ve learned or experienced and wrestle with it, often posing rhetorical questions, a device that easily wears thin. They’re strong women, and they have dreams, so why are they so tightly bound to what’s in front of them?

That approach may result because of the many, many plot twists, which, though they keep the reader guessing, hurt the narrative in the long run. It’s not that Montgomery ignores her characters’ inner journeys, exactly, but she seems less sure of herself with them, which leads me to suspect that she’s more comfortable twisting the story. But that’s not where real tension lies, and the plot turns sometimes seem improbable; more than a couple ooze melodrama. Likewise, had the villains occupied fuller characters than plain villainy, they would have felt truer to life.

All the same, I like The Widows, which features two female protagonists who don’t wait for men to rescue them, a feminist perspective that remains consistent. And as the grandson of a staunch union man, I applaud this narrative, a reminder of an ugly chapter in our nation’s history.

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

A Feminist in the Four Hundred: A Well Behaved Woman


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Review: A Well Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martins, 2018. 392 pp. $28

In 1874, Miss Alva Smith, Southern belle of good name but a lost cotton fortune, puts herself on the New York marriage market, much the way gambler with a limited stake visits a casino. She snags William K. Vanderbilt, who must be counted quite a catch, having more money than even he knows how to spend. But it’s not love or even physical attraction that motivates her, only the financial considerations that will save her three sisters, their invalid father, and herself from destitution, and William’s apparent liking for her. Bad idea, you say? Marry in haste, repent at leisure?

Alva Vanderbilt, duly attired for her costume ball in March 1883 (courtesy nyhistory.org via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, yes, and as a Vanderbilt, there’s plenty of leisure around, about two hundred pages’ worth, in this case. By that time, Alva has learned a thing or two about her husband and the high society she was so eager to join. The first lessons are brutal. William’s notion of sex is lift the nightgown, push hard, grunt, roll off, and return to his own room. The day their first child is born, he gives Alva an extravagantly expensive bauble “for her trouble,” and goes off to inspect champion horseflesh for purchase. After all, as he says, he has nothing better to do.

Alva shouldn’t be too surprised. As the impecunious Miss Smith pursuing William in the dining room of an upper-class watering hole, she senses that she herself might as well have been a horse:

The other marriageable girls were too lovely, all of them, those rose-milk complexions and hourglass waists and silks that gleamed like water in sunlight. The Greenbrier resort’s dining room was filled with such girls, there in the company of clever mothers whispering instructions on the most flattering angle for teacup and wrist, and sit straighter, smile brightly, glance coyly — lashes down. The young men, who were outnumbered three to one, wore crisp white collars and linen coats and watched and smiled and nodded like eager buyers at a Thoroughbred market.

Yet, as Fowler painstakingly reveals, the results of this successful husband hunting aren’t all bad. Alva enjoys many of the things William’s money buys — physical comfort, fine clothes and jewels, beautiful homes that she helps design (and for which she has a gift), protection from life’s hazards. The Gilded Age comes alive in these pages, with its shockingly conscienceless opulence while hunger and hardship stalk New York; the social cabals involving who can snub whom and feel righteous about it; and the assumption, embraced by both sexes, that women are ornaments, hearth warmers, and social arbiters but never, ever thinking, independent-minded people with their own inner lives or interests. I like how Fowler’s drawn the two major characters, and though I can’t say I like William, I do get that he feels a dynastic weight on his shoulders and acts accordingly. Unfortunately, others suffer from his self-inflicted wound, because he’s a man incapable of reflection or questioning his prerogatives.

You know that Alva’s different from her cohort, that within her lurks a social reformer, a sympathetic person, perhaps even a democrat, and the narrative implies that had the field been open to her, she could have trained as an architect. The first scene of A Well Behaved Woman shows Miss Smith touring a tenement with seven other upper-class ladies and displaying a singularly receptive, empathic reaction. I love this scene, and Fowler’s clever to introduce Alva that way. Two hundred pages is a long time to wait for consciousness, and the author is giving the reader something to hold onto during the interim.

But I’m not sure the tactic succeeds. I understand Fowler’s commitment to a slow burn, because Alva has been taught all her life that an outwardly brilliant marriage is all any woman could (or should) want. I agree that her inchoate dreams for wider horizons shouldn’t lead her in another direction too soon or too easily. Further, the payoff, when it finally comes, does satisfy, and Alva’s subsequent actions justify the author’s contention that this socialite was an ardent, practicing feminist.

That said, however, it’s another question whether you actually care about Alva’s intricate, time-consuming machinations to make Caroline Astor accept the Vanderbilts as social equals. No doubt it’s true to life, but, as Alva’s African-American maid gently suggests, there’s prejudice, and then there’s prejudice. Moreover, Fowler proves her case early on that William K. Vanderbilt, like other men of his class, is selfish, tyrannical, and completely deluded as to the relationship between wealth and character. Piling on the evidence adds nothing new.
Consequently, whether A Well Behaved Woman will please you depends on your patience for the Gilded Age and its sins. It’s a well-written book, and Alva’s a worthy character, but I wonder whether Fowler could have told her story more effectively.

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

What a Woman Knows: Lilli de Jong


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Review: Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton
Doubleday, 2017. 335 pp. $27

This riveting debut novel shows how quickly and thoroughly a woman’s life may unravel, to which the only responses must be fortitude, will, and, at times, subterfuges of which men know nothing — and don’t wish to know. In 1883, twenty-two-year-old Lilli de Jong loses her mother to untimely death, whereupon this Philadelphia family of plain-speaking, plain-living Quakers falls apart. Her father, a selfish, irascible furniture maker of great stubbornness and little foresight, takes to drink, upsetting the Friends elders, and he compounds the felony by inviting his cousin, Patience, into his home and bed. That gets him expelled from the local meeting, and Lilli from her teaching job at the Friends’ school.

Then her suitor and brother, having had enough of the furniture shop and its cantankerous master, go seek their fortunes in the Pittsburgh steel mills, leaving Lilli friendless and vulnerable. What’s more, the night before her departure, Johan, the boyfriend, makes her pregnant. Three men have therefore done what men so often do, shielded from responsibility or ostracism, while a woman takes the shame, the burden, and the calumny, visible to all.
Lilli talks her way into a charitable home for expecting, unwed mothers, by no means a happy place, though she realizes she could have suffered much worse:

After stirring hot vats of laundry, wringing out the steaming cloths, and hanging them on lines; after scrubbing floors on our knees, helping Cook peel potatoes and knead heaps of dough, wiping away the grime that falls to every surface from the city air, and unpacking crates of donated supplies left at the back gate, we should want nothing more than rest. But without work to occupy us, our minds wander to places of uncertainty and dread. Better to sit in an upholstered chair, lean toward the orb of a gas lamp in the parlor, and draw a brightly threaded needle in and out of a dish towel or an apron. Better to form lovely flowers than to consider that the promise of our youth has bloomed and died.

Mrs. G. W. Clark’s Open Door, home for unwed mothers, which opened in Omaha in 1892 (courtesy University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research and http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/peattie/ep.owh.cha.0005.html)

But the charity assumes — nay, almost demands — that these women give up their newborns for adoption. And when the time comes, Lilli refuses, unaware of the terrors, hardships, and exploitation that await but adamant that she won’t abandon her little daughter, Charlotte, flesh of her flesh, as others have abandoned her.

I love this premise, the inverse of so many novels in which a mother gives up a child, and either party tries to reconnect later. Not that there’s anything wrong with such stories, but consider the immediacy, the elegant, hard-edged simplicity of Benton’s approach. Her protagonist has an infant crying for milk, but Lilli has no money, no food for herself, and nowhere to live; meanwhile, she’s looked upon as a whore, vagrant, or juicy target. That predicament, which Lilli periodically escapes and falls back into, creates more electricity than your average hydro plant. Her conscience, developed from a young age and schooled in the Friends’ outlook, pushes against her needs constantly, and she struggles to do the right thing.

Consequently, Benton need not strain to place obstacles in Lilli’s way, for the world is stacked against her, and the “no — and furthermores” flow as naturally as a river. For instance, when Lilli reluctantly leaves Charlotte with a wet nurse and hires herself out in the same capacity to a wealthy family, you can probably imagine a few problems, such as the lascivious, unhappy master of the house. But furthermore, you have the doctor who must approve her position and whose half-educated word is law, and the myriad, uncountable ways in which the mistress of the house humiliates her.

Lilli narrates her story through diary entries, and though I like her voice and simple style, I wonder whether she could have written so fluidly. For a young woman who has read only those books that contain useful information and little or no fiction — her parents obeyed the stricture of plainness in all ways — Lilli has a highly polished pen that never hunts for a word or a thought. Benton wants to write a coherent novel, and no one can object to that, yet because the narration is so articulate, it doesn’t always feel contemporaneous with the action, as though Lilli writes years later. To credit Benton’s storytelling, however, this never occurred to me until I finished the book.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help noticing that Charlotte at times seems more like a four-or five-month-old infant than a newborn. That’s not a deal-breaker, except that I had to stop and think about my own children when they were infants, which took me out of the story. The plethora of exclamation points also puts me off, a bad editorial decision for several reasons, not least pushing a sober-minded, nineteenth-century young woman used to self-discipline too far toward a modern-day schoolgirl tearing a passion to tatters. Lilli’s story needs no adornment, any more than she needs (or would think to use) lipstick and rouge. At its best, which is very good indeed, Lilli de Jong delivers a powerful moral tale from simple, basic elements.

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