Day 959: The Perpetual Curate

Cover for The Perpetual CurateAfter the failure of Mr. Proctor in The Rector, the new rector, Mr. Morgan, has arrived to take charge of Carlingford Church. But he is almost immediately offended by the activities of the Perpetual Curate of St. Roque’s. Failing any leadership from the first two rectors but with their permission, the young Perpetual Curate has established a place of worship and a school in the poor area of what Mr. Morgan views as his own district. Now the curate refuses to give up these activities.

If you’ve read any of the earlier books in the Chronicles of Carlingford, you’ve had glimpses of the Perpetual Curate, Frank Wentworth, coming and going from the green door on Grange Lane, where the Wodehouses live. He and Miss Wodehouse have been working together on their charities, and he and Lucy Wodehouse are innocently in love. This love remains unspoken, for a Perpetual Curate cannot afford to marry.

The curate’s poor but apparently blissful and blameless life is first disturbed by the arrival of his aunts, just before Easter. His aunts have the gift of a living to bestow, which if given to Frank Wentworth would allow him to marry, and it will soon be available. But the commanding Miss Leonora Wentworth has religious views that are much more stern than Frank Wentworth’s, and he knows she will disapprove of the lilies on the altar and the surplice he wears in conducting his services. Frank’s adoring yet foolish (and irritating) Aunt Dora has supposed that Miss Leonora will be swayed in Frank’s favor if they attend his Easter service, but Frank knows it will not work that way, and it doesn’t.

Then Frank is suddenly besieged on all sides. Miss Wodehouse has asked him to secretly take in a lodger, a man who seems to be disreputable. Talk has just begun about this when Frank makes the mistake of escorting Rosa Elsworthy, the shopkeeper’s niece, down Grange Lane to her home one evening. Her foolish aunt and uncle make too much of this, even though he tells them sharply not to let her walk around alone at night. Then he is called home unexpectedly to try to talk his older brother Gerald out of resigning his post and turning to Rome.

This novel has some of the most endearing characters I have encountered so far in Oliphant’s work. Frank Wentworth at first believes naively that, having lived and worked blamelessly in Carlingford for years, people will understand his character, which is charitable and upright. But as circumstances build against him, even his friends have moments of doubt.

As a secondary plot, we occasionally visit Mrs. Morgan. She has waited ten years to marry Mr. Morgan and is disappointed to find him capable of pettiness and malice in regard to Frank Wentworth.

I just loved this novel. Mrs. Oliphant is able to create great suspense over a conjunction of trivial incidents that make Frank Wentworth look guilty of misbehavior. She introduces characters who are lovable, funny, and irritating, some all at the same time. This is another great novel from Mrs. Oliphant.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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Day 957: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Cover for Packing for MarsScience writer Mary Roach seems to be attracted to unusual subjects, as indicated by her previous books on the science about cadavers, the afterlife, and sex. She would seem, in fact, to be in large part attracted to subjects that others would think unpleasant, at least judging from Packing for Mars.

Roach starts out tamely enough by exploring the differences in how astronauts are chosen by the Japanese versus Americans. Then she logically moves into discussions of past research into the psychological effects of space travel and life without gravity.

Eventually, she gets down to the nitty gritty, for example, designing food for space, but also more, shall we say, earthy topics, such as waste disposal, farting in space, sex in zero gravity, and so on. Indeed, the chapter on food dealt largely with shit, which, since that was the subject of the previous chapter, was a bit too much.

Packing for Mars is well written, interesting, and sometimes amusing. It is perfect for people who like little factoids or like to dabble in science. It would not be my choice for reading normally (it was a book club choice), and I confess I got a little tired of descriptions of floating turds, and so on.

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Day 956: The Black Moon

Cover for The Black MoonThe Black Moon is the fifth book in Winston Graham’s Poldark Saga. It is now 1794.

Ross and Demelza Poldark have weathered the difficulties of their marital breach, and the result is that Demelza is again pregnant. The feud between Ross and George Warleggan has been in abeyance, but in this novel George shows that he is even more of a villain.

The difficulty begins with a friendship. George Warleggan thinks that Geoffrey Charles Poldark, his stepson, is spoiled from spending too much time with his mother. He wants to send Geoffrey Charles to school or failing that, get him a tutor, but he compromises with Elizabeth by allowing her to hire her cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth, as Geoffrey Charles’s governess. While Geoffrey Charles and Morwenna are out on the beach, they meet Drake Carne, one of two of Demelza’s brothers who have come to the area looking for work.

Although there is quite a distance in their stations, Drake being the son of a miner and Morwenna the daughter of a vicar, Drake and Morwenna’s friendship gradually turns to love. Morwenna has no idea that George has been plotting an advantageous marriage for her—at least one that allies him with an established family of the area.

In the meantime, others are interested in the news from France. Ross hears that Dwight Enys’s ship has been sunk after a naval battle. He goes to some trouble to find out if Dwight is alive, both for his own sake and that of Dwight’s fiancée, Caroline Penvenen. Eventually, Dwight’s plight leads Ross into an even more hazardous venture.

Some foreshadowing of future events, possibly, comes with the birth of George Warleggan’s son Valentine. He is born under a black moon (an eclipse), which the local people believe is an ill omen. And perhaps there are small indications that he will not be a normal child. I don’t know, but I am interested to find out.

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Day 955: Family Roundabout

Cover for Family RoundaboutIt is 1920, and the Fowler and Willoughby families are about to be united by marriage. The Fowlers are an old county family, now getting a little shabby, while the Willoughbys are forces in the town, wealthy but not so genteel. Up until now, the families have held apart, but in this generation there are friendships between the children. Now, Max Willoughby, good-natured and charming, will marry the determined and managing Helen Fowler.

The two families are headed by widows. Ever since she married her husband, Mrs. Fowler has hid her true self, whom she wryly refers to as Millicent, behind a façade of vagueness and stupidity that she calls Millie. Although she never seems to make a decision or take charge of anything, everything seems to get done they way she wants it.

Mrs. Willoughby is made of sterner stuff. She manages everything, including the family business and the lives of her grown children. When she tries to manage Mrs. Fowler over the wedding, though, it’s like pushing jelly around. Everything gets done, just as Mrs. Fowler wishes it to. From the beginning of the marriage, Helen is more like Mrs. Willoughby’s daughter than Mrs. Fowler’s.

Endpaper
Endpaper for the Persephone edition

Other future partnerships seem foreseeable from the wedding. Anice Fowler gets engaged to Martin Newbolt, a poor but intellectual young man who works in his uncle’s book shop. We can see trouble ahead because of Anice’s unspoken rivalry with Helen. The youngest Willoughby, Oliver, finds himself attracted to his young sister Cynthia’s best friend, Judy Fowler, who is looking beautiful and grown up at the wedding. Then there is the already married couple, Peter and Belle Fowler. They have a young daughter, Gillian, but things are not looking good for them. Peter is sensitive and mild-mannered, but Belle is a self-centered, temperamental beauty.

Family Roundabout follows the fortunes of the Fowler family and some of the Willoughbys through almost 20 years, until just before the war. Although it has many characters, I found myself deeply interested in their lives and problems. This is a compelling novel about the everyday lives of ordinary people, with an ending that eerily contrasts what we know about the coming war with what the characters don’t know. Although I don’t usually lose this perspective with fictional characters, it made me wonder what happened to them next.

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Day 954: Americanah

Cover for AmericanahIfemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after living in the United States for 13 years. She has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and broken up with her American boyfriend, Blaine. In preparation for leaving, she also winds down her popular blog about race in America. While she is getting her hair braided, she thinks about her journey to this point.

Ifemelu grows up in a Nigeria where, for the young, the only hope seems to be to leave the country. Her father has been out of work for years because he was too proud to call his boss “Mam.” A few fat cats, like the general supporting Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, are unbelievably rich, but there is no opportunity ahead of them for the young middle class. Most of them dream about leaving the country.

In high school Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, who dreams of going to the States. The two enroll in a college in Nigeria where Obinze’s mother is a professor. But the dorm’s lavatories aren’t working and the professors haven’t been paid in months. Eventually, they go on strike, and Ifemelu must return home to Lagos. When she hears Ifemelu is at loose ends, Aunty Uju, who is now living in New Jersey, suggests that Ifemelu move there to go to school and help her care for her son.

In New Jersey Ifemelu begins struggling to find work, for her scholarship only pays 75% of her expenses. It is in this time period that she does something that separates her from Obinze. She stops taking his calls or responding to him.

Obinze has his own problems. His lack of opportunity in Nigeria eventually brings him to England as an illegal immigrant. There he struggles along with menial jobs, giving kick-backs to work under other men’s names. He is about to marry a woman for citizenship when he is deported.

Much of the novel is about the difficult immigrant experiences of the two main characters (although we spend much more time with Ifemelu) and Ifemelu’s experiences of race problems in the United States. Ifemelu’s observations on her blog provide an interesting, sort of third-party, perspective. With all of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have happened lately, this is a  topic that is on everyone’s minds.

I went back and forth on how much I liked this novel. In Ifemelu, Adiche creates a good, strong voice and a believable, likable character. I was not so enamored of the love affair at the center of the novel. The coming of age section at the beginning of the book I found trite and a little tedious, but that is only about 60 pages long. However, the moral decisions at the end are more troubling, or in fact, that there is absolutely no thought about them, that’s what troubles me. I found very interesting, though, Ifemelu’s reaction to the changed Nigeria when she comes home.

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