Day 666: The Magnificent Spinster

4 Mar

Cover for The Magnificent Spinster

Just a quick update! The members of Literary Wives have just finished choosing books for the coming year. See my Literary Wives page for the list of upcoming books. If you want to read along, join us April 6 for a discussion of The Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison.


In 1985, May Sarton wrote The Magnificent Spinster in an attempt to honor her friend Anne Longfellow Thorp. It is a fictionalized biography of her friend’s life that is being reissued.

Cam has returned from her friend Jane Reid’s funeral thinking that no one will remember her extraordinary friend after her friends and relatives die. So, she sets out to write a novel about Jane.

This novel is just as concerned about the act of writing a novel as it is about the subject matter. Each section begins with a paragraph or two about the author’s uncertainties or difficulties and about her conversations with other friends of Jane while gathering information for the book.

The novel has feminist overtones, one of its purposes being clearly to illustrate how a single woman, even one born around the turn of the 20th century, could live an active and fulfilling life. Although I was interested especially in the depiction of Jane’s summer times spent on a family island, I felt there was too much worship in this portrait to really get a sense of Jane. Opportunities of real possible interest, like learning about her teaching, her reason for quitting teaching, or her work in Germany after World War II are lost in surfacy descriptions or ignored. When she helps found some sort of group house in Germany, the purpose of the project isn’t even explained until later in that section.

When some of the most interesting possibilities have to do with Cam’s own life, for example her experiences during the Spanish-American war, they are only alluded to. I understand that Sarton was trying to focus on the character of Jane, but Cam is a character in the novel, too, and the novel sometimes deals with her problems. The novel is missing some opportunities to gain interest from those experiences. In fact, it suffers overall from assuming a knowledge of both characters’ friends and activities that the reader cannot know. For example, some people come to visit Jane on her last summer on the island, but it takes a long time before Sarton explains who they are.

link to NetgalleyToo often the dialogue is trivial and to little purpose, and almost all conversations end with people agreeing what a wonderful, extraordinary person Jane is. Some of this rubbed me the wrong way, too, because it was clear her friends thought she was the more extraordinary for having decided to lead an active life of service rather than the one of privilege that she was born to. Although this decision is admirable, I don’t think she deserves more praise than anyone not born to privilege who leads a life of service, perhaps less, because another person would have a harder time affording to live the way Jane chooses to do. I have no doubt the original subject of this bio-fiction was an unusual and worthy woman, but Sarton doesn’t really make us feel it.

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Best Book of the Week!

3 Mar

Cover for Miss MarjoribanksThis week’s Best Book is Miss Marjoribanks but Margaret Oliphant!

Day 665: The Sleep Room

27 Feb

The Sleep Room In this atmospheric novel set in the 50’s, Dr. James Richardson is a young psychiatrist when he accepts what appears to be an exciting opportunity to work with the world-famous Dr. Hugh Maitland. Maitland has just opened a clinic in rural Suffolk where he will be employing some experimental therapies and hires Richardson as a doctor for the facility. Richards is surprised to find he’ll be the only doctor on staff with just weekend relief.

When Richardson begins work at the clinic, he is surprised that Maitland will not let him examine the patient records. One of Maitland’s beliefs is that mental problems are chemical and need chemical solutions, not psychotherapy. In the Sleep Room,  one of his experimental therapies is keeping six women asleep for months.

Although Richardson has some twinges of doubt about Maitland’s ideas, he defers to him as the expert. Soon he has other things to think about. He becomes very busy with his work and is also romantically involved with a nurse, Jane Taylor.

Small odd things happen beginning almost with his arrival, though. He thinks someone is behind him when no one is. He hears sounds when no one else is in the room. Things disappear and reappear in places where they shouldn’t be. Richardson begins thinking that the stately home housing the clinic has a poltergeist.

The Sleep Room is a difficult book to review because it slowly builds up quite a bit of suspense, but then I found the explanation for the events absurd. Yet, there is a reason for that and I can’t really get into it without giving away too much. Let’s just say that after an apparent climax there is a long, boring explanation followed by a short, apparently aimless follow-up, and then everything gets turned upside down.

One problem is that the final twist isn’t signaled well enough by the rest of the novel and actually doesn’t make sense in terms of the total of the novel’s narrative style. I can think of another book that employed a very similar trick but much more successfully. So, although I was captured by this book, I find that it ultimately doesn’t work.

Finally, the novel is only adequately written and poorly edited. In particular, I noticed loads of unnecessary passive voice and several instances of confused homophones: “knave” instead of “nave” and “taught” instead of “taut,” for example. These problems were with the published book. I was not reading an advance reading copy.

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Day 664: Miss Marjoribanks

26 Feb

Cover for Miss MarjoribanksIt’s not often that I discover a delightful novel by a classic author whose works I am unfamiliar with. But that’s the case with Miss Marjoribanks. It is a wonderfully ironic comic novel about middle class mores with an exasperating and ultimately lovable heroine.

We first meet Lucilla Marjoribanks at the age of 15. Her long-ailing mother has died, and Lucilla rushes home vowing to be a comfort to her father. Dr. Marjoribanks, who has been looking forward to a comfortable bachelor existence, wastes no time in sending her back to school.

Four years pass, and Miss Marjoribanks returns from her tour on the continent determined to devote herself to her father for the next ten years, suggesting that by then she may have “gone off” a little and will start looking for a husband. Lucilla is a young woman of energy and complete self-confidence who is determined to be a force in Carlingford society. But first she must deal with a proposal from her cousin, Tom Marjoribanks. She loses no time in dispatching him to India.

Dr. Marjoribanks watches in amusement as Lucilla calmly removes the reins of his household from his redoubtable cook Nancy and begins to take control of Carlingford society. Her first project is to begin a series of “evenings” every Thursday.

As Lucilla deftly and with dauntless good humor manages the affairs of her friends, somehow none of a series of eligible men ever come up to scratch with a marriage proposal when her friends expect them to. But Lucilla insists she will dedicate herself to her father’s happiness at least until she is 29.

Although Lucilla, with her managing ways, could easily be a figure of satire, I grew to admire her and like her friends and neighbors, who are fully realized even though  this book is the fifth in a series and I have not read the others. We even feel sympathy for Barbara Lake, the contralto whose voice goes so well with Lucilla’s that Lucilla invites her to her evenings. Barbara, from a lower strata of society, sees Lucilla’s actions as condescension and rewards Lucilla’s impulse with spite.

I was hugely entertained by Lucilla’s career and have already started looking for more books by Oliphant. Margaret Oliphant, I find, was once one of the most popular authors of the mid-19th century, and she deserves to be remembered.

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Day 663: Pastoral

25 Feb

Cover for PastoralAndré Alexis states that his intention for this novel was to write a modern pastoral. If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s not surprising, for pastoral literature hasn’t been popular for hundreds of years. A pastoral is a work about life in the country, sometimes comparing it to life in the city, showing the pleasures of a simpler existence.

Alexis tells us explicitly, though, that his protagonist, Father Christopher Pennant, expects the rural town of Barrow, Ontario, to be simple but finds it is not. Indeed, events force him through a crisis of faith.

Father Pennant is a little disappointed by his posting to his first parish of Barrow but is determined to do a good job. There he meets a young woman, Liz Denny, who has just discovered her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. Another parishioner with a problem is Father Pennant’s caretaker, Lowther Williams, 62 and certain he will die at 63. He has set Father Pennant a test to determine if he is the proper person to attend to his affairs after his death.

This is an unusual novel and I’m not quite sure what I think of it. Although I enjoyed Father Pennant’s journey, his conclusions about faith are not definitive and we’re not sure where he will end up. I was also interested in whether Liz would decide to marry Rob after all.

The novel takes place in an indefinite time period that could be any time from the 50’s on. If it is in the present, the town seems old-fashioned. A detail that struck me as odd is that at least three characters keep prayer books with them, and these characters are not religious. Now, things could be different in rural Canada, but as far as I know, I have never even seen a prayer book outside church and don’t know anyone who has one. So, I had to wonder whether something was meant by it.

The descriptions of nature are truly gorgeous. Father Pennant spends more and more of his time exploring it and wonders during his struggles if the study of nature may not be enough for anyone. The novel is written with a gentle humor and sense of irony, and the language is truly lyrical at times.

By the way, my copy is an expensively produced paperback, very nicely printed on thick, high-quality paper. Unfortunately, the last 8 or 10 pages are out of order, which was momentarily confusing.

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TBR Book Tag!

24 Feb

Cover to Sisters by a RiverAs a change of pace, I took up the offer of Naomi at Consumed by Ink to participate in the TBR Book Tag. The only rules are to answer the questions and then tag some more people (if you want). So, please let me know if you’d like to participate (or I might tag someone)!

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile? This is probably going to seem anal-retentive. I have the bottom of my nightstand completely filled up with books, and the overflow of more recently purchased books is on my desk. The nightstand is stacked in reading order with the genres mixed up together, and the books on the desk get put into the nightstand as the quantity of books in the nightstand dwindles. However, there’s no guarantee when I pick up the next book that I’ll feel like reading it, so I often go through the pile looking for one that I feel more like reading.

2. Is your TR mostly print or e-book? It is almost all print books. I have a couple of e-books from Netgalley on my iPad at most times.

3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read? I take the next one in the nightstand unless I just don’t feel like it, and then I go down the pile until I find one I want to read. Sometimes, if I just bought a new book that I really want to read, I’ll take it off the desk.

4. A book that’s been on your TBR the longest? The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendan. My husband bought it for me. It’s not that I don’t think the subject might be interesting, it’s just that he buys from the Bargain Books, and although you sometimes find a real bargain there, often those books are there for a reason. I’ll probably read it one of these days. At least Brendan is a historian. Sometimes my husband has bought me nonfiction books written by people with no credentials in the subject whatsoever.

5. A book you recently added to your TBR? Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

6. A TBR on your list strictly because of its beautiful cover? I will admit to doing this occasionally, but not right now.

7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading? Maybe not A Shropshire Lad, which I got free from the Folio Society.

cover for Rubbernecker8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited about? I only have a couple unpublished books, but I guess I’m looking forward most to Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer, who writes delightfully scary thrillers.

9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you? The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I read Tartt’s first book (The Secret History) years ago and thought it was over-rated, so I never read the second one. Then this past year I read The Goldfinch. Excellent!

10. A book on your TBR list that everyone recommends to you? Right now I don’t have one. I’ve got a lot of obscure books in my pile.

11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read? Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

12. How many books are on your TBR shelf at Goodreads? 63, but I’m not good at keeping it up. I have completely different books on my Wish List on Amazon, and most of the books in my TBR at home are not on the Goodreads list.

I have tagged Ariel of One Little Library and Cecilia of Only You.

Let me know if you’d like to be tagged!


Day 662: The Mermaid’s Child

23 Feb

Cover for The Mermaid's ChildI was really delighted with Longbourn, Jo Baker’s twist on Pride and Prejudice. I have more mixed feelings about The Mermaid’s Child, Baker’s latest.

Malin Reed is raised by her father, who tells her she is the daughter of a mermaid. Her father, the ferry operator, is affectionate, but everyone else in town treats her with disdain. Malin herself is an odd mixture, a girl naive enough to believe in mermaids but hard schooled, bullied by the village boys and by her teacher. But she has seen a mermaid herself, when the circus was in town.

When her father dies, her grandmother tells her she can’t control her (although we see little evidence that she is uncontrollable) and sends her to “Uncle George” to be a skivvy and bar maid. There she is mistreated and learns to service more than the bar.

Then one night she walks off with a stranger, a man who has given her a smile. He has promised to deliver a rain machine to the village, which is in a terrible drought. With her myopic naivety, she hasn’t even realized he is a con artist.

So begins a picaresque journey for Malin that eventually becomes a search for her mermaid mother. This search takes her to many unlikely places.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about this novel. Were it not for the realism of Malin’s situation, I would take it more for a fantasy, and that is how it is being marketed. But it isn’t really a fantasy except possibly in the narrator’s mind, nor is it magical realism. Unlikely is the word to apply to her adventures but then again, I’m not sure we’re supposed to take Malin’s story that literally. She tips us off in the first few pages that she may be an unreliable narrator.

Still, there is not much to anchor this book except Malin’s character. Most of the other characters are one-dimensional, and anyway we don’t spend much time with them.

This is just an observation, but I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say this is the fourth historical novel I’ve read this year in which a girl is disguised as a boy. So, what’s up with that? Are historical novelists bothered by the restrictions a woman was subject to in the past?

http://www.netgalley.comI guess I would sum up by saying I found the novel mildly entertaining. It starts out fairly believably and quickly becomes rather grim but with each adventure also becomes less likely. It’s as though it wants to be closer to something like The Rathbones but doesn’t quite manage to push out the boat.

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