Review 1564: Dangerous Ages

Thanks to Simon Thomas’s posts (Stuck in a Book) on the new British Library Women Writers series, I was able to request some review copies. I received Dangerous Ages, which, according to the novel, are all of them. This novel examines the lives of women in the early 1920’s.

Neville is 43, a woman who gave up her medical studies as a young woman to marry and raise a family. That job done, she finds herself feeling adrift, with no purpose, and views her mother, Mrs. Hilary, as an object lesson. She must find work and decides to return to studying medicine.

Mrs. Hilary is a silly woman who always pretends she has read important books and is knowledgeable on all subjects. At 63, she has nothing to do, because she defines herself as a wife and mother. Now she is a widow whose children are grown. She is jealous of anyone being intimate with Neville if her son Jim isn’t around and is jealous of Neville’s intimacy with Jim. She thinks psychoanalysis, which is being talked about, is horrid until she realizes it means someone will listen to her stories.

Nan, Neville’s younger sister, has been courted by Barry for ages. She finally decides she loves him, but instead of telling him so, she goes off to Cornwall to finish writing her latest book, never thinking that Barry might give up on her.

Gerda, Neville’s daughter, is ardently engaged in left-wing activities. The question is, when she falls in love with a man of a different background, whether she will compromise her principles, which reject all the values of her parents’ generation.

Macaulay’s novel is rooted in the early 1920’s, as characters examine hot topics of the time. I had to laugh at the scenes where Mrs. Hilary’s psychoanalysts inundate her with Freudian jargon that she has very little understanding of. That most of these women are frustrated in their aims should not be surprising, for this is a satirical look at the position of women in society. Only Neville’s sister Pamela, who refuses to be bothered, and Neville’s grandmother, who says she is past all that, seem happy.

Simon Thomas’s Afterword provides some insight into views of psychoanalysis in the early 1920’s, which is interesting.

I enjoyed this novel very much. It feels like light, lively reading while dealing with experiences that are universal, no matter the generation.

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Review 1554: The Vanishing Futurist

Right before the start of World War I, Gerty Freely goes to Moscow to be a governess for the Kobelev family. There she falls in love with one of Pasha Kobelev’s friends, Nikita Slavkin, a brilliant, idealistic scientist and revolutionary. Although Gerty is not political, she eagerly embraces the life of a communard in a commune Slavkin founds in the Kobelev’s house after the revolution. With them are Pasha and his sister Sonya and a few other young people.

Slavkin’s mission becomes to invent a machine that will change people’s cellular structure making them perfect Communists. Eventually, he comes to believe that he can make a machine that will transport a person into another dimension where perfect Communism is possible. Certainly, it doesn’t seem possible in the present one.

Hobson’s novel skillfully depicts the idealist euphoria and immense creativity of the early days of the Russian revolution as well as the hardships, the inevitable disintegration of communal life, and the craziness of those days as the revolution begins to turn in on itself. It makes really interesting reading and seems to much more authentically depict the time than any of the recent novels I’ve read about it.

I read this book for my Walter Scott Prize project and really enjoyed it.

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Review 1545: They Were Found Wanting

They Were Found Wanting is the second book of Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. It again follows the fortunes of cousins Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy, Hungarian/Transylvanian noblemen, although it spends much more time with Balint.

In the first book, Balint began an affair with Adrienne Uzdy, married to a cruel and unstable neighbor of Balint’s Transylvanian estate. They resolved to part in that book but come together early in the second book. Balint wants Adrienne to divorce Uzdy, but Adrienne fears Uzdy will become violent. Moreover, she will likely lose custody of her daughter.

Laszlo started on the path of destruction in the first book after his cousin Klara rejected him because of his gambling. He has been cheated out of most of the profits from his estate by Azbej, a crooked lawyer, and he is drinking what little money he has. Early in the book, Dodo Gyalakuthy, who is so wealthy that no one will propose to her, asks him to marry her. Laszlo is stung by this and refuses, not realizing that Dodo loves him.

Balint is a member of the Hungarian Parliament, and much of this book is devoted to the machinations of the political parties, who manage to accomplish nothing because of their efforts to prevent the work of the other party. All the while, Balint is conscious of disquieting events in the outer world as it heads to World War I.

I struggled with this book a bit and actually read three other books while I was trying to finish it, something I seldom do. For one thing, there was a much stronger emphasis on Hungarian politics, but I didn’t understand all the ins and outs or sometimes who was whom. The first book came with about 100 pages of explanatory material, but I seldom read things like that and would hope a novel would be understandable without it.

For another thing, the major emphasis was on the affair between Balint and Adrienne, and I wasn’t much interested in it. Although Bánffy certainly can depict vivid characters, Adrienne isn’t one of them. She is almost there only to be the object of Balint’s yearning. You never get much of a sense of what she is like.

Finally, in some ways, Balint began this affair in a reprehensible way, and when he decides they should marry, he is merciless with the emotional blackmail. Otherwise likeable, he is not a nice lover in this book.

Throughout, the most interesting thing to me are Bánffy’s descriptions of customs and life in Transylvania. I am interested in how the third book will come out. Thank goodness it’s not nearly as long as either of the others.

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Review 1539: Mary Lavelle

It was interesting to me to learn that Mary Lavelle had been banned in Ireland as an immoral book, for in its own way, it’s very moral. Still, I guess it was shocking for 1936.

Mary is a young Irish woman who is engaged to be married to a kind and worthy young man who must wait to marry her until he can earn enough. His prospects are good, but he is paid a niggardly wage by his miser father.

Almost on a whim and despite her fiancé’s objections, Mary decides to take a governess job for a year in Spain, and the beginning of the novel finds her on the way there by train. Spain is not as she imagined it, but from the first she likes it. The Areavaga family are gracious and kind, and their three daughters soon like Mary very much. She makes some friends within a group of British governesses she meets at the local café, although she is sometimes shocked at their behavior and their airs of superiority toward the Spanish.

Mary is unconsciously beautiful and innocent. She is immediately attractive to Pablo Areavaga, her charges’ father, but he is too principled to show it. Trouble comes, though, with the arrival of Juanito, Areavaga’s married son, for Juanito falls in love with her at first sight.

I have read two books now by O’Brien, and both gave me a sense of a ferocious intelligence. Both are set in Spain, and in both, she examines the conflict between religion, principle, and emotional drives. The descriptions of the scenery and people of Spain are vivid and sometimes lyrical. This is another good book from my Classics Club list.

One comment on my new edition of Virago Modern Classics. Almost as soon as I began reading the book, the last six or eight pages fell out. Thereafter, I was constantly tucking them back in, afraid I was going to lose them.

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Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

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Review 1530: The Last of Chéri

The Last of Chéri is the second novella by Colette about Chéri and Léa. I try to avoid spoilers, but in this case I can’t avoid one, although it is actually about the previous novella, Chéri.

At the end of Chéri, Léa, Chéri’s middle-aged lover, made a sacrifice of her own love by separating from the young Chéri so that he could grow up. Now, it’s six years later. World War I has intervened, during which Chéri received a medal he didn’t exactly earn. His wife, Edmeé, is heavily involved in running a hospital and is in love with its lead physician. During the war, Edmeé and Charlotte, his mother, took over managing his fortune, a task that he was good at, and he doesn’t know how to ask for it back. His friends have been killed or have gone to work. In short, Chéri feels no purpose in life. The old ways of living for pleasure are dead, and in any case, he finds them boring.

Chéri hasn’t thought of Léa for years, but with her he was loved. He wonders if he can return to her.

I frankly didn’t much like the Chéri of the first novella, but I have more sympathy with thirty-year-old Chéri, even though I regret the solution he finds for his problem. Ultimately, this book is an indictment of how he was raised, and I eventually found it touching.

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Review 1527: They Were Counted

They Were Counted is the first volume in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, about the decline of Hungary leading up to World War I. This book follows the events in the lives of two cousins, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy. Both are noblemen who feel like outsiders in Hungarian society, Balint because he is Transylvanian and Laszlo because his prospects are not so good.

Balint has been working in the diplomatic service, but he decides to run for Parliament, never suspecting after he wins that votes have been bought on his behalf. He is dismayed to find that the Hungarian Parliament’s two parties are more concerned with scoring off each other than with getting anything done. Early on, too, there are hints that Parliament’s independence is threatened by the Austrian King Franz Joseph.

Likewise, when Balint decides to take more interest in running his estate, he has no idea that the lawyer Azbej, who has been helping his mother run the estate, has been making so much money off it. When he goes to Translyvania for forest management and with ideas about improvements for the peasant villages, he is unable to make much progress as he is seen as a Hungarian interloper.

Finally, Balint has discovered that he is in love with his old friend, Adrienne. Unfortunately, she has married since he was working abroad. Moreover, she has been sexually mistreated by her husband.

Lazslo is a musician who has withdrawn from law school and devoted himself to catching up on his musical studies. He is also in love with his cousin Klara but has no idea that her stepmother will not accept him as Klara’s suitor. Laszlo’s plans to become a composer are derailed when he gets involved with gambling.

This novel paints a picture of Transylvanian and Hungarian society of the time, with descriptions so vivid that I felt as if Bánffy was describing people, rooms, and landscapes that he knew, as he probably was. There are lots of characters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who all of them are. I also found it a little difficult to understand the politics. Still, I found the novel very interesting.

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Review 1522: A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell’s fiancé was killed during the First World War, and twenty years later she’s one of the many single women in Winchester. Even though there are so many, they haven’t gained any respect, it seems. Violet has managed to free herself from her difficult mother by arranging a work transfer from Southampton to Winchester, but so far she hasn’t made much of a life for herself.

When she stumbles upon a private ceremony in Winchester Cathedral, she gets interested in the work of the broderers, a group of women who embroider kneelers and seat cushions for the cathedral. She joins the group and soon has made friends with an office worker because of it. Although Violet is at first hyper aware of other people’s attitudes, through her new friendships she begins to become more accepting and take more risks.

I was reasonably interested in Violet’s journey, but this novel seemed unfocused to me. For example, although people are inconsistent, Violet’s extreme awareness of what other people think does not seem to mesh well with a woman who occasionally goes out to pick up men for sex. This characteristic seems much too modern for the woman Violet was at the beginning of the book, although the affair at the end is more plausible. Also, as to the two preoccupations of the novel, embroidery and bell ringing, it was as though Chevalier couldn’t decide which to write about. She did a better job at bell ringing than did Dorothy Sayers in The Nine Tailors, which I found incomprehensible (not the mystery, just the information about the bells), but I think that perhaps two focuses is one too many.

Maybe to Chevalier the cathedral said cushions and bells to her, but she wasn’t really writing about the cathedral. In any case, I’m trying to poorly express that I found this novel mildly interesting but also unsatisfying.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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