Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Review 1313: Obscure Destinies

Cover for Obscure DestiniesObscure Destinies is a collection of three longish stories by Willa Cather. They are all character studies of people living in small prairie towns. I distinctly felt that the stories were based on people Cather knew during her days in Nebraska, even though one story is set in Colorado.

“Neighbor Rosicky” is about a farmer, an old Czech man whose doctor tells him at the beginning of the story that he must stop all hard work. He has a heart condition.

Rosicky has not prospered as well as some of his neighbors, but he is a kind man who enjoys life. He has an affectionate relationship with his family, but he is afraid that his oldest son, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Polly, will become discontented with the difficult life of farming and move away to the city. Rosicky has lived in London and New York and felt that he was never free until he owned his own land.

“Old Mrs. Harris” is about a woman who lives with her daughter’s family. Mrs. Rosen, her neighbor, thinks she is mistreated. Her room is a passageway in the house, and any treats intended for Mrs. Harris are either resented or appropriated by her daughter, Mrs. Templeton.

Mrs. Harris is from the South, where it was apparently commonplace to spoil young women, and where some older woman usually ran the household behind the scenes. But here she has no help besides a hired girl, and Mr. Templeton’s career has not been successful.

Young Vicky has an opportunity for a scholarship, and she has been encouraged to study by the Rosens. But the Templetons see no reason why she should go to college. Only Mrs. Harris understands.

“Two Friends” is about the friendship between two prominent businessmen in town, Mr. Dillon and Mr. Trueman. The narrator as a child loves playing at their feet each evening as they discuss Mr. Dillon’s tenant farmers, the history of the area, and other interesting topics. However, the friendship eventually founders over politics.

These stories are interesting and insightful character sketches. “Neighbor Rosicky” even brought tears to my eyes. I believe I’ve enjoyed these stories more than I have some of Cather’s novels, which is unusual for me.

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Review 1311: Literary Wives! They Were Sisters

Cover for They Were Sisters

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I jumped the gun on this book back in October because of the 1944 Club. I had already read the book when the club was proposed, so I published my review in time for that club, since it was written in 1944. So, you can read my review there. Suffice it to say that this was one of my best books of the year.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I like how balanced this book is in presenting marriage, especially as most of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives are about unhappy marriages. They Were Sisters is a good book for this club, because it depicts three very different marriages, although it spends most of its time on the two unhappy ones. The details of Lucy’s marriage are more implied. They married late after she didn’t expect to. She and William lead a calm, well-ordered life. They discuss their concerns with each other. When Lucy wants to provide a more stable environment for Judith, he is happy to oblige.

Lucy approves of Vera’s husband, Brian, but Vera’s marriage slowly disintegrates under the pressure of her boredom with him and his resentment of her series of admirers (whether they are actually lovers is not clear). They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage. In this situation, Vera is depicted as at fault. Beautiful and spoiled, she is happy to use his money, but she cannot do without the admiration and constant entertaining. Theirs is a true mismatch.

From the beginning, Lucy thinks Charlotte is making a mistake in marrying Geoffrey. Charlotte is in love with him and at first thinks he can do no wrong. Later, she protects him even after he makes her life a misery and teaches their daughters to disdain her. This is a classic abusive relationship where he does everything to separate her from those she loves and to destroy her self-esteem. Nothing she does is right, although she only tries to please him. Eventually, she gives up and reverts to alcoholism.

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Review 1310: Classics Club Spin Review! To the Lighthouse

Cover from To the LighthouseWhen the Classics Club Spin chose To the Lighthouse for me from my list, I wasn’t sure how pleased I was. I first read it in college and remembered very little of it except that it wasn’t my favorite. On the other hand, our tastes change as we grow, and I had enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is about a day in the life of the Ramsey family, as they vacation on the Isle of Skye with their friends. The second is about the house and the passage of time. The third takes place there again ten or eleven years later.

Young James Ramsey has been begging for a trip the next day to the lighthouse, and both he and Mrs. Ramsey are irritated with Mr. Ramsey for so assuredly stating that the weather will be too stormy. The novel revolves around the presence of Mrs. Ramsey, a beautiful, quiet, assured mother of eight. Although we briefly see things from other characters’ points of view, the most prevalent are those of Mrs. Ramsey and of Lily Briscoe, a painter.

Nothing much happens in this part of the novel. The family doesn’t go to the lighthouse; Lily has difficulty with her painting, and although she has insight during dinner, she doesn’t finish it; Minta loses her brooch on the beach and accepts a proposal from Paul; Lily resists Mrs. Ramsey’s old-fashioned idea that she must marry and her attempts to pair her off with William Bankes. The action of the novel isn’t really the point, though, it’s the complex relationships between friends and family.

At times the narrative is a little hard to follow, because Woolf switches time and pronouns so that you don’t always know whether something takes place in the novel’s present or past or who is being referred to. The novel is impressionistic in its approach, both in its descriptions of characters’ thoughts and of the settings. Over everything is the strong presence of Mrs. Ramsey.

Time passes, the war intervenes, and the family does not return for more than 10 years. When it does, things have changed.

I enjoyed reading this novel, although I’m sure I missed a lot. I think it could be food for study and contemplation, but I did not have time to do so.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from the Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Review 1306: The Fortnight in September

Cover for The Fortnight in SeptemberIf you are a reader who needs a novel with a strong plot, The Fortnight in September is not for you. However, if you like to read about ordinary people doing ordinary things, then the novel will probably entertain you.

The Stevens family has vacationed in Bognor Regis every summer since Mr. and Mrs. Stevens’s honeymoon. It is time to go again. Although Mr. Stevens is conscious that this custom may be changing soon—his oldest children, Dick and Mary, are grown now and both working—he hopes that they will continue to vacation together a while longer. Everyone is excited as they sit down the night before to allocate last-minute tasks before they take the train the next morning.

This is a simple story about uncomplicated people doing what they have always done and enjoying it very much. There are hints that the future may not stay the same—for example, Mrs. Huggett’s Seaview House is getting worn and seedy and the Stevens find that she is losing customers. But that doesn’t matter much to them. They think others don’t understand the place.

Each member has his or her concern. Mr. Stevens is worried about some things at work. Dick is unsatisfied with his job at a stationers. Mary has made an attractive friend but feels guilty as the family always spends its time together. Mrs. Stephens doesn’t enjoy the sea very much, but she keeps that to herself, not wanting to mar the enjoyment of the others. Young Ernie is only concerned about bringing his toy yacht.

Sherriff manages to involve us in the thought and activities of these ordinary good people. I found this novel quite charming.

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Review 1305: My Mortal Enemy

Cover for My Mortal EnemyWhen Nellie Birdseye is fifteen, she meets Myra Henshawe, who is a romantic legend in her small town of Parthia, Illinois. Twenty years ago or so, Myra deserted a life of privilege and wealth to run away with Oswald Henshawe, who her uncle had forbidden her to marry. True to his word, her wealthy uncle left his house and all his money to charity.

Nellie is entranced by the charismatic Myra. Following Myra’s visit to Nellie’s Aunt Lydia in Parthia, Nellie and her aunt return the favor with a trip to New York. There, Nellie admires the couple’s somewhat bohemian lifestyle and Myra’s capacity for friendship. Still, Nellie notices that Myra has ambitions for wealth and position that Oswald will never be able to provide, and she doesn’t always treat Oswald as kindly as she does others.

Ten years later, Nellie meets the couple under different circumstances.

Published in 1926, My Mortal Enemy is a character study rather than a story with a plot. It shows from a different angle the results of this love match that the youngsters in her home town thought was so romantic. My only caveat about it was that I didn’t really understand what about Myra made her so fascinating to Nellie. I think it would have been more effective if Cather had been able to make her readers feel this. I read this as part of my Classics Club list.

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