Day 1274: The 1944 Club! No Exit

Cover for No ExitThe 1944 Club crept up on me. I found I didn’t have time to read anything very long, so I decided to reread Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. When I say reread, I mean that I must have read the play before, as I own a copy of it and took a course in Absurdist drama that included it. However, I don’t really remember it except that I knew the premise, which is famous, going in.

Sartre himself wasn’t exactly an Absurdist but an Existentialist who believed that people can define their own essence. That done, though, they must be authentic to that essence.

In No Exit, three people are locked in a room. They are dead, and they are in hell, but hell is not like what they expect. Inez is a lesbian who is attracted to Estelle. Estelle is a beautiful young woman who needs the attention of men. Garcin is a journalist who is preoccupied with the fear that he was a coward after he deserted because of principle.

I’m sure that No Exit was shocking and controversial in its day, but I found it predictable and sexist. The arguments among the characters that provoke the conflict and lead to the famous conclusion “Hell is other people” seem contrived, and Garcin is the only character who is even slightly sympathetic. To me, the women seem stereotypical—Inez as the woman who hates men and Estelle as the cloying dependent type.

So, I’m not sure how well this play translates to the modern day. I think I generally have problems with works that are about ideas rather than actual people, and these characters do not seem like real people to me.

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Day 1269: Greenery Street

Cover for Greenery StreetThe way I work my blog is that, as I finish a novel, I write up my notes in a book diary. Every five reviews, I pick out my next five books from those notes, and generally speaking, I run about six months behind what I have read.

Obviously, there’s room for error in this system, and I have made one with Greenery Street. I kept expecting my review to turn up, and finally, the other day, I looked the novel up on Goodreads to see when I finished reading it. More than a year ago! I looked back in my journals to see if I inadvertently skipped it, only to find that I apparently forgot to write it up. What a shame for this delightful novel!

Greenery Street is a story of ordinary life in a couple’s first home, written in 1925. It begins on a day in April when newly engaged Felicity Hamilton and Ian Foster wander into Greenery Street in search of a house and find a very small and pleasant one. Then it jumps back to cover their meeting and engagement.

The novel details the everyday life of this newly married couple. There is nothing particularly unusual about their lives (well, not for their time—not too many young wives spend their days shopping, socializing, and supervising the help anymore), but they are rendered in interesting detail and humor, small disagreements and the normal ups and downs of a new marriage. The end of the book is telegraphed from the beginning, when we’re told the house would be too small for three. However, the journey is delightful.

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Day 1267: Alas, Poor Lady

Cover for Alas, Poor LadyBest of Five!
A Footman for the Peacock was a strange little book, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from the much longer Alas, Poor Lady. It turned out to be an astonishingly feminist novel for being published in 1937.

At the beginning of the novel, Miss Scrimgeour, an elderly woman, receives the charitable gift of a two-room flat and an annuity for life. One of the women involved in the charity realizes that Miss Scrimgeour is a gentlewoman, of the same class as herself, and that she previously had no income at all. She exclaims, “How did that happen?” This novel answers that question.

It begins in 1870, when Grace Scrimgeour is born into a wealthy family. She is the youngest of six sisters, born almost a generation behind her last sister, but she is not the youngest child. Two years later, the Scrimgeour’s only son is born.

All the girls are raised to become wives and mothers. At least the oldest girls are sent away to school, but after Charlie is born, Grace’s upbringing is neglected and she is left to be educated by a governess who is not very competent.

The two girls marry, but it becomes clear that Mary and Queenie will not. Mary attempts to be useful by offering to teach Grace and Charlie, but her attempts to find herself an occupation are rebuffed by her parents.

As biddable, affectionate Grace nears her debut, Captain Scrimgeour spends more and more of his money on Charlie, selling out of stable financial funds to do so. Grace’s unmarried sisters become a problem once she is “out,” because most hostesses don’t want to entertain six Scrimgeours, so they leave Grace off their invitation lists. Her parents are now too elderly to see she has proper opportunities to meet someone, and neither of her married sisters take her in hand.

The novel follows the downward trend of the family’s finances, especially after Mrs. Scrimgeour is left in charge, herself having never received any instruction about finances. Clearly, tough times are ahead for the three unmarried sisters.

This novel shows painfully the origins of the destitute lady spinster—how everything in her upbringing works against her ability to support herself. Painfully ironic for the reader, who can see where things are trending, is a scene in which the newly widowed Mrs. Scrimgeour, blithely pledging £500 for a bed in the hospital for children, money she cannot afford, ignores a plea to help indigent gentlewomen, thinking the women are shiftless.

This novel is touching and eye-opening. The two most sympathetic characters are Grace, even more so her valiant sister Mary. But there is also a delightful family Grace goes to work for later.

Although I found this novel sad, it was enthralling and affecting. I highly recommend it. Another great novel from Persephone Press.

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Day 1265: The Edge of Dreams

Cover for The Edge of DreamsHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

* * *

Sometimes a wrong detail will bother me so much that it detracts from my enjoyment of a book. This happened from the beginning of The Edge of Dreams, from Bowen’s Molly Murphy series, when Bowen’s heroine Molly and her baby son are caught in a train accident and she cracks some ribs. The plot requires Molly to have someone else take care of her baby while she investigates crime—that’s the only obvious reason for this incident until late in the novel—so her husband, Daniel, asks his mother to help.

Bowen has evidently never had cracked ribs, though, or she might have picked some other ailment. My husband has, and he says it hurts so much that all you can do is lie there and cry. Although Molly remarks that it hurts to breathe, she clearly doesn’t understand what this means and gets out of bed almost immediately, begins calling on friends, and investigating crime. This mistake was irritating as the novel continues to mention Molly’s injury while she takes trains and travels all over New York City.

Daniel is investigating a series of crimes that at first are linked only by letters Daniel receives at the police department. In fact, some of the incidents had already been treated as accidental. But the killer promises to continue.

Molly is more interested in the case brought to her by her friends Gus and Sid. A young girl’s parents were burned to death, and she was found asleep outside with no memory of what happened or any sign of having been near the fire. An eager young police lieutenant thinks she killed her parents. She is having nightmares, and Gus thinks an alienist skilled in the interpretation of dreams can help her.

Predictably, the cases prove to be connected. I was well ahead of the book’s sleuths when it came to identifying the murderer, if not the murderer’s identity.

If you think I wasn’t exactly charmed by this mystery, you’d be right. Aside from a slew of rather flat characters, it has such a ridiculously unbelievable solution that I didn’t buy it at all.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1252: The Sapphire Widow

Cover for The Sapphire WidowI was tempted to read something by Dinah Jefferies after reading some positive reviews by bloggers and finding her settings in Southeast Asia intriguing. The Sapphire Widow is set in Ceylon in 1935.

Louisa is a wealthy woman, she believes happily married to Elliot. They have gone through some difficulties with his gambling and her inability to have a child, but all seems to be going well finally. They have recently purchased a failed publishing concern and plan to convert it into an emporium. Then Elliot dies in a car crash when he is supposed to be somewhere else.

Louisa begins to make unpleasant surprises about Elliot. He has debts she didn’t know about. Worse, he has a mistress who has borne his son. There is more to come.

This novel seemed all too predictable for me. It was clear to me from the beginning that Elliot would prove to be a bad guy, and his secrets are easy to guess. But there are more fundamental problems with this novel than a little predictability, which might be expected from the genre.

link to NetgalleyFor one thing, the characters aren’t very interesting, and Jefferies does nothing to make them so. Readers are supposed to automatically have sympathy for Louisa just because of her situation, not because they have learned to like her. Also, athough I have complained about historical novels that don’t have a sense of place or daily life, that’s not exactly the problem here. The setting is described evocatively, but daily life is presented in minute and boring detail. Not only is this one of those novels that describes almost everything Louisa is wearing, but it can take a whole paragraph just to get her into the bathtub. Dialogue is commonplace and without spark. I struggled to keep reading this novel and finally decided to stop even though I had finished two thirds of it.

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Day 1244: The Blank Wall

Cover for Women Crime WritersThe Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding is the last novel from the 1940’s in my first volume of the Women Crime Writers collection. (I skipped Dorothy Hughes’s In a Lonely Place as I have reviewed it before.) I must say that all of them have been excellent.

Lucia Holley is an ordinary upper-middle-class housewife trying to cope while her husband is away at the war. She has been having difficulty with her seventeen-year-old daughter, Bee. Recently, she found out that Bee was seeing an unsavory character, Ted Darby, who is 36. When she visited him to ask him not to see her daughter anymore, he refused. Bee has found out and is furious.

That night, Lucia spots someone in their boathouse and catches Bee on the way out to see Ted. She refuses to let Bee out, and her old father, Mr. Harper, overhears. Later he tells Lucia that he went out to tell Darby to leave and pushed him into the water.

Early the next morning, Lucia goes out for a swim and finds Darby dead in the bottom of the boat. He has fallen on the anchor, which has pierced his chest. Determined to protect her father and her daughter’s reputation, Lucia disposes of the body. But horrible events are just getting started.

At first, I was a bit impatient that Lucia’s fear for her daughter’s reputation has her cover up what is, after all, an accident. However, this story pulled me along, so that soon I was completely immersed in Lucia’s problems. I just felt that it wouldn’t have hurt Lucia’s spoiled daughter to find out the troubles her little rebellion caused.

Overall, I am so far impressed by the quality of the novels in this collection. They are not as well known as contemporary thrillers and crime writers written by men, but they are better than many of them.

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