Review 1477: The Collector’s Apprentice

I find that as I read more, I have a lot less patience with mediocre fiction. Either a novel has to grab me immediately or I have to feel that I am reading good fiction. So, I had only about 50 pages of patience for The Collector’s Apprentice.

Vivienne has taken on an alias after her fiancé, George, scammed her father and other investors of their money. Even though she doesn’t believe George was guilty (he told her a Swiss banker cheated everyone), she has been blamed for it and ostracized from her family. She finds herself with no means of support in 1922 Paris.

She has to put up with about five pages of hardship before being hired as a translator for Edwin, a collector of fine art from the United States. As her ambition was to curate her father’s collection, this job is perfect for her.

I was willing to put up with the chick-lit-like features of this novel because of my interest in the art world it seemed to be approaching. However, soon it became clear that we were going to get entangled with George again, and I found that not at all interesting. So, I quit reading.

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Review 1473: A Long Way from Home

A Long Way from Home is almost like two different novels, starting out as a light-hearted romp and finishing with the Australian treatment of its indigenous inhabitants. It is set in 1954 Australia, all over it.

Irene Bobs and her husband Titch are tiny people with a great will to succeed, but they are hampered by the activities of Dangerous Dan Bobs, Titch’s father, who seems to be working against them. When Titch, who is the best car salesman in Southeastern Australia, wants to open his own Ford dealership, Dan prevents it using his influence with his cronies at Ford. Having opened a junk yard, Dan continually drops off expensive objects at Titch’s and then charges him for them.

Irene always vigorously supports Titch against Dan, so when Dan scuppers the Ford dealership, she has already arranged something with GMC. Then, the two get the idea to compete with one of their cars in the Redex Reliability Trial, a grueling test of a car’s endurance on horrendous roads all around Australia. Irene and Titch will be drivers, and their neighbor, Willie Bachhuber, will navigate. Of course, Dan decides to compete against them.

Willie is a recently fired schoolteacher. He is also a competitor on a quiz show and a fugitive, who left his wife after she had a black baby and is wanted for child support. His quiz show work, after a long run, ends when his infatuation with his competitor interferes with his thought processes. He is a great reader of maps, however.

The novel starts out bright and energetic, with vibrant and quirky first-person narration by Irene alternated with that of Willie. It takes a darker turn, though, after an accident with Dan. Soon, Willie is separated from his companions in far Western Australia.

I was really taken with this book, especially at its zippy and vivacious start. I liked the characters, and I thought the ending covers important history about aboriginal abuse. However, these comments don’t convey how the novel zips along in its own quirky way.

I read this book for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1471: Homegoing

Writers seem to be experimenting with the form of the novel these days, not always successfully. Yaa Gyasi uses the form of linked short stories to good effect, however.

In paired stories, the novel follows two half sisters and their descendants through 300 years of history. In 18th century Gold Coast, Effia is being courted by the son of a king, but her mother, Baaba, tells her to hide the fact that she has reached womanhood. Her suitor eventually marries someone else, and Effia is married to a white man, James Collins, the governor of Cape Coast Castle. The Castle is where slaves are kept before being shipped to the colonies.

Esi is the daughter of Big Man and Maame, a former slave to Effia’s family. In her attempts to befriend Abronoma, her family’s slave, she sends a message to Abronoma’s family to tell them where she is. Thus, she herself becomes a slave when her slave’s family attacks and captures her village.

The novel checks in with each of eight characters of the girls’ descendants, sometimes telling the entire stories of characters’ lives, other times dealing with significant moments. Both families are affected by this great evil in their lives, slavery and its aftereffects. This structure allows Gyasi to explore some of the key events in the histories of Ghana and the United States.

At first, I thought I might get frustrated with the format, because I often want more from short stories. But because the stories are about two families, some of the characters are present in more than one, and you can at least find out what happened to them. Many of the stories are grim, but the novel ends hopefully. Gyasi’s voice is a fresh one, and I found this novel captivating.

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Review 1461: Expiation

Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”

Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.

But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.

Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1457: The Alice Network

I would estimate that 90% of the recent historical novels I’ve read in the last two years—and I’ve read a lot of them—are dual timeframe novels. Although I have read some excellent ones (The Weight of Ink comes to mind), I’m beginning to feel that they often indicate laziness on the author’s part. Why write a carefully researched novel about one period when you can write two hastily researched ones?

In post-World War II England, Charlie is on her way to Switzerland to a clinic for unmarried pregnant women when she ditches her mother to try to search out what became of her cousin Rose during the war. This all sounds very well, but the flippant first-person narrative style undermines everything serious about this section, turning it into, well, a historical romance.

She finds Eve, whose name as a preparer was on the reports her father received about Rose. And what are the odds that Eve is going to handle a report that mentions a name important to both her and Rose’s fates? Not too likely, I’m guessing, but that’s what happens.

In any case, then we plunge into the story of Eve, a spy during World War I, and back and forth we go for a book that is about 100 pages longer than it should be and very repetitive.

Worse, some of the detail and conversations, especially in the spy section, seem unlikely. I felt as if the characters were being put through their paces in benefit of the plot rather than evolving more organically. Characters are given traits to round them out, but these traits are just sort of thrown into the mix. For example, Charlie is supposedly a math whiz, but the most complicated thing she does is figure a tip or quote the Pythagorean Theorum (which I learned in 7th grade, and I think kids learn even earlier now). Neither is exactly high mathematics.

I know this book was very popular, and I think the subject matter is interesting, but I am not a fan of the execution of this novel. I wasn’t that drawn in by Manhattan Beach, but compared to this and some of the other World War II-based novels I’ve read lately, it was a masterpiece.

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Review 1455: City of Girls

So far, it’s hard to predict what Elizabeth Gilbert will write from one novel to the next. I read Eat, Pray, Love reluctantly, because it was so popular and I resisted reading a memoir by someone so young. But I loved it for its style and humor. The Signature of All Things was an enthralling 19th century story about the life of an unusual woman.

In City of Girls, Gilbert re-creates 20th century Manhattan, beginning in 1940. Vivian Morris is a heedless Vassar dropout with no idea what she wants to do and no inclination to do anything. Her status-conscious parents finally ship her off to her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg is the owner of a crumbling old theater in Hell’s Kitchen that puts on brainless entertainment for working class clientele.

Vivian begins a life of drunken nights running around town with the theater’s chorus girls and sleeping with just about anyone and days making costumes for the shows. For Vivian’s talent is sewing.

In the four-story building where the theater is located live Aunt Peg and her partner Olive as well as a motley crew of chorus girls, musicians, and others from the shows. Vivian is delighted to be given the apartment of Aunt Peg’s husband, the debonair Billy Buell, who hasn’t lived there in years. But things change after Peg offers a home to the famous British actress, Edna Parker Watson, whose home was destroyed in the Blitz. Peg decides to stage a good production for Edna, and Billy arrives to help write it.

The show is a success, but shortly thereafter, Vivian takes a fall because of her own foolishness. She ends up returning to her parents’ home in disgrace.

So far, the book was of a piece, even if I didn’t find Vivian a particularly interesting or sympathetic character. But that’s just the first half of the book. During the second half, when a wiser Vivian returns to New York to help out her aunt during the war and proceeding for the next 30 years, I began to wonder what the heck the book was about. It just seems to meander around a lot before coming to an admittedly poignant point.

The conceit employed by the novel is that the entire long novel is a letter to a woman answering her long-ago question of how Vivian knew her father. I think this first-person narrative is a weakness, because I can’t imagine someone writing some of this stuff to anyone, let alone a near stranger. Further, the second half of the novel seems like a different, less purposeful book.

It sounds like I disliked this book. I didn’t, I just feel it has problems, and I never warmed to Vivian.

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Review 1453: Station Wagon in Spain

Years ago, I read several books by Frances Parkinson Keyes, although I was familiar with her as a historical novelist. Station Wagon in Spain is a contemporary novel for its time, set in 1959.

Allan Lambert is a Spanish professor who has come into an unexpected fortune from his uncle. He has moved into his uncle’s large house and has been ignoring his friend Charlotte’s hints that they get engaged. As term is out and it is the beginning of his sabbatical, he finds he is restless and realizes he is bored.

One day he receives a letter from Spain. It’s a Spanish Prisoner letter, very similar to the Nigerian Letter scam that is still around today. According to the novel, this scam has been around roughly since 1542. Allan recognizes it as a scam but thinks it would be fun to follow up on it and see what happens. He answers the letter and soon has purchased a station wagon and arranged to ship it and himself to Spain.

On board the ship, he meets an attractive woman named Ethel Crewe, who is traveling to Spain to meet her businessman husband. He is inclined to become more closely involved, but things don’t work out that way.

Upon arriving in Spain, Allan offers her and her husband, Anthony, a ride to Madrid. Later, when he meets the representative of the “Spanish prisoner,” he is astonished to find out it is Anthony Crewe.

Although this novel is billed as a romantic suspense and does have some action and skullduggery in it. the plot unravels slowly and at times is much more concerned with the romance after Allan meets a beautiful daughter of a newly impoverished aristocrat. Still, it’s a charming story even though I have my doubts that a Spanish duke, no matter how impoverished and grateful, would assent to his daughter’s marriage to an American academic, certainly not in 1959.

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