Day 840: Juggling

Cover for JugglingI am usually a huge fan of Barbara Trapido, but I have to admit to being slightly disappointed by Juggling. I think my problem is in the depiction of its characters.

Christina is the youngest of two sisters. Her parents, Alice and Joe, decided to get married after Alice’s best friend died and Alice decided to adopt her baby, Pam. They all moved to the U.S. from England, and Christina came along seven months later.

Christina is a pushy, lippy, verbally active child, and from early on she doesn’t get along with her father. She finds him too controlling and manipulative, even though he seems to encourage her sauciness.

When Alice met Joe, she was dating Roland. Later, Roland met and married Gentille, Peter’s French mother. Although Peter gets along with Roland, the move from his quiet Paris apartment to England and boarding school is hard on Peter until he comes under the protection of Jago.

Jago is a popular boy in school, but like many popular boys, he tends to be a bully and hangs with a thuggish crowd. Still, he is good friends with Peter until adolescence, when Peter’s lack of coolness becomes too obvious.

Fatefully, Christina and her gentle sister Pam enroll at the same school as Jago and Peter. Christina is fascinated by Jago, but she and her sister are too clean cut in their American fashions for him to be bothered. Still, Jago finds himself drawn to Pam. Pam is oblivious and begins a friendship with Peter based on a mutual love of music. Then a terrible event occurs that changes everything.

This Trapido novel is all over the place, with a boy who floats in the air, another boy who is a mean bully, a Cambridge don who cheats his student by stealing her paper, reshuffling of partners into too many combinations, a woman who purposefully tries to cause problems between a woman and her daughter. And we’re supposed to like all the characters, I think.

I usually like Trapido characters despite their flaws, but in this case I didn’t. I found it hard to like Christina, who takes everything so personally that she splits from her family about something that happened to someone else, even splitting from that person, who was not at fault. I didn’t buy her antipathy to her father. In fact, if anyone is manipulative, it is she. The more likable characters, such as Peter and Pam and Alice, are neglected for the loudmouths and bullies. About the only one of the more forceful characters I liked was Dulcie, who is loud and exuberant, not a bully.

Trapido seems to have made a thing about people pairing up with the wrong partners. In this case, there are just too many of them and too many coincidences. Hence the title of the book, I suppose.

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Day 828: Sex and Stravinsky

Cover for Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky is about two families that live far apart from each other but eventually meet. Caroline and Josh live in England with their daughter Zoe, while Hattie and Herman live in South Africa with their daughter Cat.

Caroline is Australian, tall, beautiful, and vastly capable. All her life she has been striving to please her mother, who continues to favor her other daughter Janet. Caroline leaves Australia to study in England and eventually marries Josh, a small, mild-mannered theatre academic. They struggle financially for their first few years. They are just able to afford their own house when Caroline’s mother moves to England without warning. She demands that they buy her a house and give her an allowance, and they seem unable to resist her commands. So, they continue struggling, living in a bus even though they have two professional salaries.

Hattie was Josh’s girlfriend until she met Herman. She was a ballerina despite the lack of support from her family. But when she married Herman, she started teaching and began writing a series of children’s books about a girl who wants to dance. Herman, a wealthy businessman, is away on business most of the time, and Hattie’s teenage daughter Cat treats her with contempt.

Caroline and Josh’s daughter Zoe has always wanted to learn ballet, and she adores the ballet series written by Hattie, who was Josh’s first love. But Caroline thinks Zoe is being silly about wanting to dance, even though Josh’s career deals heavily with ballet. Caroline says that in any case they can’t afford ballet lessons.

When Josh goes to a conference in South Africa, he reconnects with Hattie. Caroline finds out something shocking about her mother that sends her flying to South Africa to find Josh; Hattie finds out her lodger has a secret identity.

Trapido’s novels are witty and engaging. I always love them. They are sparkling with amusing dialogue, they have likable and not so likable characters, but ones that seem to be real people. Trapido continues to be one of my favorite writers.

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Day 474: The Travelling Hornplayer

Cover for The Travelling HornplayerThe Travelling Hornplayer revisits some of the characters I loved in Brother of the More Famous Jack. But first it starts with Ellen. Ellen has always had a close relationship with her sister Lydia, and the two girls’ adolescent silliness and charm is vividly depicted early in the novel in lively dialogue. But Lydia dies at age 17 while Ellen is away at university. She runs unexpectedly out into the street from the home of the man Ellen and Lydia call The Novelist and is hit by a car. Lydia has been consulting him about (well, actually cribbing from him) her essay for her A levels on Wilhelm Müller’s Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Hornplayer. It takes awhile before we find out the cause of her death.

The Novelist is Jonathan Goldman, whose family so charmed Katherine, the heroine of Brother of the More Famous Jack, now his wife. Jonathan and Katherine have only one child, Stella, whose childhood illnesses and learning disabilities have led Katherine to do everything for her. Finally almost on her own at university in Edinburgh, where she becomes Ellen’s roommate (almost on her own because her mother arrives periodically to do the cleaning), Stella makes a series of spectacularly poor decisions that result in tragedy for herself and others and a separation from her family.

This sounds like a sad tale, and in some ways it is, but it is told lovingly and movingly, with intelligent characters and witty dialogue. Trapido depicts characters of surprising depth and complexity. She is a really beautiful writer, and I love her work.

My cover of The Travelling HornplayerA word about this cover. I was unable to find a good-sized picture of my book’s cover without the Amazon Look Inside logo on it. That cover, which shows two young girls comparing their identical outfits, conveys the feel of the novel much more successfully than the one above, which looks like children’s fiction or chick lit to me. Here it is in a smaller size.

Day 391: Brother of the More Famous Jack

Cover for Brother of the More Famous JackBest Book of the Week!

It seems as if many American readers are not familiar with the British writer Barbara Trapido. She is one of my favorites and yet I sometimes find her books hard to come by. I think she is absolutely delightful. Brother of the More Famous Jack is her first book, but I have not run across it until now, when I explicitly searched for it.

Katherine Browne is a naive but stylish eighteen in the early 1970’s when she meets the family of her philosophy teacher, Jacob Goldman. She immediately falls in love with their untidy, chaotic household and their witty brilliance, but particularly with their oldest son, Roger. Jane is the dowdy, schoolmarmish, upper-crust wife and mother, who plays gorgeous duets with Roger and tends cabbages. Jacob is witty, sometimes vulgar, and subversive. He flagrantly fondles his wife over the kitchen sink. The beautiful Roger is studying to be a mathematician. Jonathan has large feet, loves to fish, and is somewhat gauche. Katherine finds him a bit alarming. And there are the littler ones, bright and noisy. Everyone speaks his or her mind without fear. To Katherine, brought up quietly by a middle-class, widowed mother, this is a heady environment.

After a summer in Kenya, Roger returns to begin at Oxford and immediately starts seeing Katherine. Their affair does not end well, however, for Roger has embraced the snobbery that the rest of his family disdains. When he drops her, he catalogues all her “faults,” including her lack of interest in math and science and her middle-class background. Katherine’s self-esteem plummets and she flees to take a position teaching English in Rome.

She does not return to England until, after ten years, a tragedy brings her home to her mother. Eventually she begins a renewed acquaintance with the Goldmans.

Written in a humorous, breezy style, the novel is still touching and affecting. The dialogue is the best part of it, vivid, witty, and literate. (The title of the novel is Jacob’s appellation for W. B. Yeats.) Katherine is an engaging heroine as she learns to find her own way through life. Full of high spirits and eminently readable, this novel is a gem.