Review 1384: The Spoilt City

Cover of Fortunes of WarThe Spoilt City is the second book of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. I was confused about why this series had two series names until I read recently that this trilogy along with her Levant Trilogy are called The Fortunes of War.

The war, of course, is World War II. The Spoilt City begins during the summer of 1940 in Bucharest. When newly married Harriet Pringle arrived in the city less than a year before, it was opulent in its wealth, and Romania being agriculturally rich, loaded with good food. Although the country is neutral, it has been sending most of its food to Germany, and now it is becoming difficult to find anything good to eat.

King Carol has been trying to maneuver between threats from Germany and Russia. Romania has been an English ally, but when Russia is rumored to be ready to invade, Carol throws his lot in with the Germans. They immediately cede large portions of Transylvania to Hungary. The Iron Guard, an outlawed group of Fascists, reappear in the streets, and Germans begin arriving. People begin calling for Carol’s abdication. The English, who were formerly welcome, begin to feel threatened.

Harriet, who has married on three weeks’ acquaintance, is beginning to understand her husband, Guy. While he is popular with everyone and has an open, gregarious nature, he glosses over difficulties that she must tend to. He has offered the impoverished Prince Yakimov a place to stay while he acted in Guy’s play. When the play is over, Harriet doesn’t know how to get rid of him. Later, Yakimov repays this hospitality with a foolish betrayal.

The impending Drucker trial is all anyone talks about. Drucker, a wealthy Jew, is facing trumped-up charges after refusing to hand over his oil leases to the King’s mistress. Much of the family money is in the name of his son, Sasha, who has been forced into the army. Sasha, formerly Guy’s pupil, deserts and comes to Guy for help. Guy and Harriet hide him in a room on the roof, another danger to them.

Now that things have got going, I found this second book a lot more interesting than the first. I didn’t really like Harriet in the first book but found her much more likable in the second. With such a naïve and impractical husband, she is often faced with having to take care of unpleasantness. I am looking forward to the third novel and will probably also read the Levant Trilogy.

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Review 1381: Miss Ranskill Comes Home

When I read that Miss Ranskill Comes Home is about a woman stranded on a desert island, I thought of some romantic comedies from the 50’s. But the novel is more serious than that. It’s about a woman struggling to find her place in a world completely changed.

The novel opens with Miss Ranskill burying the Carpenter, which is what she called the man who was her companion on the desert island where they both have been stranded since falling overboard. The Carpenter died, but he left her the boat he’d been building. When she casts off, hoping to encounter a ship, she occupies herself with the stories they used to tell each other about going home.

Miss Ranskill is picked up by a ship, but World War II has begun since she was lost. She doesn’t understand how the world works or have any papers. She gets off to a bad start after she arrives in England when she leaves her escort out of embarrassment. Even when she returns to her sister, she is made to feel like an encumbrance. Having lived literally stripped to the essentials, she doesn’t feel much sympathy for wartime bureaucracy or the pleasure some seem to take in their deprivations.

This novel is an unusual one. At times I didn’t buy what happened to Miss Ranskill after she returned home, particularly her reception. I also got irritated with her seeming determination to ignore the rules of wartime, even if some of them were silly. Still, this is a thoughtful examination of some of the attitudes of that time and ultimately a touching story.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1366: Guard Your Daughters

About every nine months to a year, I sign up for a six-month subscription with Persephone Press. I have enjoyed most of these books and have found several delightful. Such was the case with Guard Your Daughters, originally published in 1953.

Morgan loves her home and family, but her family is very isolated. Her sister, Pandora, is married, but none of the other four girls have opportunities to meet people, particularly men. Their father is a famous mystery writer who tends to remain aloof from his fans, but the actual problem is their mother. They adore her, but her mental problems require her to have absolute calm.

When Gregory’s car breaks down outside the house, Morgan insists he stay for supper and then is hard-pressed to come up with a meal because of the straits of post-war England. All seems to go well until the girl’s mother meets Gregory and declares he is not to be invited back.

Chafing under a life of restriction, Morgan hopes to be allowed to visit Pandora. However, their mother decides that Cressida is to go instead.

On a jaunt to the movies with her youngest sister, Teresa, the girls are offered a ride by Patrick, a cousin of nearby Lord Malfrey. When he finds out who their father is, he is excited to meet him. All goes well until they find out Patrick has ulterior motives.

This novel is charming, reminding me a little bit of I Capture the Castle or Cold Comfort Farm. It is light, with a more serious ending, and you come to care for this eccentric family.

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Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1362: Begin Again

In the 1930’s, generational social changes away the Victorian age occurred, including sexual and social liberation. Begin Again follows four young women recently down from Oxford as they try to redefine themselves in the light of these changes.

Leslie is living at home, but she regularly visits her friends Jane and Florence in London. She has a romantic idea about the freedoms the two girls have and wants to get a place of her own in London, an artist’s studio, using her inheritance. Her mother doesn’t want her to use up her inheritance and has suggested she live with her aunt. Leslie, in truth, would like a little opposition to her plans instead of her mother’s acceptance and prefers complete independence to living with her aunt.

Jane and Florence are living the realities of the independent life, which means no servants and often very little food. Jane takes everything in her stride and doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings for anything or anyone. Unfortunately, this includes her boyfriend, Henry, who wants constant assurances of her devotion.

Florence, however, hates her office job and sometimes feels miserable about her and Jane’s lack of comforts. She feels that the girls who started work straight out of school have the advantage over her and that her Oxford education is not valued at work.

Sylvia lives in her parents’ home but has a lover, Claude. Despite their mutual devotion, Sylvia has kept Claud away from her family, assuming they will not get along. She believes in being absolutely honest and behaving honestly rather than worrying about how others are affected by this honesty. Her younger sister, Henrietta, has been taking Sylvia’s beliefs seriously, maybe more seriously than Sylvia intends, and is thinking of embarking on an affair with a middle-aged married man.

Each of the girls has to adjust her theoretical views about life to deal with reality. This is a sometimes amusing, true-to-life novel about how naive, idealistic young women learn to adapt between the gaps of Victorian and Edwardian values and Oxfordian theories and real life. I enjoyed it very much. The characters are depicted affectionately and seem very real.

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