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 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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Review 1304: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

It’s typical of Barbara Comyns that she tells a horrifying story in a disarming, naive style. In Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, her theme is an ill-considered marriage.

Sophie marries Charles at 21 despite considerable opposition from his family. They make it plain that they don’t like her, think she isn’t good enough for Charles and that he shouldn’t marry before he can support a wife. They assume she has tricked Charles into marriage by getting pregnant when in reality she knows nothing whatever about sex. The fact that Charles says nothing in response to his family’s insults to his fianceé should have tipped Sophia off, but she’s not very good at picking up on things.

Charles is an artist, and apparently Sophia is meant to support him on her meager salary as a commercial artist. Although he occasionally picks up a contract, most of the time they are just getting by. Getting by, that is, until Sophia soon finds herself pregnant. Slowly, she learns that she has married a self-absorbed man who feels no responsibility toward her or their life.

This may sound like a depressing story, but there is something about its light, naive tone that lifts it up. Instead, it is a charming and funny story of depression-era poverty and a bohemian lifestyle.

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Day 1296: The Battle of Life

Cover to Dickens Christmas booksAs has been my tradition for several years, only missing the year I moved to Washington, I am reviewing one of Dickens’s Christmas books for the Christmas season. I only have one left, so I’ll have to think up a new tradition in a couple of years.

The Battle of Life begins with a section about a battle that was fought years before on the site of the main characters’ home. I thought that since Dickens’s Christmas books often involve ghosts, this battle might be the source of a ghost story, but no. Apparently, this section is just an extended and rather laborious metaphor.

In any case, we soon meet the Jeddlers, who are celebrating some important birthdays. It is the birthday of Marian, the younger and more beautiful Jeddler sister, who is provisionally engaged to Alfred Heathfield, Dr. Jeddler’s ward. It is also Alfred’s birthday. This day he will be released from his wardship and travel to the continent to study medicine. In three years, he will return and marry Marian, if they are both so inclined. There is something odd, however, in the way in which Marian bids farewell to her sweetheart, looking at her sister Grace all the while.

Illustration from The Battle of LifeIn the second part, the plot thickens. It is three years later. Alfred is due back, but another player has entered the scene. Michael Warden has ruined himself with his spendthrift ways and meets with his solicitors, Snitchey and Craggs, to discuss how he might save himself. Snitchey and Craggs have already appeared as Alfred and Dr. Jeddler’s solicitors and provide some of the typical Dickens comedy, along with their wives. During this meeting, Warden states his intention of eloping with Marian Jeddler. Could Marian be contemplating an elopement just when Alfred is due home?

This novella about two sisters each of whom is ready to sacrifice her own happiness for the other is a little predictable but makes a touching, if slightly sappy, story. As one of Dickens’s Christmas books, I would rate it below A Christmas Carol but above the others, especially The Chimes. I have one more to read, and next Christmas will show how well I liked it.

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