Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1737: #1976 Club! Meridian

Meridian is another choice for the 1976 Club. It is about the life of a Southern black woman who becomes an activist during the 1960’s Civil Rights movement.

Meridian is hard to describe as a novel. Although it covers the teen and adult years of its heroine, Meridian Hill, it does so in a patchy, nonlinear way, at first seeming to be a series of nonsequential short stories. Meridian grows up with an uninvolved mother, who says things she doesn’t understand, like “Be nice,” as a code for her behavior with boys. So, it’s not surprising that she becomes pregnant at a young age and has to drop out of high school to get married.

However, the bulk of the story is about relationships formed after her marriage is over and she gives up her son so that she can accept a scholarship to a black girls’ college in Atlanta. She meets and falls for Truman Held, who encourages her to become more involved in the Civil Rights movement, demonstrating and signing up black adults to vote.

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It is Meridian’s complex relationship with Truman and his white activitist wife from the North, Lynne, that is the focus of much of the novel. Truman and Lynne are involved in a black/white love/hate relationship that is familiar to me from reading other black authors of the time. At first, the Civil Rights movement is composed of a mixture of black and white activists. Then some of the groups shut out the white activists and then the women, so that only the black men have a voice. Meridian continues to adopt any cause she can find, but as Lynne is shut out, her relationship with Truman sours, as it does over his frequent infidelities.

Walker’s prose is lovely, although she seems detached from her characters. Meridian herself seems to have to remove herself from personal relationships before she can serve humanity. I had mixed feelings about this novel and wasn’t sure I understood everything.

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Review 1734: Effi Briest

Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.

Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.

After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.

I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.

Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.

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Review 1730: #ThirkellBar! August Folly Recap

It’s time for our reviews of August Folly, the fourth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series. I just reviewed this book last April, so I’ll link back to my original review for most of my comments and the plot synopsis. My post covers some other observations I have after my reread.

First, I was struck by Thirkell’s depiction of Richard Tebbins, because it is so typical of adolescent behavior. His mother adores him to the neglect of his (more deserving) sister Margaret, but of course he is embarrassed by everything his parents do and then feels guilty about his rudeness to them. His passion for Mrs. Dean is absurd but, I think, very true to the behavior of an infatuated youth, and he finally begins to grow up later in the novel.

Of the two love affairs, the novel concentrates more on the one between Margaret and Laurence Dean, but I was more interested in the one between Charles Fanshawe and the much younger Helen Dean.

There are lots of comic characters in this novel. The managing Mrs. Palmer is almost unbearable at times (as is the fussing Mrs. Tebbins), but both of them show other sides. And that’s what I like about Thirkell. She creates some hilarious characters, but most of them, except perhaps Moxon, the curate, show other, more sympathetic sides, or the humor is gentle, not mocking. I wasn’t much taken with the conversations between the donkey and the cat, but that’s a minor criticism and a very small part of the book.

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Review 1725: Cluny Brown

Mr. Porritt, the plumber, is worried about his niece, young Cluny Brown, because, he says, she does not know her place. Why, the other day she went to the Ritz just to see what it was like. When he catches Cluny about to take a bath in a gentleman’s lovely bathtub after she made a plumbing call, Mr. Porritt decides to take advice and send Cluny into service.

She ends up as a parlor maid in Devonshire for Lady Carmel and Sir Henry. There, although she’s not very adept at being a parlor maid, she finds she likes the country and she befriends a golden lab belonging to Colonel Duff-Graham, who allows her to take the dog out for walks.

In the meantime, Lady Carmel’s son Andrew has met Mr. Belinski, an eminent man of letters who has had to abruptly flee Poland and is barely getting by. Andrew invites Mr. Belinski to stay at his parents’ manor, where he can write. Andrew himself is preparing to propose to the beautiful Betty Cream.

Cluny is struck by Mr. Wilson, the chemist, and he rearranges his shop’s closing day to take walks with her. There’s something about Cluny, who is direct and forthright and doesn’t seem to understand customary boundaries.

This is a wonderful comic novel, absolutely delightful, and my first by Margery Sharp (I have reviewed one that I read after this one). I’ll be looking for more.

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Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1721: Winter and Rough Weather

According to the Foreword of Winter and Rough Weather, it is related to two other books by D. E. Stevenson, Vittoria Cottage and Music in the Hills. It has been a long time since I read Vittoria Cottage, and none of the characters in Winter and Rough Weather rang a bell. I finally had to look up my old review to find the link between the two is James, who is a minor character in this novel.

Jock and Mamie Johnstone are preparing for the arrival of their nephew, James Dering Johnstone, and his bride Rhoda. James and Rhoda will be occupying Boscath, the farm adjoining the Johnstone’s Mureth, except separated by a river that can at times be raging.

Rhoda has abandoned a promising career as an artist to marry James and at first finds herself unhappy in their remote farm that doesn’t have a telephone and can be cut off by weather. After a while, though, she makes friends in the area and begins painting again and teaching a promising youngster named Duggie, who is the son of Lizzie, the Mureth cook.

This novel has a firm sense of place in the border country of southern Scotland and has a host of mostly likable characters. It is about everyday post-war life there, although it has a few subplots—Adam and Nan Forrester, the village doctor and his sister, both have unhappy love affairs. The neighboring farm to Mureth, Tassieknowe, has been bought by a rich man whom everyone dislikes and who is running his farm poorly.

I enjoyed this novel and mean to look for the other one, Music in the Hills, which I believe comes before this one.

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

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Review 1717: Joanna Godden Married and Other Stories

After reading Joanna Godden, I was excited to learn there was a sequel. “Joanna Godden Married” is a longish short story or a short novella, in this volume combined with several other stories.

To say much about “Joanna Godden Married,” I must include spoilers for the previous novel. Joanna has sold her farm and moved because of the disgrace of being an unwed mother. She is looking for a new farm to buy as a hobby, determined to devote her attention to her baby son, Martin. But Joanna is a woman of so much energy that being a hobbyist won’t last long.

Most of the other stories are about ordinary people living in the marshlands of Sussex. In “Mrs. Ardis,” a woman on a remote farm hides Peter Crouch for the sake of his friendship with her son after he has shot a gamekeeper while poaching. In “The Mockbeggar,” an old Romany couple encounters an upper-class runaway couple while sheltering in an abandoned house. In “Good Wits Jump,” after working hard to save money for her marriage, Nellie learns her old friend is ill and needy.

Other stories are about a woman determined to break with a careless lover, a Romany family who decide to thank an old farmer in their own way, and a woman who goes to tea with an old lover, perhaps whom she should have married.

I liked these stories, although some were sad. However, after reading a few pages, I did not read the last two, described as “Christian fairy tales.”

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Review 1715: #ThirkellBar! The Demon in the House

This third book of Thirkell’s Barsetshire series returns to the village of High Rising and Laura Morland and her young son Tony. Tony is now thirteen, and he is of course the demon in the house.

The novel is set during four holiday seasons that make up most of the year, during which Tony creates as much havoc as is humanly possible. During the Easter holidays in the first section, Tony talks his mother into getting him a new bike. He has grown out of his old one but is not yet tall enough for an adult bike, so she compromises by renting one from Mr. Brown. Then, knowing his talent for falling into trouble, she waits, agonized, to hear about his lifeless body being picked up from the road.

During the course of the novel, several of the old friends from High Rising are on the scene. We also meet new ones, though, in particular Master Wesendonck, Tony’s friend from school, who manages to be silent throughout the novel while proving himself to be loyal and sweet.

Lest we be afraid that there will be no romance in this novel, there is one, but it is very understated. The novel is mostly about Tony’s hijinks. Tony is the same ebulliant, know-it-all motormouth, but some of his adventures seem a little young for thirteen. Still, times have changed, and children now are probably a lot more sophisticated. In any case, this is another charming and funny entry in the series. I hope that the readers who are not on Team Tony will still want to continue with the series.

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Review 1712: Pippa Passes

I have been reading the Indian novels of Rumer Godden, so I’m not quite sure how Pippa Passes got in there. It was published in the 1990’s and is set mostly in Venice. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Browning poem except by its being about a young, innocent girl. It does relate, however, to many of Godden’s novels that have a theme of the loss of innocence.

Pippa Fane is a 17-year-old ballet dancer who is new to the corps de ballet of an up-and-coming company from the English Midlands. The company is getting ready to tour Italy, and Pippa, as the newest member, doesn’t expect to be invited to come, but she is, at the insistence of Angharad Fullerton, the ballet mistress. Pippa’s friend, Juliette, warns her to beware of Angharad, but since the mistress has only been kind to Pippa, she pays no attention.

Pippa is enchanted at first sight of Venice and disappointed that Angharad expects the girls in the corps to do nothing but work and rest. When the other girls try to get her to go out the first night, she argues that Angharad told them to stay in and is left behind and taunted as Angharad’s pet. But instead, Angharad and the other company leaders take her out when they find she’s been abandoned.

Pippa’s star is beginning to rise with the company, but she has also met a gondolier named Niccolo who fascinates her. The company gives her a solo part after another dancer is injured, and at the same time Niccolo wants her to sing with his band.

I wasn’t as interested in this novel as I have been in the others by Godden that I have been reading. For one thing, it seems absurdly outdated for the 90’s, as Niccolo and his band make a splash dressed like gondoliers and singing such songs as “Santa Lucia” and “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story. Yet, there’s no indication that the novel is set earlier. Also, although the information about the workings of the ballet company is interesting, I don’t think it was necessary to include pages describing the action of The Tales of Hoffman. And for the 1990’s, Pippa seems far too naïve about the intentions of both Angharad and Niccolo, and some readers may understand the novel as slightly homophobic. It’s possible that the novel was written many years earlier, but then there should have been some indication that it was set, say, in the 1950’s, if it was.

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