Review 1628: My Brilliant Career

My Brilliant Career is the very singular story of the life of an Australian teenage girl in the bush in 1901. It isn’t so much singular in its plot as in the personality of Sybilla, the main character.

Sybilla’s childhood was spent in comfort, as her father was a prosperous horse breeder. However, well before this novel starts, her father decided his talents were wasted, so he sold his property and began a career selling livestock. He was unsuccessful, and he drank heavily in entertaining prospective clients. When the novel opens, the family is struggling to run a dairy with their father drinking away the money he makes selling butter.

Sybilla at 15 is admittedly a difficult person. Her mother never gives her a kind word, and her mother and brother twit her about her lack of good looks. She angrily resents their life of endless labor for no good result. In fact, she is ambitious to become more but doesn’t know how to go about it. She is an unusual mixture of self-confidence and self-hatred and is angry and rebellious.

Sybilla’s mother becomes so angry with her that she arranges for her to go live with her grandmother farther into the bush. There, Sybilla blossoms under the kind treatment of her grandmother, her uncle, and her Aunt Helen. Her aunt helps her look more attractive, but she never gets over believing she is ugly. Romance even seems to be on the horizon.

I thought that the view this novel gives of Australian frontier life is really interesting, and I was particularly struck by the amount of traffic going by the grandmother’s house and the number of homeless, wandering men. However, I was unsatisfied with this novel, and to explain why, I have to include spoilers, so be warned.

A feminist interpretation of this novel might be that the heroine chooses to write a novel instead of getting married, but that would be ignoring Sybilla’s difficult personality. Continually, she seems to bite off her nose to spite her face, and in the case of marriage, really declines out of a sense of inferiority rather than anything else. She decides not to marry Harold and stays in a life she hates because she can’t believe he loves her and she thinks she is not good enough for him. I find that really frustrating. It’s not that I wanted a romantic ending so much as it bothered me how she never really sees herself or is able to get past being told how worthless she is by her mother.

I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1615: Swimming Lessons

Best of Ten!
I was interested in reading Swimming Lessons when it came out, but I never actually got hold of a copy. Then I read Fuller’s next novel, Bitter Orange, and liked it so much that I had to read Swimming Lessons.

Gil Colman, a famous writer who hasn’t written anything for years, is now elderly and dying of cancer. He has discovered letters from Ingrid, his wife who was presumed drowned years ago, tucked away in his thousands of books, many of which were removed from his house by his daughter Nan and sold to a bookstore. He is in the bookstore, having discovered one of the notes, when he thinks he sees Ingrid out in the street. Rushing after her, he gets injured.

That is the setup of the novel. From there, chapters alternate between the letters telling the story of their marriage from Ingrid’s point of view and Gil’s daughter Flora’s point of view as she returns home because her father is in the hospital. She tries to learn more about Ingrid, who she believes is alive. Although the sections about the current time and Flora’s struggles are interesting, most enthralling are Ingrid’s letters to her husband, describing a marriage in which, as a naïve girl thirty years Gil’s junior, she falls into a life she does not want, of marriage and children, to a husband who is serially unfaithful, and who, in a way, co-opts her past.

This is a fascinating and haunting story about the secrets of a marriage.

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Review 1613: O, The Brave Music

Seven-year-old Ruan Ashley leads a bleak existence. Her unhappy mother seems to care little for her, preferring her sister Sylvia. Her father is a dour nonconformist minister. They have little money and live in a poor area of a Yorkshire factory town. Ruan is misunderstood, a dreamer who loves reading, especially poetry, and thirsts for beauty.

Things look up when Rosie, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, comes to visit with David, a boy Rosie’s father has adopted. They take her for a visit to their home up in the moors, where she and David run wild. Family illness calls for her to remain there for the summer.

Ruan’s life becomes one of loss, but it is also mixed with some times of great contentment. Daring it all, she remains herself, a person who refuses to conform to expectation.

This novel is touching as well as lyrical. It is a true ode to life, written in 1940 and looking back 40 years.

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

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Review 1601: Chatterton Square

Two very different families live across the road from each other on Chatterton Square. Mr. Blackett is self-satisfied and judgmental. He thinks Mrs. Fraser across the way is no better than she should be and is trying to attract him. He doesn’t understand that Rosamund Fraser is teasing him because of his conceit.

Rosamund Fraser is separated from her husband and supporting a household that contains her three sons and two daughters as well as Miss Spanner, a single friend and boarder. She runs her household loosely, and their warm home contrasts starkly with the Blacketts’, where Mr. Blackett is always picking on someone, particularly his daughter, Rhoda.

This novel is about more than two families or even about the three statuses available to women at the time. For, it is set shortly before World War II, when the British government was for appeasement. Mr. Blackett, who somehow managed to avoid serving in the First World War, is all for appeasement. Across the road, Rosamund Fraser believes appeasement is shameful, that you don’t make deals with criminals. Despite her fears for her sons, she feels war is the only honorable way forward.

There is finally the state of Rosamund’s marriage as well as Bertha Blackett’s. Rosamund, having been deserted by Fergus and assented to divorce, feels free to fall in love again, with Piers Lindsay, Bertha Blackett’s cousin. But having asked for a divorce, Fergus fall silent. Bertha has for years been hiding her contempt for her husband by pretending complete subservience to him. But eventually her true self must emerge.

This is an absorbing and ultimately touching novel about a particular time and place. The characters are believable and the women and most of the children sympathetic.

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

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Review 1557: Idaho

Best of Ten!
If you prefer the kind of novel that answers all your questions and ties everything up in a neat little bow, then Idaho is probably not for you. It is a haunting, atmospheric novel that ponders the depths of the human heart—love, guilt, friendship, regret.

The novel begins with Ann, married to Wade, a man with a tragic past. A year before his marriage to Ann, while he and his first wife Jenny were out cutting firewood, Jenny killed their youngest daughter, May, with an ax. Thinking only to keep his wife away from their older daughter, June, Wade drove the truck containing his wife and dead daughter down the mountain looking for help, leaving nine-year-old June there. Misunderstandings with the police prevented him from immediately returning, and June was lost.

Now Ann lives with Wade on their remote mountain farm, but she doesn’t really understand what happened. Wade prefers not to discuss it, and anyway, his memory is beginning to fail from hereditary early-only Alzheimers.

This novel explores this event and its ramifications through about 50 years of time and the viewpoints of a number of characters, some only peripheral to the story. It is beautifully written, provocative, and tragic. It is absolutely a wonderful novel.

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Review 1513: Literary Wives! The Dutch House

Best of Ten!
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.We would like to welcome a new member, Cynthia of I Love Days, who joins us for the first time today!

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I seldom have been disappointed by Ann Patchett even when I’m not sure the book sounds interesting. The phrase “dark fairy tale” was used on the blurb of The Dutch House, which inclined me not to read the book, as that is not my thing, but I’m glad I did.

Danny and Maeve Conroy live in the Dutch House with their father. The house has this name not because of its style but because a Dutch family lived there. It is an astounding house, glass throughout the first floor and enormous, with a third-floor ballroom.

Danny and Maeve’s mother left when Danny was four. He doesn’t remember her, but Maeve, who is seven years older, wishes she could see her mother again. Living with an aloof father, Cyril, they become dependent upon each other. Still, they are happy in the Dutch House.

At first, they don’t pay much attention to Cyril’s friend, Andrea. She is around for a while then disappears for months, then reappears. They don’t like her, but their father doesn’t seem to like her that much, either. However, they realize later as adults, Andrea wanted the Dutch House, and Andrea gets what she wants. Eventually, their father marries her, and she moves in with her small daughters, Norma and Bright.

When Danny is still in high school, Cyril unexpectedly dies, and the events following his death provide the meat of this novel. Told by jumping backward and forward in time, the story is about how Cyril’s miscalculation in buying the Dutch House for a wife who is appalled by it echoes across three generations of the family. It’s a warm novel about cruelty and kindness, rage and forgiveness. It’s really good.

What does this novel say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I liked this book much more for our purposes in this club than some of the others, because it provides a nuanced and insightful look at marriage, although not necessarily at the individuals who are part of the marriage. Warning that this section contains spoilers, although I have tried to be suggestive with them rather than stating exactly what they are.

Although the primary focus of this novel is on the relationship between Danny and Maeve and how it is affected by the losses of first their mother and then their inheritance, there are three marriages that are secondary but still important to the book. The first is the marriage between Danny and Maeve’s parents, Cyril and Elna, which we don’t understand until the end of the book.

Cyril marries Elna immediately after removing her from a convent and never really understands what she is like. Elna, who is dedicated to serving the poor, thinks she is married to a poor man, while Cyril has been amassing money through building purchases and development. Cyril surprises Elna twice with disastrous results that reveal how little he understands her, once when he buys her the Dutch House, which she finds overwhelming, and once when he decides to get her portrait painted, an activity she will not suffer. Elna leaves the marriage when she finds no role for herself in her own house because of loving servants who won’t allow her to do anything. The purpose of her life is service, so she cannot bear this purposelessness. I don’t think she intends to desert them, but when Maeve develops diabetes from stress after she goes to India, Cyril tells Elna never to return and divorces her.

Cyril is never communicative, but he seemingly shuts down after she leaves, to the point where both his children believe that he doesn’t like children. I think this shows that he loves Elna but is incapable of understanding her. Elna realizes she has made a mistake by going to India but is too embarrassed to return home. I think Cyril believes that the way to cherish her is to shower her with things, when really she needs a voice, a role, and a feeling of being needed.

The next marriage is that of Cyril and Andrea. This marriage is almost always filtered through the perceptions of Danny and Maeve, who dislike Andrea. To their minds, Andrea marries Cyril to get the house, and while that is certainly true, we learn at the end of the book that there was more to it. Why Cyril marries Andrea is more difficult to comprehend, especially when we realize that Cyril believes Andrea married him for the house, too. He doesn’t understand her any better than he understood Elna. That becomes clear when he fails to protect his children’s interests because “Andrea is a good mother.” We can guess that Andrea’s looks, youth, and interest in the house are the attractions, and her sheer force of will results in a marriage that has disastrous results for her stepchildren. It’s hard to force myself to see this marriage from Andrea’s side because of her behavior, though, to her stepchildren. I suspect that, like Celeste does with Maeve, Andrea has blamed all her problems with Cyril on his children.

The final marriage is that of Danny and Celeste. A revealing scene takes place after they have been married for years, when Danny says he sees her clearly for just a second and then stops seeing her. Danny marries her because she’s the least trouble of any women he’s dated, and he continues the family tradition of paying little attention to her. Celeste, for her part, wants to marry a doctor and assumes he will become one because he is in medical school, even though he has no intention of doing so (but doesn’t tell her that, because he’s as communicative with her as Cyril was with everyone). She also is very jealous of Maeve and blames her for everything she doesn’t like about their marriage. Although her objections often seem demanding and irrational, it is clear that Danny is much closer to Maeve than to Celeste, which would be frustrating to any wife.

Again, it’s hard for me to see the situation clearly from her point of view, because although Danny marries her, perhaps like Cyril marries Andrea, out of some weird sort of inertia, the kind that continues along a path even though the path is clearly the wrong one, she is also super self-adapting until they are actually married. And that’s the quality he marries her for, so the change in adaptability seems like a deception. Although he claims to spend a lot of time defending Maeve to Celeste and vice versa, he doesn’t seem to see Celeste’s positive characteristics except in a few situations.

So, what does this novel say about wives? A wife, like anyone else, needs to be seen and understood and needs a purpose that is fulfilling to her. Also, it is clear that for two of the wives, it was easier for them to blame their marital problems on other people than to look more closely at the person they married. So, in this novel, neither the husbands nor the wives truly see each other.

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Review 1502: Wild Decembers

Best of Ten!
Although the Bugler and Brennan families have been feuding for generations, when Mick Bugler inherits land in the mountains of Western Ireland near the Brennans, he and Joseph Brennan are disposed to be friends. They are, that is, until Bugler goes behind Joseph’s back to lease the field Joseph has leased for the past 15 years. Joseph must take a huge loss on dairy cows that he can’t feed, but that doesn’t seem to faze the wealthy Bugler.

As the situation deteriorates, Bugler keeps getting the best of Joseph, however inadvertently. Joseph’s attitude is egged on by the villagers, who don’t like Bugler. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s sister, Breege, has fallen in love with Bugler, unaware that he’s engaged to a woman back in Australia.

This beautiful, moody novel winds its way to an inevitable sad end. O’Brien’s writing is gorgeous and evocative. This is quite a book.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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Review 1490: A Patchwork Planet

Anne Tyler’s books have been around for years, and some of them have been very popular, but for some reason, I never read any until just a couple of years ago. Now, I have read a few and wonder what I was waiting for. Her Baltimore settings and her quirky characters make for an enjoyable time reading.

In A Patchwork Planet, Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see his daughter when he becomes fascinated by an incident. A man goes up and down the platform looking for someone who is going to Philadelphia, but he does not ask scruffy-looking Barnaby. He finally finds a middle-aged woman who agrees to take a package containing her passport to the man’s daughter in the Philadelphia station.

This event awakens in Barnaby both curiosity and a sort of protectiveness toward the woman. He watches her during the trip to see if she opens up the package to make sure it is a passport and not something more sinister or dangerous. She does not. He follows her to see her hand it over.

Barnaby is on the surface a tough, lower-class guy, but we find as we get to know him that he is still rebelling, at 30, against his wealthy, status-conscious parents. He is not ambitious, but he is kind-hearted and loves his job for Rent-a-Back, where he does chores and runs errands for mostly elderly clients. But he is a disappointment to his parents, especially to his mother, who can’t forgive him for incidents in his juvenile delinquent past. This past involved breaking into houses and stealing, but while his friends took liquor and money, Barnaby looked at family albums and stole curios. Unfortunately, he was the only one caught.

Barnaby takes another train trip with the woman, Sophia, and engages her in conversation, during which his friendliness wins her over. She contacts Rent-a-Back to have him help out her aunt. Soon, they begin dating.

Under Sophia’s influence, Barnaby begins to make strides toward growing up: to be more reliable at work, to make sure his daughter gets attention, to pay back his parents. But a crisis comes when Sophia’s aunt accuses him of stealing her nest egg.

A Patchwork Planet isn’t one of Tyler’s better known books, but I really enjoyed it, principally because of Barnaby’s engaging personality. This book is lots of fun.

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Review 1429: The Old Man’s Birthday

I’ve only read two books by Richmal Crompton, but she seems to be interested in studying the individual members of large families. In The Old Man’s Birthday, she focuses this interest around Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday.

Matthew has led an exciting and sometimes disreputable life, but he married an extremely conventional woman and now lives in a village stifled by class consciousness and respectability concerns. To this birthday party, he has insisted on inviting his grandson Stephen, who is living with a married woman and has been cast off by most of the rest of the family. Part of Matthew’s motivation is a perverse desire to shock these family members, but when he meets Stephen’s partner, Beatrice, he is also reminded of a girl he loved when he was young.

This novel is about how the introduction of a single person into a group can change dynamics that seem fairly set. You may feel that a multitude of difficult situations are resolved too easily, but still, this is an enjoyable and touching novel. I read it for Classics Club and was glad I did.

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