Review 1624: The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man reminds me of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine except on steroids, because while Eleanor is one eccentric character, all of the characters in The First Bad Man are eccentric. I read this novel for my James Tait Black project.

Cheryl Glickman is a bit out of touch with normal human behavior. She is a manager at Open Palm, a martial arts/exercise company, but she has been directed to work from home and is only allowed to come to work one day a week. She has long been in love with Phillip Bettelheim, a much older man who is on the company’s board, and she consults a chromotherapist to treat her Globus hystericus simply because Phillip recommended him and so she can report back to him about it.

When she gets up enough nerve to show some interest in him (she tells him “When in doubt, give a shout”), he responds by asking her whether she thinks it is okay for an older man to be interested in a much younger woman. Of course, Cheryl takes this question as an interest in herself, when he is really in love with a 16-year-old schoolgirl. He continues to update her on the progress of the relationship, using explicit language.

As if this weren’t enough, the owners of the business, who routinely help themselves to supplies and the employees’ food when they come in, force her to let their daughter Clee stay with her until she gets a job. Clee is surly and unresponsive and then physically abusive when Cheryl tries to set her eccentric limits.

Cheryl herself is positive and upbeat most of the time, although she has arranged her house so that it doesn’t get dirty during occasional depressions simply by having almost no possessions. But Cheryl finds a way to respond to Clee that is unusual but ends up lightening the atmosphere.

Cheryl has some surprises for herself in this bizarre but touching novel. I liked it very much.

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Review 1589: My Husband Simon

According to Simon Thomas’s Afterword for My Husband Simon, the publicity for it posed the heroine’s dilemma as wife vs. mistress. And that’s just typical, isn’t it? When the real choice was marriage vs. not just a writing career but the ability to be a good writer.

Simon’s Afterword discusses the class element of the novel, which comes out in nuances an American reader wouldn’t necessarily pick up on, at least not all of them. (For example, I didn’t get the distinction between Pardon? and Why? until I read the Afterword, although I understood there was something wrong with Pardon?)

Nevertheless, it’s clear from the beginning that Nevis Falconer, a young writer with one very good book out, and the man she chooses to marry, Simon Quinn, are singularly poorly suited. Nevis enjoys sophisticated, witty people who know about books and culture. Simon is actually proud of his ignorance and prefers the country and physical activity. The attraction is physical, and the two consummate it almost the day they meet. Then they immediately get married.

Four years later, there’s trouble in paradise. The couple alternates arguments with love making for a highly volatile relationship. But the worst thing is, Nevis hasn’t written anything good the whole time. And Simon and his family make insulting remarks about her career. He speaks of her doing nothing all day and is continually on at her about the state of the house.

This novel, published in 1931, takes a very serious look at the dilemma of working women of the time, especially those in the arts, a dilemma that still exists in many ways. Although I couldn’t really understand Nevis’s attraction to Simon—to me, he belittled her too much—the ways of sexual attraction are enigmatic.

Panter-Downes is a lovely writer, and I enjoyed this novel very much.

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

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Review 1523: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a life of routine. She’s worked at the same company for years, doing the same job. She stops at the same stores on the same days and buys the same things. She has no friends, and her only human contact besides work and shopkeepers is her Wednesday phone call from her abusive mother. She doesn’t quite understand many interactions and often offends people. She also has a scar on one side of her face.

At a rock concert, she decides she has seen the man for her, the lead singer. She begins preparing a systematic approach to attract him. Around the same time, she meets the new corporate IT guy, Raymond, who is kind to her.

I have commented before about how much I dislike the custom of comparing a book to another book in its publicity. I understand that publicists are trying to build on the other book’s popularity, but if I loved the other book, I am always skeptical that I will find any resemblance. In this case, the comparison kept me from reading this book because I felt that the book it was compared to, A Man Called Ove, was cheap and manipulative. I finally read Eleanor Oliphant because a friend recommended it.

I have to say that I found this novel endearing and touching. At first, I was afraid that all of its humor would be around Eleanor’s eccentricities, but the depiction of her is more nuanced than that. You grow to care about Eleanor and the other characters as her friendship with Raymond opens her up to other people. There are hints of a horrific past, and you eventually come to admire Eleanor’s courage and resilience.

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Review 1509: Normal People

In school, Marianne and Connell ignore each other. They come from different social backgrounds. Marianne is from a wealthy family, while Connell’s mother is the cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although Connell is popular, Marianne is bullied and ignored.

Away from school, the two become lovers. However, a misunderstanding about their relationship causes Connell to hurt her and they break up.

At college in Dublin, they meet again. This time, Marianne is popular with a set of bright students and Connell feels like an outsider.

Normal People is the minutely observed story of a friendship and an on-again, off-again love affair. It has been widely lauded, but it was hard for me to be interested in this story of two very immature people. The relationship is a long series of misunderstandings that separate the two but do nothing to teach them to communicate more honestly.

It’s not that I disliked this novel. It’s just that I found myself getting impatient while wondering where it was going. When it finally got there, the conclusion was underwhelming.

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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 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 1290: Literary Wives! The Stars Are Fire

Cover for The Stars Are FireToday 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

* * *

After a winter that seemed like it would never end, the autumn in Maine of October 1947 is in severe drought. Grace Holland is pregnant and the mother of two small children. She feels that her marriage is in jeopardy. Her husband, Gene, never loving or communicative, has barely spoken to her since his mother died. Soon, though, she has the very existence of her family to worry about as fires threaten their small beach community.

Grace is able to save her children and her neighbor’s family, but Gene, who went out to fight the fire, doesn’t return. Everything she owned is gone, so now Grace must learn to live an entirely different life.

Anita Shreve knows how to tell a story, and this one drew me right in. Her characters are vibrant and believable. A few of her books have brought me to tears. This is not one of them, but it is still an absorbing novel to read.

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

At the beginning of the novel, Grace’s life as a wife is one of loneliness. Her husband barely speaks to her or touches her. We get the feeling he blames her, as does his mother, for getting pregnant so that he had to marry her. Left all day without a car, she can walk to shop, see her mother, or visit her girlfriend, Rosie. In her own house, however, she is treated as someone to keep the house, care for the kids, and occasionally provide sex.

Spoilers ahead . . . . Sorry, they’re unavoidable.

After she learns independence when Gene disappears during the fire, her marriage changes with his return. Now, he begins to behave with the more classic traits of an abusive husband. He speaks to her cruelly, tries to isolate her in their home, and eventually becomes threatening and physically abusive. Since the fire, Grace has had to learn to survive, and she has to figure out how to do that in an abusive marriage.

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Day 1225: Literary Wives! Stay With Me

Cover for Stay With MeToday 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!

We are happy to announce that Emily will be rejoining our discussions. However, Kate and TJ have resigned the club. We will miss them!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

List for 2018-2019

We have just finished the selection process for our next group of books! Literary Wives will be reading the following books in the coming months.

August 2018: First Love by Gwendolyn Riley
October 2018: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
December 2018: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
February 2019: They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple
April 2019: Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones
June 2019:  A Separation by Katie Kitamura
August 2019: Ties by Domenic Starnone
October 2019: Happenstance by Carol Shields
December 2019: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
February 2020: War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

My Review

Yejide and Akin have been married for four years, she believes happily. But one day, Yejide’s malicious stepmothers show up with Funmi and introduce her as Akin’s second wife. Because the couple is childless, Akin’s family has talked him into marrying again. He did this without Yejide’s knowledge even though they had both agreed they didn’t believe in polygamy.

Yejide now becomes obsessed with having a child. Soon, she is suffering from a false pregnancy. Funmi, even though she has her own apartment, has started moving her things into Yejide’s and Akin’s house. The situation is made worse for Yejide, because her father’s other wives mistreated her as a child and continue to do so. She understands very well the pitfalls of this custom.

Akin is obviously a weak man unable to withstand pressure from his family. It turns out things are worse than that, however, and Yejide’s marriage will soon be in crisis.

Taking place in mid-1980’s Nigeria, this novel is set against the backdrop of political and social chaos. During one period, ordinary people have robbers breaking into their houses and stealing things while they are home. Yejide is an appealing and sympathetic character, and her people’s customs are interesting although sometimes appalling. The members of both families seem aggressive and rude at times. Overall, this is a fascinating novel.

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

I try to avoid spoilers even for this club, but for this topic that may be difficult. This novel depicts a culture that places almost all the emphasis in marriage on having children and men’s virility. Yejide finds that Akin has never been honest with her, even since the beginning of their marriage. To avoid having a discussion with his naive wife and his family, he begins a deception that is ultimately too damaging for their marriage.

Literary Wives logoLater, Akin says that he made arrangements for his most dishonest actions because he was worried about her, but it is clearly to avoid admitting his part in their fertility problems, an admission that would have solved most of their other problems.

Although both partners continue to believe they love each other, at no point do they frankly and honestly discuss their problems with each other. This omission is largely because of the weight of cultural conventions, but that does not excuse it. Their marriage is built on lies and omissions and continues into more lies, with tragic results.

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Day 1035: Literary Wives: The Wife

Cover for The WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern 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!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

I’ve only read one other book by Meg Wolitzer, and I found it mildly interesting. The Wife, however, I found much more impressive.

Joan Castleman is traveling to Finland at the beginning of the novel. Her husband Joe is a famous novelist, and he is on his way to accept the Helsinki Prize for literature. On the flight, Joan decides their marriage is over. For too long, Joan has put up with Joe’s selfishness, including his infidelities. But their marriage is founded on a more fundamental lie.

The novel flashes back to incidents in the couple’s life, beginning with Joe’s seduction of her when she was a Smith co-ed in the 50’s and he was her literature instructor. Their relationship caused the end of his marriage and his fatherhood of a new baby.

Aside from a deft and insightful portrait of the end of a marriage, this novel deals with such feminist themes as the bias against women in the publishing industry and the sexual politics of marriage. Although I sometimes dislike Wolitzer’s apparent fascination with bodily functions, I found this carefully observed novel both dryly amusing and terribly sad. It had a twist that I saw coming, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

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

Although this novel comments on the experience of wives from the Greatest Generation, these experiences continue, in their own way, in many current-day marriages. In her marriage, Joan continually caters to the needs of her selfish and unfaithful husband on the grounds that he is a great writer. But she does even more for him than raise the kids, keep his house, meet his every need, and be a loyal wife. In fact, their relationship is entirely one-sided, with him becoming ever fatter and more self-satisfied.

In fact, the sacrifices Joan makes for her husband are shocking. But I am determined not to tell too much. Although Joan thinks the bargains they’ve made are exciting at first, she goes into her marriage with extreme naivety. In fact, over time, it is difficult to understand what Joan gets from the marriage at all, while it is clear what Joe gets from it.

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Day 693: Fallout

Cover for FalloutMost of Fallout is told as a flashback, but the opening section is very short, so we can say we really encounter Luke Kanowski in 1961, when he is 14. He has busted his mother out of the mental asylum where she’s lived since he was five to take her to visit the art museum in London. The expedition is not a success, but while they are being questioned by a security guard, Nina Hollings notices them.

Nina is with her mother Marianne, a selfish woman who hands her off to her sister Mat when Nina is in her way but reclaims her before she can gain any stability. Later, she does other things to sabotage Nina’s self-confidence. Marianne works sporadically as an actress.

Luke is a young adult when he meets Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley. He has been working at a mill, but shortly after he meets the two, he decides his life is harmful to him. Luke feels immediate friendship for Leigh and Paul and has soon moved to London. There the three of them work together with a few others to open a new theater.

Leigh has fallen immediately in love with Luke, but Luke is busy seducing practically every woman he meets, so Leigh becomes Paul’s girlfriend. Leigh’s father was unfaithful to her mother, so Leigh decides to stick with the man she feels is safe.

Then Luke meets Nina, who her mother has essentially pimped out to Tony Moore, a theatrical producer. Tony and Nina are soon married, Nina naively not realizing that Tony is using her as his beard. That is, she doesn’t realize until she finds him with two waiters during a party.

Luke’s first play is being produced as he and Nina begin an affair. This affair and the things Luke is willing to do to try to “save” Nina have repercussions for several people.

This novel is completely different from Jones’ The Uninvited Guests, which I enjoyed more. Although I was compelled to read the novel, I really don’t enjoy fiction where men betray themselves for a woman, or vice versa. Usually, the woman in these novels is bad. Nina isn’t, but she is weak and selfish and eventually asks Luke to betray his friends and his art.

Finally, I feel as if the ending of the novel is unrealistically hopeful and pat, when I think of the wreckage that has gone before. The background of the theater and play production with a bit about the politics of theatre is very interesting, though.

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