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 They become more withdrawn from each other, and eventually Brian gives her a final opportunity to save their marriage.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 1309: The Punishment She Deserves

Cover for The Punishment She DeservesWho is meant by the “she” in the title of The Punishment She Deserves is ambiguous at first. The word may refer to Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, whose superiors, because of her behavior during her previous case, send her on the present case hoping she will mess up so they can transfer her. It may refer to her boss, Isabelle Ardery, whose drinking problem is seriously affecting her life and work. Perhaps it refers to one of the two controlling mothers Barbara and Isabelle encounter in their investigation. Or perhaps someone else.

Isabelle and Barbara are dispatched to look into an investigation of death in custody to see if it was performed correctly. The death in question is the apparent suicide of Ian Druitt, a clergyman who had been arrested after charges of paedophilia. Ludlow’s PCSO Gary Ruddock was dispatched to bring Druitt in to an unmanned station to wait for officers to pick him up for questioning. While Ruddock was making some phone calls, Druitt apparently hanged himself using his stole and a doorknob.

Barbara’s reaction is to investigate whether the death was indeed a suicide, but Ardery tells her their remit is only to determine whether the subsequent investigation was handled correctly. Nevertheless, Barbara uncovers a disturbing fact beyond the one that the allegation against Druitt was made by anonymous phone call. There was a gap of 19 days between the allegation and the order for the arrest, which was said to be urgent.

Barbara includes this fact in the report she writes about the investigation, but Ardery orders her to remove the information because of political reasons. Troubled, Barbara asks Inspector Lynley’s advice. He tells her to leave out the information if she wants to keep her job, but he takes the unedited report and sends it above their boss’s head. The resulting explosion ends with Ardery called on the carpet and Lynley and Havers on their way to Ludlow to investigate thoroughly.

Soon, Lynley and Havers have reason to believe that Druitt’s death was not a suicide. But believing that and proving it or finding the murderer are different things.

This novel finally shows Elizabeth George going back to form, concentrating more on the mystery than on the characters’ private lives and having her protagonists behave more like cops than they have in several of the previous novels. Although the private lives of Lynley and Havers were initially what made this series so interesting, I’ve felt that George has gotten too melodramatic with these plots in the last few books. So, it’s a relief having Barbara worry about tap-dancing class and Lynley concerned about how his relationship with his not very interesting girlfriend is going, but nothing more dramatic.

This mystery is complicated, interesting, and difficult to guess. It involves characters you come to care about. I really enjoyed it. I’m glad about this, because I’ve wondered whether I wanted to continue reading this series, and now I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Review 1308: Notes from a Small Island

Cover for Notes from a Small IslandBill Bryson had been living in England for about 20 years when he and his family decided to move back to the States. Before he left, he decided to take a seven-week trip around England, mostly using public transportation. Notes from a Small Island, published in 1995, details this trip. He interrupts the journey occasionally to tell stories about how he came to England on vacation and stayed.

Bryson is always an entertaining tour guide, because he is voraciously curious about everything and has lots of obscure stories to tell about the places he visits. His sense of humor is sometimes juvenile but often amusing.

In this book, he takes a winding route through the country that includes more obscure or unusual destinations than the common tourist stops. During the trip, he comments on the things he likes and dislikes, particularly his disdain for the number of historical buildings that have been torn down and replaced by ugly modern ones.

I found this a particularly interesting route, because Bryson visits as many places of little distinction as he does others, sometimes spontaneously hopping a train or bus to an out-of-the-way destination. So, we hear about thriving communities as well as those that have not fared as well. This, by the way, is also a hallmark of his later book about traveling in England, The Road to Little Dribbling, in which he revisits some of the same towns and reports on how they have done in the intervening time. In many ways, the books together are sort a of sociological and historical study rather than travel books, but always entertaining.

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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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Day 1298: Hidden Depths

Cover for Hidden DepthsAfter a rare night out, Julie Armstrong returns home in the wee hours to find her son, Luke, dead in the bath. Her 14-year-old daughter, Laura, is sound asleep in her room.

Luke has been despondent since the death of his friend, Thomas Sharp, from drowning. Julie assumes he killed himself, but Vera Stanhope’s team assures her it was not a suicide. Luke was strangled, his bath filled with scented oil and flowers.

Felicity Calvert is surprised when she meets her son at the bus to find that her teacher has traveled out there to view their cottage with the idea of renting it. Felicity isn’t sure she wants to rent it again but is surprised when the young woman, Lily Marsh, leaves without asking the rate.

Vera’s attentions turn to the Sharps, a local criminal family, wondering if Davy Sharp blamed Luke for his son’s death. But Davy says it was a accident. Soon, another body is discovered in a tide pool by Felicity Calvert’s son. It is Lily Marsh, submerged in a pool surrounded by flowers. The Calverts are at the shore as part of Pete Calvert’s birthday celebration, accompanied by his three best friends, all bird watchers.

This is another clever mystery by Ann Cleeves. Her characters are convincing, and her plots complex without being overly complicated. I am enjoying both the Ann Cleeves series I’m reading.

And by the way, I wish everyone a safe New Year’s Eve and a happy  new year!

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Day 1297: The Weight of Ink

Cover for The Weight of InkThe Weight of Ink is a dual time-frame novel set in the current time and the 17th century. At first, I wasn’t as captured by the present-day sections as I was by the past, but eventually the entire novel absorbed me. There is a big revelation at the end that I anticipated, but that did not lessen the power of the novel.

In the present day, Helen Watt is an English university professor of Jewish history who is elderly and ill. Requested by a previous student to examine a cache of papers he found in a wall of his 17th century house, Helen does not expect any great finds. What she discovers is a genutza, the hidden papers of a 17th century rabbi, and on one page, a mention of Spinoza. Understanding that this could be a major discovery, she requests help and gets that of Aaron Levy, an American graduate student.

One of their first, startling discoveries is that Rabbi HaCoen Mendes’s scribe, identified only by the Hebrew letter aleph, is a woman. Having reported her initial findings to Jonathan Martin, the head of the History Department, so that he could buy the papers from the owners, Helen is dismayed to find her place on the investigation usurped. She can continue working with the papers, but Martin has also given Brian Wilton access. He arrives with four graduate students to beat Helen and Aaron to any discoveries and immediately publishes an article about one of the topics in the letters.

In 1657, Ester Velasquez is a young Jewish woman who has been allowed an unusual education. In these dangerous days of the Inquisition, her family fled Portugal for Amsterdam, where her parents were killed in a fire. She and her brother Isaac are part of the household of Rabbi HaCoen Mendes, who travels to England to educate the British Jews in their heritage, these people having been hiding there pretending to be Protestants during hundreds of years when Jews were not allowed in England. Rabbi Mendes’s difficult job is made harder when Isaac, his scribe, leaves. But the rabbi lets Ester take his place.

Offered an opportunity of knowledge, Ester comes to know that she does not want to return to a woman’s life. So, she sets about a daring deception.

Aside from covering some key events of its time—the Inquisition, the return of Jews to England, the plague, and the Great Fire—The Weight of Ink offers us an intrepid, determined heroine in Ester as well as an interesting modern story. I was really touched by this novel. It’s terrific—the kind of novel I look for in historical fiction.

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Day 1285: Miss Buncle’s Book

Cover for Miss Buncle's BookMiss Buncle’s investments have not been providing her an income, so she realizes she must do something. She decides to write a book. She submits it to a publisher, Mr. Abbott, who can’t decide whether it is a sly satire or a story written by a rather simple person. Nevertheless, he likes it and decides to publish it. In particular, he is impressed by the lifelike characters.

Miss Buncle always says she has no imagination and has simply described the people she knows. When the book comes out, all of her neighbors begin to recognize themselves, and many of them are not pleased. But no one knows who the author, John Smith, is. Some of the less likable people in the village decide to find out. The topper is that Miss Buncle has imagined futures for some of her characters, and they start to behave as she predicted.

This is a delightful novel, a fun, light read. It’s the perfect thing to go with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. I can see why so many people have loved it. I read it for my Classics Club list.

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