Review 2108: The Paris Apartment

Jess needs to leave London quickly, so she calls her brother Ben in Paris and announces she is coming for a visit. He tells her it’s not a good time but ends up giving her instructions to his apartment.

All doesn’t go well for her travel plans, and she ends up arriving late. However, she can’t get Ben to buzz her in or raise him on her phone. She ends up following someone in and picking the lock to his apartment.

When Ben doesn’t appear the next morning, Jess begins asking about him. The neighbors, though, are hostile and unhelpful. The building itself is old and unusual, surrounding a courtyard with each apartment occupying a single floor. It seems much more expensive than Ben, a journalist, can afford. Moreover, in the apartment Jess has found a spot smelling strongly of bleach and a cat with blood on its fur.

I think I’ve read enough Lucy Foley. Her plots are puzzling enough, but her style gets old. All the books I’ve read by her are narrated the same way—in short chapters moving back and forth in time and changing narrators. Her style seemed unusual at first but it doesn’t change from book to book.

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Review 2105: The Royal Secret

When James Marwood and Cat Lovett, now the widowed Mrs. Hakesby, meet Mr. Van Riebeeck at the theater, Marwood has no idea that his investigation of someone selling state secrets will involve him. Cat, who has carried on her husband’s architectural business since his death two years before, has thought she would never be drawn to a man, but she is to Van Riebeeck.

When Marwood’s investigation begins to focus on Van Riebeeck, he tries to warn Cat, but she just thinks he is jealous, which he is. In the meantime, Cat is working on plans for a chicken house for the King’s sister, Madame, and is asked to take them and a model to France.

Van Riebeeck has already killed three people and proposed marriage to Cat before he disappears. But since one of the murdered is Marwood’s own footboy, he is determined to find him.

This is another excellent entry in the Marwood/Lovett series. The main characters remain interesting, and Taylor involves them in some intriguing plots. I am enjoying them.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2039: Alien Hearts

It’s hard for me to start this review without a swear word. A lot of discussion goes on in this novel about the nature of love and the difference between men and women, but to my mind, neither Maupassant nor his characters have a clue. But maybe that’s what I should expect from a man who died of syphilis at 43.

André Mariolle is a young, rich dilettante who is introduced into the salon of Madame de Burne, who is known for her flirtations that only go so far. Her salon is peopled with artists and musicians, and Mariolle is an outlier, but she embarks on a flirtation as she would with any new man in her circle. However, this time the two fall in love and begin an affaire.

Mariolle isn’t happy for long, though, because he wants her to be as madly in love with him as he is with her. We get lots of descriptions of heart rendings.

The Introduction to the novel includes a quote about it from Tolstoy: “In this last novel the author does not know who is to be loved and who is to be hated, nor does the reader know it, consequently he does not believe in the events described and is not interested in them.” Yes.

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Review 2030: Down Below

Leonora Carrington was a Surrealist artist who for years had an affair with the much-older Max Ernst. During World War II, Ernst kept being imprisoned as an enemy alien in France, and the resultant tribulations broke Carrington’s mental health. As she and some friends traveled to Spain to escape the German invasion, she became disassociated from reality. Down Below is her recollection of her state of mind and thoughts during her break from reality.

Reading this very short work is an odd experience, as Carrington’s delusions seem as surrealistic as any artwork. It also feels elliptical, reticent about the events that brought on her insanity and really about anything personal except her state of mind. It would have been almost impossible to understand without the background provided in the Introduction to my NYRB edition.

It’s pretty crazy. Unfortunately, this breakdown made her a heroine of Surrealism, which must have been personally difficult for her.

Just as a coincidence, shortly after I read this book, I read Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio, about Varian Fry, the man who helped many writers and artists, including Ernst, I think, escape the Nazis. Review coming in a few months.

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Review 1873: Juggernaut

Esther Rowe is a Canadian nurse who has just finished delivering a patient in Cannes and finds herself having to make a decision. Will she return to snowy New York or try to find a job in beautiful, warm Cannes? She decides on Cannes and soon accepts a post with Dr. Sartorius even though he seems intimidating.

Celebrating her new job by getting a drink at an expensive café, she overhears a conversation between a young man and a beautiful woman. He is telling her he has a job in Argentina, and she doesn’t want him to go. Later, the woman comes to Dr. Sartorius’s office for an injection. She is Lady Clifford, the much younger wife of Sir Charles Clifford, a wealthy manufacturer.

Not long after Esther starts working for Dr. Sartorius, he informs her that he is closing his practice to care for Sir Clifford, who is suffering from typhoid along with other ailments. However, he invites her to come along as the day nurse.

She hasn’t worked there long when she beings noticing odd things. Lady Clifford doesn’t pay much attention to her husband but insists on giving him his milk every day. The house is frequented by Arthur Holliday, the young man Esther saw with Lady Clifford at the café. Roger Clifford, Lord Clifford’s son, arrives unexpectedly after Lord Clifford suffers a downturn. He never received the cable sent to summon him home.

Although it isn’t very hard to figure out what’s going on in the Clifford house, Esther is a strong, feisty heroine and the novel depends more on psychology than the complex plots more usual in 1928, when Juggernaut was written. Also, there is an understated romance, and the last 50 or so pages are extremely suspenseful. Juggernaut is Campbell’s first book, and I am looking forward to more.

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

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Review 1799: Summer Will Show

I have enjoyed the two other books I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, but I am not as sure how I feel about Summer Will Show. According to the Introduction by Claire Harman, the two main characters bear a strong resemblance to Warner’s real-life companion, Valentine Ackland (Sophia) and herself (Minna). This may be the problem I have with this novel, because, as with Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, depicting a semblance of her own true-life relationship, I think perhaps the closeness of the relationship inhibits the writing. In this case, I didn’t really get the attraction between the two women. It didn’t seem convincing.

in 1848, Sophia Willoughby has been running her estate and raising her children on her own for some time. She has long tolerated her husband’s affairs, but when she hears of one with Minna Lemuel, she is enraged. Minna is famous as a sort of actress/prostitute/mountebank, and she is not only unattractive but older than Sophia. Sophia tells her husband Frederick he can stay in Paris.

Although Sophia is an extremely competent manager, she is impatient in many ways with her woman’s role. She wants to live a free life. She is not happy in society and has no friends. Although an attentive mother, she thinks her children are too soft and doesn’t coddle them. Then a mistaken attempt to toughen them up ends in their deaths.

With no one to care for, Sophia decides to go Paris and talk her husband into having another child with her. She arrives there as the Parisians are preparing for another revolution.

In searching for Frederick, Sophia meets Minna and is immediately captivated. In a short time, she is caring for her instead of a new child. Minna is a revolutionary, however, and although Sophia is skeptical of the movement, whose advocates seem to hang around Minna’s flat and do little, she is slowly drawn to Communism. In the meantime, Paris is starving.

Aside from what I felt was an unconvincing love affair, I wasn’t really interested in the revolutionary setting or the turn to Communism, which wasn’t very coherently explained. I was also appalled by Sophia’s treatment of Caspar, her husband’s illegitimate half-caste son. So, not so excited about this one.

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Review 1793: Dare Not Tell

Full disclosure: Elaine Schroller is a friend of mine, and I received a copy of her novel in exchange for a free and fair review.

In 1939, Sophie and Joe Parker are about to make a sort of pilgrimage to Villers-Bretonneaux, France, the site of the most vicious battle Joe fought in during World War I, the one that gives him nightmares.

In 1916, Sophie Holt is a young American nurse volunteering in a hospital in Paris when she meets Second Lieutenant Joe Parker on leave from the Australian army. Joe is married, but they begin a friendship through letters that lasts the duration of the war. Joe’s wife Annie dies in the flu epidemic, but when Joe goes to look for Sophie at the end of the war, he finds that she’s married a British surgeon and moved to England.

The first third of the novel covers this relationship and follows the two until they get together after Sophie is widowed. Then it shifts in tone and purpose as Joe’s PTSD comes to the surface with the trip to France and the couple notice odd things going on in the valley around Chamonix.

It may be that this strong focus on their relationship creates some issues for me—in particular, that of characterization. Although both Sophie and Joe are likable characters, there is no sense of the personality of any of the other characters. For example, Sophie’s best friend only appears in one scene and later is reported killed. Sophie adopts her son, who is only mentioned in the novel and maybe speaks once, and Joe’s son hardly appears. And so on until it gets to Chamonix, so that I missed from this novel a real sense of what its other characters are like.

Until the trip to France in 1939, there is also little sense of the characters’ surroundings. That changes with descriptions of the landscape, and the novel, which seems to lag a little in the transition, picks up quite a bit.

Schroller has done a lot of research about the role of Australian soldiers in World War I France, that is clear. In her next book, I hope she works more at filling out the secondary characters and the sense of the world around them, both in setting and in the life of others.

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Review 1755: The Snow-Woman

For nearly half a century, Maude Barrington has been grieving for her three brothers who died in World War I. To the rest of the world she has been cold, letting friendships fall away, living with just her maid Millie, and having just a few neighbor acquaintances.

Then one day, an old frenemy, Lionel Crozier, invites himself to tea. Thinking of him as malicious, Maude doesn’t know what to expect but is not surprised when he arrives with a hugely pregnant young woman from a lower class named Teddie Parker. Soon, the girl begins to give birth on Maude’s couch.

Once Teddie has been dispatched to the hospital, Lionel tells Maude he wants her to come to France, where an old friend, Charles, a famous expert on modern art, is dying. Although Maude has done nothing for years, she agrees to go, and thus begins a kind of opening up, where she reconciles with old friends.

This experience continues when she arrives home and gets more involved, through Millie, with Teddie and her family. The result is the revelation of long-held secrets and a new life for Maude.

Although I wondered why Maude wasn’t curious about how Lionel knew Teddie or why he would have brought her to Maude’s house, and although I also wondered at some point where the novel was going, it turned out to be thoroughly satisfying and heart-warming. Another win for Gibbons.

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Review 1726: To Calais, In Ordinary Time

It’s 1348, two years after the battle of Crécy, which won Calais back from the French to the English. Will Quate is betrothed to Ness, the prettiest girl in his Cotswold village, but his liege lord, Sir Guy, wants him to join a group of archers on their way to defend Calais. Will would rather stay, but he bargains for a document showing he’s a free man. Sir Guy tells him he will send along the paper with Captain Laurence Haket in exchange for five pounds once he has won his fortune.

Will agrees to go. In fact, his attitude toward Ness seems ambivalent. He doesn’t seem to care that she had an affair with Haket and became pregnant. Will’s friend Hab is plainly in love with him, but Will doesn’t seem inclined.

Sir Guy’s daughter Bernadine is incensed that Sir Guy has betrothed her to a man his own age when she is in love with Laurence Haket. Inspired by La Roman de la Rose, she feels she is entitled to a more romantic life, so she runs away, following Haket on his way to Calais.

Another voice on the journey is Thomas Pitkerro, a proctor, who is sent along with the archers on his way to his home in Avignon to give last rites, if needed. Thomas is afraid of the plague, which is said to be moving north from Italy and France.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time echoes its medieval inspirations with its tale of adventures while on a journey. It does so in more than just plot, however, for it is written with only words in use in the time it was set. Thomas, who is writing letters and keeping a diary, writes in a stiff, bombastic style that thankfully loosens up . The novel is narrated in a style a little less formal than the speech of Bernadine, which contains some French modes of expression. Several times the point is made that her workers do not understand many of the words. The speech of Will and the characters around him is littered with expressions native to the Cotswolds.

This attempt is similar to that of Paul Kingsnorth in The Wake, which I read several years ago—written to be readable to modern audiences but to have the feel of Old English (in the case of The Wake, that is). This effort doesn’t seems as likely to me except in the speech of the characters of the lowest status, which has a flow to it. The dialogue between characters of higher status seems overly elaborate, even pretentious, and perhaps echoes written work of the time.

Meek doesn’t do much to get readers interested in his characters, so at first I had difficulty becoming involved in the novel. After a while, I got more interested. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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