Review 2167: Weir of Hermiston. Some Unfinished Stories

I wasn’t aware when I picked up Weir of Hermiston that it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s last and unfinished novel. But unlike The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only nine chapters of it exist. It has been packaged in the slim volume I found, dated 1925, with several other unfinished novels or stories, but of the others only one or two chapters or partial chapters exist. Between most of the fragments is a note from the editor containing what is known about the fragment and Stevenson’s intentions.

Weir of Hermiston tells the story of Archie Weir, whose mother brought him up to fear and distrust his father, the Lord Justice-Clerk. As a young man, Archie reacts in a disgraceful way, possibly treasonous, to a hanging, so his father sends him to his estate in Hermiston to learn to run it. Archie is ashamed and is not socially adept, so he becomes a bit of a recluse. However, he meets Christina, a cousin, and begins to fall in love with her. He is joined by Frank, a financially embarrassed friend, who decides to give him some competition for Christina. Things aren’t looking good when the fragment ends.

The next fragment is Heathercat, about a young boy whose mother keeps disobeying the law in regard to religion—I didn’t really understand the details—to the point where his father is being ruined by fines. She is using her son, whose nickname is Heathercat, to run illegal errands and keep guard on illegal services of worship. The notes explain that this novel was going to be based on a true story about a young boy who was married to an older girl to prevent her being forced to marry someone else.

Other stories are about a beautiful wife of a wine seller who falls in love with an aristocratic customer, a prince, presumably Prince Charlie, who tires of waiting around and decides to act; a man who takes over the household of a friend who has fled the country; and so on. The fragments are set in Scotland, England, or France during the 15th to 17th centuries, except Weir of Hermiston, which is set in the 19th.

I forgot to add that my copy begins with a description of Stevenson’s death and funeral, written by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who was apparently very fond of him.

I found a book composed of fragments to be frustrating, but it made me want to read more of Stevenson’s adult novels.

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Review 2158: Half-Blown Rose

Vincent (a woman named after Vincent Van Gogh) is living in Paris, separated from Cillian, her husband, after his latest book revealed that when he left Ireland at 15, he left behind a pregnant girlfriend. Vincent and Cillian have been married for more than 20 years, but he had never told her about this.

While Vincent is teaching writing and creativity classes in Paris and considering having an affair with Loup, who is half her age, Cillian calls constantly trying to reconcile.

I don’t usually do this, but very soon after starting this novel I tried to figure out how old Cross-Smith is. This was because at about page 2, Vincent wonders if Loup is still looking at her and thinks, if he isn’t I’ll die. I thought, is this woman 12 years old? The character is 44, by the way.

Nevertheless, I continued reading, because the situation started to come out and it seemed intriguing, even though I was dreading the hot affair that I could see coming.

Then, at about page 75 begins a series of emails between Vincent and her husband’s illegitimate son and his mother. They are unbelievably juvenile, including lots of exclamation points.

Vincent is hanging around with artists and academics, and their conversation is absolutely unconvincing. And don’t get me started on the playlists (really?) and the number of references to Vincent’s menstrual blood. This was a DNF for me.

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Review 2147: Confidence

Confidence revisits Anna and Fin, the two protagonists of Conviction, now working together on a crime podcast. Anna, who lived under an assumed name for years after her accusations of gang rape against members of a popular football team were met with disbelief and threats of violence, has had her new identity revealed and faces questions from her daughter about it. Fin, an ex-rock star with eating issues, is dating Sofia, a bitchy Italian woman who came out with the story in front of the girls during a horrible vacation together.

Anna and Fin get interested in a podcast by Lisa Lee, a Scottish girl who explores abandoned places. She breaks into a chateau in France that is decrepit and falling apart but full of dusty, beautiful things. In a secret room that she accidentally discovers, she finds a silver box, Roman, with an inscription that indicates that Pontius Pilate converted to Christianity. It is sealed shut.

Lisa belongs to a group whose motto is “Take nothing and leave nothing,” but it gets about that the box is missing from the room. Soon, Lisa goes missing too, having gone to the door when a pizza arrived and then vanished. Fin decides their next project will be to find Lisa.

When they look into the history of the box, they find it was discovered in a plot in Cold War Hungary that a girl was clearing to plant a garden. After she and her mother consulted with their priest, Eugene Lamberg, she apparently sold it but then was murdered, presumably by the Hungarian secret police. Since then, every person who had the box was murdered until the box disappeared.

Anna and Fin’s search for Lisa is co-opted when they meet Bram VanWyk, a South African antiques dealer and confidence man. He needs to find the box to trade it for a small Monet painting that he stole, apparently from someone he is scared of. He is traveling around with his eleven-year-old son Marcos, whom he just met.

This novel is like a fast-paced confidence shuffle where you never quite know what’s going on. Fin and Anna are likable protagonists and their investigation leads them in quite a dance.

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Review 2126: The Flight Portfolio

As soon as I finished reading Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, I looked to see what else she had written, and that’s how I found The Flight Portfolio. This novel is based on true events with real historical characters except for Elliott Grant and some main invented characters.

It’s 1940, and American journalist Varian Fry is working in Marseille as the head of a charitable organization. Its mission is to help as many European artists, writers, and other intellectuals as it can to leave Europe and escape the Nazis. This mission is supposed to be legal but of course Fry has to use illegal means to evacuate people sought by the Nazis or by the Vichy government. The book begins with him trying to persuade the Chagalls to leave, but they think they are unassailable.

Into the chaos of the office work, including the eviction of the charity, comes a request for a meeting. It is from Varian’s old schoolmate at Harvard, in fact his ex-lover, Elliott Grant, who disappeared when Varian decided to pursue marriage and a normal life. Grant has come to ask Varian’s help in finding the son of his own lover, Professor Gregor Katznelson, a brilliant nuclear physicist who is somewhere in Europe trying to evade the Nazis.

While Varian works hard trying to get exit papers and arrange routes of escape, his relationship with Grant rekindles. He is forced to face his old decision and determine whether he wants to continue hiding his real self. His office faces searches and arrests, closures of escape routes, arrangements made only for clients to refuse to leave, blockages by government officials, and other obstacles.

The novel is riveting. Orringer is not only an excellent writer but a great story teller. I love it when I discover someone who is this good.

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Review 2113: The Clockwork Girl

I liked Mazzola’s The Story Keeper well enough to try another book by her. This one looked interesting.

In 18th century Paris, Madeleine was forced into prostitution at a young age by her mother and so badly scarred by a customer that she now works in the brothel as a maid. She is determined to escape with her nephew, which is one reason she reluctantly agrees to spy for the police on the household of Dr. Reinhart. She is supposed to find out what he is working on, but once installed there, she finds it difficult to learn anything. Something about Reinhart seems off, but he locks up his secrets. However, his interest is in anatomy and he makes elaborate wind-up animals.

A second narrator, Véronique, is Reinhart’s daughter, newly returned from being raised in a convent. Her father has promised to train her in his work, but time passes and he works only with Doctor LeFevre on some project for the King.

Madeleine hears rumors that children are disappearing off the streets and worries about her nephew.

A third narrator is Madame de Pompadour, who is afraid she is losing the King’s affection and worried about what he is up to.

This novel is fast-paced and eventually gets very creepy, but there are some unlikely aspects about it, especially how neatly everything is resolved. Still, it certainly kept my attention.

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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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