Review 1538: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves

Rachel Malik’s investigation into the life of her grandmother has resulted in a gentle and touching story of friendship and love. It is an unusual one, too.

Rene Hargreaves leaves her difficult marriage to sign on as a land girl during World War II. She is assigned to work on a remote farm named Starlight owned by Elsie Boston. Elsie is a little peculiar and uncomfortable with strangers, but the two form a close friendship.

When a law is passed allowing the agricultural board to take charge of poorly run farms, Elsie’s greedy neighbors on the board use it to cheat her out of her farm, even after the examiner rates it “fair.” As a result, Elsie must leave the farm. Rene goes with her, and they become itinerant workers.

A promise Rene made to an old friend puts their lives in peril when Elsie is nearing old age and Rene is middle aged. Rene promised Bertha she would take care of her in old age, but it is Bertha who dies, leaving her difficult and senile husband Ernest with no place to go, so the two women take him in.

Although the two women live unremarkable lives for most of the novel, something about their story is compelling. Ultimately, it takes a turn I didn’t expect at all, despite its opening. I read this novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Review 1485: Bitter Orange

Best of Ten!
Frances, on her deathbed in some sort of institution, remembers the events of a summer 20 years before, in 1969, when she came to know her only friends. Frances’s mother has recently died when she takes a job at a crumbling mansion called Lyntons where she is to report on any interesting architectural features on the grounds to its new owner. There she meets Peter, who has been similarly employed to evaluate the house and its contents, and Cara, his wife.

Cara and Peter befriend Frances during a heady summer of near camping out in the destroyed house. The three soon begin picnicking and enjoying themselves while Cara tells Frances fascinating stories about their previous  lives.

There is clearly something a little overstrung and off about Cara, but Frances is entranced by the friendship she has never had before and also falling in love with Peter. Even when the two show they are not particularly honest, she is not dissuaded, despite hints from her other friend, Victor, the vicar.

This novel is wildly atmospheric while somehow remaining quiet. There are odd, unexplained touches—a telescope inserted into the floor of Frances’s attic bedroom, so that she can see what happens in the bathroom below, imagined smells, noises, and glimpses of faces in the attic, suggesting a haunting. Slowly, we realize that Frances has her own problems.

This is a haunting novel, evocatively written, about loneliness and longing, about the fathomless qualities of guilt. I was riveted by it.

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Day 1243: Dear Thief

Cover for Dear ThiefBest of Five
Dear Thief is one of the first books I read specifically for my James Tait Black Prize project, and it is an unusual one. The entire novel consists of a letter that we suspect will never be sent to its recipient.

The unnamed narrator addresses her letter to her friend Nina, whom she has not seen for 18 years. Although not exactly plotless, the novel is concerned with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, imaginings about how Nina is living now, and thoughts about the events that destroyed their friendship and broke up the narrator’s marriage.

Beautifully written, sometimes stunning, the novel is a meditation on memory and on the need for connection. It is an examination of the complexities of relationship, for the narrator both wishes to see Nina again and hopes she will destroy herself.

The focus of the novel is of course on Nina, or Butterfly, as she was named by the narrator’s son when he was small. Harvey makes readers understand Nina’s allure, a beautiful, scarily intelligent woman who seems to be on a path of self-destruction.

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Day 952: My Brilliant Friend

Cover for My Brilliant FriendI think my reaction to My Brilliant Friend must be affected by all the hype it has received. That is, I put off reading it because I am often disappointed by novels that are wildly popular. Nothing can live up to the hype, and this novel doesn’t either, but it almost does. It is merciless in its clear-eyed look at the relationship between two frenemies.

The novel begins in the present, where Elena Greco looks back at her relationship with Lila Cerullo. Elena and Lila know each other from childhood. They are neighbors in a rough, poor neighborhood on the outskirts of post-war Naples. From the beginning they are wary, competitive friends. Elena admires Lila’s courage and in school grows to admire her fearless intelligence. But, as the second best in class, Elena finds herself competing with Lila and disliking her secondary position.

Both Lila and Elena are encouraged by their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, but when Lila’s parents won’t allow her to take the exam to enter the equivalent of middle school (I guess) because she has to work, Maestra Oliviero spurns Lila. She continues to study on her own for a while, even helping Elena with her Latin, but eventually, as she gets older, she avoids discussing Elena’s studies as it is too painful. Elena for her part finds herself increasingly isolated from most of her community, because there is no one with whom she can discuss the ideas she is interested in. Only Lila is capable of understanding them, and she begins avoiding these subjects.

Something else Lila and Elena would like to avoid are the Solara brothers, whose father is part of the Camorra crime syndicate. When Elena is a young teenager, the boys attempt to drag her into their car, but Lila stops them by pulling a knife. This action apparently endears her to Marcello Solara, who begins hanging around Lila’s house with the cooperation of her parents.

I can only guess that the effect of this series builds as the reader continues on with it. Certainly, the novel has a climactic ending that makes me wonder what’s coming next.

I felt that the emotions Elena expressed during the novel were immature, but then I had to keep reminding myself that the girls are only 16 at the end of the novel. Elena seems to be totally oblivious of how painful it must be for Lila to hear about her intellectual achievements, and Elena still continues to try to compete with her. Although Lila seems abrupt and dismissive at times, at other times she lets Elena know how she appreciates her.

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