Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from the Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Day 1300: Munich

Cover for MunichRobert Harris’s newest book, Munich, takes place during four days in September 1938, during which England’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with Hitler, Mussolini, and the President of France to try to avoid war over Czechoslavakia. Or at least Chamberlain was trying to prevent war. As he has done before, Harris manages to create suspense around an event the outcome of which we already know.

He does this by introducing two characters, friends from Oxford who are now diplomats. Hugh Legat is a junior secretary for the Prime Minister. Paul von Hartmann is in the German foreign ministry, but he is also a member of a group who would like to bring down Hitler. The group asks him to attempt to encourage a strong response from England on the Sudetenland issue by leaking secret German aspirations in Europe to England through his friendship with Hugh. The group believes that if war is declared, the German army will stop Hitler.

This mission is a dangerous one for Hartmann, who already has one SS officer on his tail. Meanwhile, Hugh in trying to be a liaison is continually stymied by orders from his jealous boss.

I felt a little more detached from this one than I usually do for Harris’s work. It depicts Chamberlain, though, as a much more determined and politically savvy man than he is believed to be now. I get the feeling that Harris, who states in the afterword that he has been fascinated by this meeting for years, wants to show Chamberlain in a more positive light than history generally affords him.

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Day 1299: Flush: A Biography

Cover for FlushI admit to feeling rather perplexed by Flush, which seems to be a light-hearted biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s pet dog. It was clear to me that a lot more was going on than a story about a dog. The introduction to my Persephone edition by Sally Beauman draws parallels between Flush’s life and Barrett’s—and Virginia Woolf’s own life.

Flush is a cocker spaniel, a hunting dog, given to Elizabeth Barrett as a gift. Woolf is clear about how Flush’s life on Wimpole Street becomes one of constraint and even neuroticism as the lap dog of a constrained, restricted, and hypochondriacal Elizabeth Barrett.

The slant the novel puts on the famous romance between Barrett and Robert Browning is also very interesting. Flush is immediately jealous of Browning and tries to bite him twice. From being loved and terrifically spoiled by Barrett, he learns he has to take second place.

Now to get to the source of my perplexity. Just in terms of mistreatment of dogs, this novel was not, to me, the one fondly referred to by others over the years. Woolf’s doggy hero is restricted by Elizabeth just as she was by her father. To add interest, though, there are sly digs at social strata and Victorian life throughout.

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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 1292: The Silence of the Girls

Cover for The Silence of the GirlsFictionalizing ancient stories and myths seems to be popular now. I have read a few of these novels, including The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s novel about the Trojan War. That novel focused on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Although The Silence of the Girls is also partially about them, it is from a point of view heretofore unexamined, that of the Trojan women taken as slaves by the Greeks during the war. It is narrated mostly by Briseis.

Depending upon how well you know your Iliad, you may remember that Briseis is the woman awarded to Achilles who is later taken away by Agamemnon when he is forced to give up Chryseis. It is Achilles’s forced forfeiture of Briseis that leads him to sulk in his tent while the other Greeks are being slaughtered.

The novel begins with the fall of the Trojan city Lyrnessus, of which Briseis is the young queen. Achilles is called “the butcher” by the Trojans, and the women wait in fear when the citadel falls, knowing their boys will be murdered along with the pregnant women, and girls as young as nine will be raped and enslaved. Briseis is awarded to Achilles, whom she hates and fears.

link to NetgalleyAs the story of the war progresses, Barker builds a nuanced portrait of Achilles, his anger at Agamemnon, his Oedipal relationship with his goddess mother Thetis, his friendship with Patroclus. Although Achilles is not a sympathetic character, Briseis eventually becomes conflicted about him.

This is an interesting and affecting novel. It is completely unlike the only other novel I have read by Barker, but it makes me want to continue seeking out her books.

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Day 1289: The Clockmaker’s Daughter

Cover for The Clockmaker's DaughterBest Book of Five!
The first character we meet in The Clockmaker’s Daughter is the ghost of the clockmaker’s daughter. Although she used the name Lily Millington, we don’t find out her true name, or why she haunts Birchwood Manor, until the end of the novel.

The novel begins in the present, though, with Elodie, an archivist. She is about to be married, but she is having trouble concentrating on the wedding. That is because, in going through the archive of James W. Stratton, a philanthropist, she has found the belongings of a Victorian artist, Edward Radcliffe, in particular, a sketchbook. This discovery is of interest because inside it is a picture that she realizes is of a house from a children’s story handed down in her own family.

link to NetgalleyWhile Elodie begins exploring this link between Radcliffe and her family, we slowly hear the stories of Lily Millington, of a beloved house, and of a long-lost family heirloom. We also learn the stories of a series of inhabitants of the house.

Although I love a good ghost story, I wasn’t sure whether I would appreciate the ghost being one of the narrators. And this is not a traditional ghost story, for the ghost is not one that frightens. Kate Morton is a masterful storyteller, however, so that I was engrossed as always. Although this is not my favorite book by Morton, which still remains The Forgotten Garden, I really enjoyed it.

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