Review 1417: The Web of Days

I think it is interesting to reread a book I read long ago to see if or how my reaction to it has changed. This can work both ways—I can appreciate a book I disliked the first time or see the flaws in a book I loved. I remember reading the gothic romance The Web of Days when I was a teenager, borrowed from a neighbor’s house for whom I was babysitting. After the kids went to bed, I would pull it out for the next installment. I liked the book and had a crush on its romantic hero. So, what did I think this time? More about that later.

Hester Snow arrives from the North at Seven Chimneys, a ruined plantation on one of the sea islands of Georgia just after the Civil War. She is to be a governess for Rupert LeGrand, the son of the owner of the plantation, Saint Clair LeGrand. At the house she finds an indifferent master; his mother Madame, who cares only for her food; and his wife Lorelei, who drinks too much. The house is slovenly, the fields are ruined, and the servants are insolent.

Hester believes that with hard work and oversight, Seven Chimneys could be made profitable again, and she soon seeks permission from LeGrand to see to it. When she begins to find herself successful, she becomes obsessed with seeing the plantation thrive and making a home for herself. What she doesn’t see is the truth behind the relationships between the family members at Seven Chimneys.

She is attracted to Roi, Saint’s dashing bastard half brother, but he offers a life in a cabin in Missouri. Hester thinks that will be a harsh life of drudgery and wants nothing to do with it.

First of all, this novel is so racist it took my breath away. It’s hard to tell if Lee was trying to depict the time as it was or was racist herself. However, Hester herself is racist. Even though she comes to like a couple of the African-American characters, she treats more than one of them despicably, and they are all stereotypical.

Second, in other ways Hester is not at all likable, being so obsessed with succeeding on the plantation and feeling herself so superior to the southern characters. In many ways, except for not being evil, she reminds me of the main character in one of Philippa Gregory’s early series, Wideacre. She acts fairly reprehensibly up to the very end of the novel, when she has a change of heart. Frankly, she does not deserve her happy ending.

Did I like the book? It is well written and atmospheric. It has some suspenseful scenes, and Hester finds herself in a corner. But no, not only is the racism too much for me, but the regionalism is, too, because Lee depicts most southerners as loafing crackers (she even uses the word), greedy vulgar businessmen, or effete, elitist aristocrats. This is not at all the book I remembered reading.

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Review 1414: Lilac Girls

I would like to say to some writers, If you are going to use multiple narrators (please don’t), they must have their own voices. If they don’t sound like different people, this technique doesn’t work. Unfortunately, either Martha Hall Kelly doesn’t know this or can’t do it. I’m not talking about expressed concerns or interests here but actual tone and mode of expression.

Lilac Girls reminds me very much of Salt to the Sea. If you remember my review of that book, you know that’s not a good thing. There’s the World War II setting, the alternating chapters with different narrators, one of whom is the evil Nazi. There is also the unconvincing narrative change, the poor characterization, and the mediocre writing.

Caroline Ferriday is a New York socialite who works for the French Consulate and is involved in charities to help French children. In summer of 1939, there are already lots of refugees fleeing from France. We guess she’s going to become involved in that; however, the first hundred pages of the novel concern her growing relationship with Paul Rodierre, an actor whose wife is trapped in France. Not very interesting, since Hall doesn’t get us to care about Caroline or Paul.

Kasia Kuzmerick is a Polish teenager living in Lublin. When the Nazi attack, she witnesses their planes firing on camps of refugees. Later on, she begins running errands for the resistance.

Herta Oberhauser is a young doctor who has bought the Nazi vision despite having difficulty getting a job because women are expected to be wives and mothers. She finally gets a job working at Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women.

Not only did I think the characterization was poor, I felt the behavior of characters was at times unlikely. For example, Kasia is old enough to understand that her mother is being forced to have an affair with a Nazi, yet she makes a dangerous public scene with her about it. Herta is an ambitious doctor who cannot find a job because she is a woman, yet she buys the ideals of the Nazi party that is keeping her down.

I admit I did not finish this novel, which was taking a long time to get anywhere (another problem with such frequent switches in narration). I read about a quarter of the book then decided to quit wasting my time. The story of Ravensbrück is important, but this writer is not up to the task.

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Review 1409: Brookland

Prue Winship grows up the oldest daughter of a gin distiller in 18th century Brooklyn. Her father having failed to have sons, he brings her into the distillery as an apprentice when she is 14, and she learns to run it. She doesn’t expect, though, that her father’s early death will leave her and her sister Temperance in charge of it.

Despite the preoccupations of running a business, Prue has another dream—to build a bridge across the East River into New York. Many have tried to design one, but nothing has been proposed that would not obstruct water traffic for hours. Prue thinks she has an idea that would work.

This seems like it would be a book I would enjoy, but I could not get going in it. I gave it an effort, but after six days of reading, I still wasn’t into it and hadn’t reached the halfway mark. (Usually six days is enough for me to read most works of fiction, no matter how long. Often in six days I have read two or three novels.) I still had about 300 pages to read when I decided to stop. I couldn’t put my finger on my problem. The novel was well written and on an interesting subject. However, it was very slow moving and kept relating the heroine’s dreams. There is nothing more boring than a dream in fiction, I think. Finally, I dimly remember reading a book on this same subject, the distillery and the bridge, years ago, although I am fairly sure it was not this one. So, not the book for me despite its good reviews in the press.

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Review 1408: Love Is Blind

Although generally speaking, I love William Boyd, I should have known better than to read a book named Love Is Blind. Even from the title, I could tell it was about a man who falls in love with a woman who is trouble, a plot that I hate. Although men love to write books upon this subject, most of the women incarcerated in the United States are there because of a man. Of course, it happens for both sexes, but a man enthralled by a lethal siren is the least of it and, for me, not interesting.

In 1894 Edinburgh, Brody Moncur is a piano tuner of significant skills. He is offered a position of assistant manager in his company’s Paris office which he takes, determined to get away from his controlling father.

In a promotional effort, Brody makes a deal with John Kilbarron, a famous pianist, to play only his company’s pianos. Soon, he has fallen in love with Lika, Kilbarron’s mistress, who is an opera singer. They begin an affair, and his life becomes a series of efforts to win her away safely from Kilbarron.

Disturbingly, we get very little sense of what Lika is like as a person. She serves pretty much as Boyd’s MacGuffin. The novel just focuses on Brody’s obsession and its consequences. It’s obvious that Lika has her secrets, and to me, it was even obvious what the major one was.

As well written as it is, I simply didn’t enjoy the theme of this book. As with Boyd’s other recent books, it takes in a sweep of history and visits many places while it meanders to its denouement.

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Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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Review 1401: The Muse

In 1967 London, Odelle Bastien has been making her way with difficulty. Although she is well educated, her race and origins in Trinidad are keeping her from getting a job. Then she gets a break. Marjorie Quick hires her as a secretary in an art institute and makes friendly overtures.

Odelle finds Quick mysterious. She asks Odelle about herself but tells her nothing. She does, however, encourage Odelle to write.

Odelle has also met Laurie Scott, a young man who is interested in being more than her friend. His mother has just died, leaving him only an unusual painting. To support himself, he intends to try to sell it. Odelle encourages him to bring it to the Skelton Institute, her workplace. When Quick sees the painting, she has a strong reaction to it.

In 1935, Harold Schloss, an art dealer, has fled Vienna with his family. Unfortunately, he has chosen Spain, which will soon be little safer, to flee to. His daughter Olive has been accepted at Slade, but she hasn’t told her father. He believes that women can’t be artists, just dabblers.

Olive meets Isaac Robles, an artist, and his sister Irene. Both are servants for the house the Schlosses are renting. Olive is struck by Isaac’s good looks and begins painting in a new style with vibrant colors.

The novel follows these two time threads as it explores the mystery of the painting. Who painted it, and how did it end up in London? How does Quick know about it?

I was struck by Burton’s weird and wonderful The Miniaturist, so much so that as soon as I finished reading it, I bought this book. I found The Muse to be a bit more mundane, with few surprises. For a long time, I was much more interested in Odelle’s section than Olive’s, particularly because Olive makes a decision about her art that I found shocking and unbelievable. In theme, this novel is similar to The Blazing World, and in an action taken by an artist, but with a crucial difference.

Also, like some other bloggers, I am wearying of the dual time-frame format. I am beginning to think it is a little lazy. After all, it seems easier to write half a book about two historical time periods (or one depending upon the time chosen for the more recent period) than a whole book about one. One of the delights of The Miniaturist was how it immersed me in the period. This novel doesn’t really do that.

Mind, it’s not a bad novel, and many people will like it. I just found it a disappointing follow-up to Burton’s first book.

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Review 1399: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

In 1785, Jonah Hancock is a merchant who is waiting for his ship to arrive. It is delayed, and he has heard nothing for a long time, but such is the life of a merchant. Finally, his captain arrives but without his ship, which he has sold to purchase, of all things, a mermaid.

Mr. Hancock doesn’t quite know what to do with the wizened, grimacing creature with the fish tail, especially as it is dead and Captain Jones has sold his ship for £2000 less than it is worth. But the Captain blithely believes the mermaid will make his fortune—he should exhibit it.

Angelica Neal’s protector recently died, leaving her with nothing. Her friend, Mrs. Frost, worried about their household expenses, urges her to return to the house of Mrs. Chappell, the bordello owner, but Angelica is hoping to attract a protector rather than to fall back in debt to Mrs. Chappell. Unfortunately, she falls in love at the party Mrs. Chappell gives to exhibit Mr. Hancock’s mermaid, with a young lieutenant who doesn’t come into his fortune for years.

I enjoyed this peculiar novel, which seems solely a historical novel but contains a whimsical dash of the supernatural. I was interested in both Angelica and Mr. Hancock as characters, as well as some of the others. There is an odd subplot about a girl who runs off from Mrs. Chappell that, while not unfinished, takes some part of the narration and then vanishes from the book until the end. I wasn’t sure of the point of that story line.

In fact, the entire novel sort of meanders past the point where you think it will end, making for an unexpected last 100 pages.

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