Day 1263: The Provincial Lady in London

Cover for The Provincial Lady in LondonFans of E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady should also enjoy The Provincial Lady in London, which is humorous in the same vein. The narrator, having made a surprising amount of money with her first novel, decides to buy a flat in London and to write there, free from the interruptions of daily life.

If only. Instead, we meet an entirely new set of characters. Emma is always dragging the narrator off to literary events and forcing her to speak on little or no notice. Pamela Pringle, who the narrator knows from a girl, has since had at least three husbands and uses the narrator as an alibi to her current husband while she is out with her boyfriends.

At home, Vicky has decided she wants to go to school and dispense with the services of Mademoiselle, which results in some painful scenes, almost as bad as those with the succession of cooks. For times when the children are home from school, they hire a tutor, whom the narrator refers to as Casabianca. I had to look that up to get it.

The narrator and her taciturn husband, Robert, navigate family vacations in France, dismal parties, church fêtes, casinoes, and unbalanced checkbooks while the narrator makes just as much fun of herself as anyone else. Amusing stuff!

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Day 1240: The New Sweet Style

Cover for The New Sweet StyleI’ve had The New Sweet Style on my reading list for a long time now, ever since reading a glowing review. I’ve also heard Aksyonov referred to as one of the best contemporary Russian writers. (We’re being flexible with our definition of contemporary here, since this book was written in 1998.)

Sasha Korbach is a dissident theatre performer in Soviet Russia who is kicked out of the country in 1982. Famous in Europe, he comes to the United States expecting a rousing reception. However, because of a mistake about the date of his arrival, he ends up subsisting with a group of underemployed Russian immigrants. A move to Los Angeles results in an even greater comedown in the world.

Then Sasha falls in love with Nora Mansour, the daughter of a wealthy fourth cousin. Sasha scrambles to earn enough money to continue his bicoastal affair.

Told in a jokey, ironic tone, this story seems as if it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe something got lost in translation, because I didn’t find it funny at all. For some reason, we’re meant to have sympathy for this character, who seems to have no personality at all but just lets himself be helplessly battered by the plot. Even upon his first arrival, he makes no effort to contact anyone in the American theater scene and sneaks out of a performance of his own work, and he won’t accept help from his wealthy relatives. At one point, he prefers to become a drug dealer. The plot veers from the realistic to the absurdist. There is a description of his theater act that makes it sound manic and ridiculous rather than amazing, as it is received. There’s nothing really to grab onto with no sense of character, no interest in the protagonist’s adventures, just a lot of pointless mockery.

For some reason, the tone of the novel reminds me of Nabokov, with lots of literary allusions but without his breath-taking prose. Instead, the English is sometimes awkward and often sexist. Sadly, I have to report that I did not finish this novel, although I read more than half of it. It just wasn’t interesting enough to me to finish it.

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Day 1176: The Native Heath

Cover for The Native HeathJulia Dunstan is delighted to have inherited her uncle’s Belmont House in Goatstock. Belmont House was the place of her fondest memories of childhood, when she and her cousin Dora would visit there. Dora, too, she is meeting for the first time in years, since Julia’s widowhood and return from life in the colonies. As Julia is given to impulsive and kind acts, she invites Dora to live with her at Belmont House, Dora having had such a hard life.

In Goatstock, the neighbors are all agog to set eyes upon Julia. And eccentric neighbors there are aplenty. Mrs. Minnis dresses like a juvenile and borrows from the neighbors; if returned, the objects are broken. Mrs. Prentice is so embarrassed at being caught looking into the house from the street that she fails to call. The vicar and Miss Pope are being preyed upon by Miss Briggs, who sees Alaric Pope as a future husband. Lady Fincy is the expert on food and gives lectures about eating nettles.

Of young people, there are only three. Julia has brought along her nephew, Robert, just qualified as an engineer. Marian Prentice is engaged to a missionary in Africa, and her best friend, Harriet Finch, would like to see her stay in England. Harriet plots to throw Robert and Marian together before she realizes she quite likes Robert herself.

As for Julia, her kind heart soon has her feeling responsible for several people. But she eagerly renews her friendship with her cousin, Francis Heswald. He always did like her, she thinks, but maybe he likes Dora a little more.

I’ve found all of Elizabeth Fair’s books delightful, and this one is no exception. They have been compared to the work of Angela Thirkell, minus the sentiment. I don’t actually think of Thirkell’s novels as sentimental, however, so I’m not sure what that comment means. With Fair’s flair for eccentric characters and their lightness, her books remind me more of some of those of Elizabeth Cadell.

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Day 1166: The Mingham Air

Cover for The Mingham AirA broken engagement followed by a bout of pneumonia brings Hester Clifford to Mingham and her godmother, Cecily Hutton, for recovery. She is inclined to think the Huttons need some organizing. Cecily is a woman of two moods, the creative and the motherly, of which the creative is the predominant. So, her household is poorly run. Her husband, Bennet, has been an invalid for so long that invalidism has become more of a habit than a necessity. Maggie works hard on a nearby farm, but Cecily is constantly scolding her for her dress and general messy appearance. Derek can’t decide what to do with his life, so keeps changing jobs.

The Huttons used to be friendly with Thomas Seamark, but since his wife’s death four years ago, he has become a bit of a recluse. Hester thinks it’s about time the friendship was renewed, and her efforts are successful. This renewed acquaintance leads Cecily to the conclusion that Hester would make a perfect wife for Thomas. She becomes so convinced of this that she doesn’t even notice she is putting obstacles in the way of his pursuit of her daughter, Maggie.

Like Fair’s other novels, The Mingham Air is full of colorful village characters, like Mrs. Hyde-Ridley who competes with her closest friend to entertain her while spending the least possible money, and Mrs. Merlin, the rector’s wife, who co-ops the parish féte for a display of country dancing. I enjoy these light novels, which contain just the slightest edge.

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Day 1156: Bramton Wick

Cover for Bramton WickI so enjoyed A Winter Away that I looked for more novels by Elizabeth Fair immediately. I found that they are being reprinted in a nice edition by Furrowed Middlebrow. Bramton Wick is Fair’s first novel, set in a village in post-World War II England. It is a gentle domestic novel with a bit of an edge.

Although the novel features several eccentric denizens of the village, it centers around Laura and Gillian Cole. Mrs. Cole and her family used to be the owners of Endbury, one of the large homes in the area, until Mr. Cole died and they had to sell. Mrs. Cole, although she dislikes the current owner of Endbury, Lady Masters, has begun to notice that Lady Masters’ son Toby has a liking for Laura.

Neighbors Miss Selbourne and her friend “Tiger” Garrett raise dogs in a cheerfully disordered household. Miss Selbourne has noticed, though, that whenever there is something unpleasant to be done, Tiger gets ill.

The neighborhood isn’t short of elderly women, for the Miss Cleeves are also nearby. The Miss Cleeves are penniless and dependent upon their landlord, Miles Corton, for help. Miss Cleeve is profoundly deaf, one sister is a religious fanatic, and the other sister sprinkles her malicious gossip with untruths.

Gillian, Mrs. Cole’s other daughter who is a war widow, has decided to take under her wing the wealthy new resident of the village. Mr. Greenley is from new money. He dresses like a parody of an English country gentleman and has not been welcomed to the village. Gillian thinks he just needs a little help fitting in.

This novel is gently comic, reminding me of Angela Thirkell without quite so much sharpness and snobbery. As Laura tries to figure out what she wants from life, we are greatly entertained by the antics of her neighbors.

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Day 1135: Death Among Friends

Cover for Death Among FriendsDeath Among Friends is a much more typical Elizabeth Cadell novel than the last one I read, Consider the Lilies. Here is her trademark humor, a likable heroine, and a couple of eccentrics, in this case Madame, the heroine’s employer, and James, her nephew. Also, a mystery rounds off the plot.

Eighteen months ago, Alison was jilted nearly at the altar. She left her home in Edinburgh and got a job in London, working for Madame as her companion/secretary. Now, her past is coming after her. James Maitland, Madame’s nephew, is preparing a play written by Madame’s brother for production in Edinburgh. The well-known producer, Neil Paterson, wants to produce it, and he wants Eden Croft to take the lead.

The problem is that Eden is Alison’s ex-fiancé and is now married to Alison’s godmother’s daughter, Margaret, whom she grew up with. Because Madame has delegated Alison to help James, she is forced to interact almost daily with the cast of the play, and with Margaret and Neil.

Although she has always disliked Neil and blames him for the break-up of her engagement, Alison is surprised to find him asking her out. When Eden tries to get her back, she is relieved to find she has no difficulty in brushing him off.

But as the group prepares for and begins their trip to Edinburgh, accidents start to happen to Alison. When she leans over a banister to call the cook, it collapses, and she is only saved because the cook moved a sofa to a position under the stairs. When she is driving down a steep hill at a B&B, her brakes give way, and only because she gave a young man a lift is she saved from going over a cliff. Later, when the travelers stop for lunch, an old man is killed because a rock knocks him off a cliff, where Alison was standing moments before.

Alison slowly realizes that someone is trying to kill her. But why? And who?

This was an enjoyable light read, as I usually expect from Cadell. It is another book for R.I.P.

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Day 1131: A Winter Away

Cover for A Winter AwayA review of A Winter Away tantalized me enough to make me order the book, a reprint from Furrowed Middlebrow. Much to my delight, the novel resembled, in different ways, those of two of my favorite authors for light, amusing reading.

Maud feels she has been too long at home, where she has always been regarded as delicate. Learning of an opportunity where she can live with Cousin Alice and her friend Miss Conway, thus satisfying her family’s demand about not moving to London, Maud has taken a job as a secretary to Marius Feniston of Glaine. Maud is at first terrified of making a mistake, for she knows her boss, called Old M. by Miss Conway, fired his last secretary. But she comes to like the old man and enjoy working in the crumbling but romantic mansion.

Marius Feniston is feuding with this nephew, Charles, who keeps a garden within Glaine’s grounds and operates greenhouses. At first, Maud is inclined to romanticize Charles and think that Oliver, Marius’s son, is demanding and boring. But sometimes Maud is prone to jump to conclusions.

A Winter Away is full of amusing situations and insights about people. Maud helps her neighbor Ensie in her romance with the curate. Miss Conway is jealous of Maud and tries to drive her away by sabotaging objects around the house, while Cousin Alice observes passively and Maud doesn’t even notice she’s doing it. Maud tries to discover the roots of the feud with Charles and prevent Oliver from arguing with his father every time he visits.

Fair’s observations about people are amusing and insightful, reminding me of Angela Thirkell but without its occasional class snobbery. Fair’s novels are a little more recent, and her situations and characters remind me of the best of Elizabeth Cadell. I enjoy both writers, so this novel was a pleasant discovery for me.

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