Day 1288: Seven Keys to Baldpate

Cover for Seven Keys to BaldpateJust as a side note, the Classics Club Spin number is #1, which means I will be reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for the end of January. That’s quite a coincidence, because I just checked it out of the library to read last week. I haven’t started it yet, though, and will be interested to see what I think of it more than 40 years after I read it the first time.

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I heard about Seven Keys to Baldpate during a news story about its namesake, Baldpate Inn in Colorado. Written in 1913, the novel was made into a successful stage play and three movies. It is not exactly a mystery as we think of it, since no detection occurs. Simply, the main character is trying to understand what is going on.

Billy Magee is a successful writer of pot boilers, but he feels he is capable of writing something more serious. To get away from interruptions, he travels to upstate New York to stay in his friend’s summer hotel, Baldpate Inn, which is closed during that season, winter.

In the train station at Upper Asquewan Falls, he falls in love on sight with a young woman. He attempts to help her find a place to stay, but after he puts her in a cab, he never expects to see her again.

He has no sooner gotten settled in his room at the abandoned hotel when people begin to arrive. Finding him there, they each tell him a story that is patently untrue to explain their presences at the hotel. Among them is the girl from the railway station. It is especially disturbing because Billy has been told he has the only key to the inn, but each successive arrival lets himself or herself in with a key.

Soon the hotel has almost a dozen people staying there, all of whom seem to understand what is going on except Magee. The mystery seems to involve an envelope of money in the hotel safe, however.

This novel is ridiculous but entertaining, written in a breezy style that is occasionally overly florid. It is meant to be ridiculous, however, sort of a satire against the potboilers that Billy writes, which is probably why it was so popular in its time. Although it is sometimes a little long-winded, it is a quick, fun read.

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Day 1285: Miss Buncle’s Book

Cover for Miss Buncle's BookMiss Buncle’s investments have not been providing her an income, so she realizes she must do something. She decides to write a book. She submits it to a publisher, Mr. Abbott, who can’t decide whether it is a sly satire or a story written by a rather simple person. Nevertheless, he likes it and decides to publish it. In particular, he is impressed by the lifelike characters.

Miss Buncle always says she has no imagination and has simply described the people she knows. When the book comes out, all of her neighbors begin to recognize themselves, and many of them are not pleased. But no one knows who the author, John Smith, is. Some of the less likable people in the village decide to find out. The topper is that Miss Buncle has imagined futures for some of her characters, and they start to behave as she predicted.

This is a delightful novel, a fun, light read. It’s the perfect thing to go with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon. I can see why so many people have loved it. I read it for my Classics Club list.

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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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