Review 1380: Literary Wives! Ties

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

We are sorry that Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. has left our group because of her many commitments. We’re going to miss her!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Ties is a very short novel divided into three parts. It is about a marriage, but moreso, it is about how a period of infidelity in that marriage affects everyone in this small family. Part I consists of letters written by the wife, Vanda, after her husband leaves her. Part II is narrated by the husband 40 years after they reconcile. Part III is from the point of view of their two children.

Initially, I was sympathetic to Vanda. After all, her husband leaves her with almost no warning and then neglects her and her children for several years, refusing to discuss their situation and too busy being happy with his girlfriend. His explanations for the affair are laden with sophism. Where did this idea come from, repeated twice, that it’s bad to resist impulses? It’s the 70’s, but come on. However, Vanda’s tone in the letters is too insistent, too strident.

An old man, Aldo is forced to revisit this period in their lives after a break-in. Cleaning up, he finds Vanda’s letters and reads them again. He sees his old affair with Lidia as a bid for freedom that was defeated out of guilt. After he and his wife reunited, she used his unhappiness to beat him and make him submissive. Worse, from the children’s point of view, she removed his role of father from the family.

This book was obviously written by a man.

Throughout the book are themes of boxes or being boxed in versus freedom and themes of cheating or being cheated.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

We understand that Vanda and Aldo were happy and content for some years, although for a few years before the breakup, they were less so. But in this book we only see Vanda as a shrew. Of course, there is reason for her to be unhappy when her husband leaves her and the children with nothing and then avoids them for years. Still, she carries her reactions to an extreme, especially after they reunite.

For his part, Aldo seems to see her and their children as a trap. Interesting, how some men seem to forget they actually participated in having children. Once he has left them, he prefers to think only of Lidia. Later in life, he’s been downtrodden for so long, yet he sees Lidia once a year and secretly keeps photos of her in a box.

Jhumpa Lahiri, in her introduction, says the novel is about creating and destroying. To me, it is just about destroying. Aldo was happy with Lidia but didn’t have the courage to stay with her. At the same time, he destroyed what seemed to be a happy marriage with Vanda in the worst possible way, by deserting his family. When he comes back out of guilt, the two of them create an even worse mess.

 

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1360: Abide with Me

Cover for Abide with MeElizabeth Strout is known for her compassionate explorations of true-to-life characters. Set in the late 1950’s, Abide with Me explores the states of mind of Tyler Caskey, a troubled minister, and his congregation.

Tyler is in mourning for his wife, who passed away from cancer. His mother has insisted on caring for his youngest daughter, Jeanne, while his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, lives with him.

Tyler is afraid he has lost his relationship with God. He is performing his duties without joy or inspiration. Katherine is having troubles in Kindergarten, because her teacher can’t understand that she is grieving. Aside from this, Tyler only feels comfortable talking to his housekeeper, Connie, and rumors are beginning to go around.

Misunderstandings divide the minister from his congregation. Strout builds tension as the pressures upon the minister build.

This is another insightful and touching novel by Strout. In some ways, it reminded me of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, except that it doesn’t require as much erudition to understand it.

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Review 1358: Literary Wives! A Separation

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

The unnamed narrator of A Separation receives a call from her mother-in-law, Isabella. Isabella has been trying to contact her son Christopher, the narrator’s husband, and demands to know where he is. What Isabella doesn’t know is that the narrator has been separated from Christopher for six months because of his infidelities. She has promised him to tell no one, which has become awkward because for three months she has been living with another man, Yvan.

Isabella can’t believe the narrator doesn’t know where Christopher is. His mother has traced him to a hotel in rural southern Greece and demands that the narrator go there to find out what is going on. For some reason, Isabella is alarmed.

The narrator makes some inexplicable decisions during this novel, almost as though she is obeying instinct rather than thinking. The first one is in not telling Isabella that she and Christopher are separated. The second is in actually doing what Isabella asks.

When she arrives at the hotel, she finds that Christopher is indeed staying there, researching a book on death rituals. However, he has been away for a few days. The narrator decides to wait for his return. Soon, something happens that forces her to re-evaluate her relationship with Christopher.

This novel is a carefully observed work about the complexities of marriage, love, betrayal, and loss. As the narrator, with her secret, is forced more and more back into the role of wife, she uncovers feelings about her husband that she didn’t know she had. Although a fairly simple story plotwise, the novel delves into the layers beneath the facades of marriage. This is a much more intelligent, sophisticated look at marriage than we have yet read in this club.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

This novel is one of the most complex and true-to-life that we have read for this club, while not really looking at what the marriage was like while the couple were still together. Even though the narrator considers her marriage over, and in fact, goes to Greece planning to ask for a divorce, she finds that the bonds of marriage affect her more strongly than she would have guessed. She finds herself forced back into the role of wife, for example, experiencing the dichotomy of having to make decisions she doesn’t feel she has the right to. The situation forces her to re-evaluate her relation to Christopher and his family. She is bound in ways she didn’t expect.

Literary Wives logoEven though Christopher was the one who strayed and her relationship with Yvan didn’t begin until after they separated., she feels she has betrayed him in some way through that relationship.

I wonder about Kitamura’s decision to make the narrator the only unnamed character in the novel. I have only seen this device used a couple of times, and I can only put a name to one of them now, Daphne du Maurier’s shy, self-effacing narrator in Rebecca. Surely the reason that Kitamura used this device is not the same. Of course, the novel is narrated in first person, and we don’t think of ourselves by our names. Still, no one calls her by her name, either. Perhaps Kitamura uses the device because in some ways the narrator seems to be functioning blindly and is at times an unreliable narrator because she is unaware of her own motivation. I wonder if anyone else has an insight into this.

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Review 1355: Transcription

Cover for TranscriptionThings are not always what they seem in Transcription, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, but it isn’t until the last pages of the book that you understand what’s going on. For this novel, Atkinson returns to the time period that was so fruitful for her last two, World War II.

Juliet Armstrong hearkens back to 1940, when she becomes, at 18, a transcriptionist for a team in MI5 that is bugging the meetings of Fascist sympathizers acting as fifth columnists. She is at once extremely naive yet clever and prone to lying. She has a crush on her handsome boss, Perry Gibbons, and does not understand that he is using her as a beard. The team’s work centers on Godfrey Toby, who has infiltrated a group of Nazi sympathizers.

In 1950, Juliet is working for BBC radio on a children’s show, but she occasionally harbors refugees from Communist Europe for her old bosses. One day, she spots Mr. Toby in the park, and he pretends not to know her. Later, she receives a note that says, “You will pay for what you did.” She fears that her life during the war is catching up with her.

Transcription seems much more straightforward than Atkinson’s last two books, but Atkinson always has something up her sleeve. The last few pages turn the novel on its head, but getting there is a pleasure. Atkinson finds some sly humor in the mundanity and ineptness of the spying operation and entertains us with Juliet’s amusing turn of thought and exactness of expression. I loved this book.

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