Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.

Sweetland

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Outline

Review 1771: Umbrella

Some of the reviews of Umbrella refer to modernism, as in “a magnificent celebration of modernist prose.” This kind of encomium shivers me timbers. And then I think, isn’t modernism over? Aren’t we into postmodernism now? Apparently not.

Umbrella has a plot, but don’t expect the book to leap into action, because it’s more concerned with its devices. Self uses few paragraphs, and the ones he inserts aren’t necessarily making the expected division, some of them positioned in the middle of a sentence. Self uses three points of view, but they shift without warning, sometimes in the middle of a word. Stream of consciousness is used abundantly and confusingly, and Self loves his allusions, most of which I did not get. What Self isn’t very concerned with is being easy on his readers.

The novel is inspired by Oliver Sach’s Awakenings. In 1971, psychiatrist Zack Busner realizes he has a group of patients who are post-encephalitic, and they are stuck repeating activities that are meaningful to them but at such fast or slow speeds that they are difficult to detect. He gets permission to administer L-DOPA to them, and they unfreeze, or wake up. Among them is Audrey Death, the oldest patient in the mental hospital.

Aside from following Dr. Busner as a young psychiatrist, we also follow him as an old man. We see from Audrey’s point of view as a girl and a young woman and from her young brother Stanley’s during World War I.

Sometimes the narrative gets carried away into ridiculous flights that last for pages, such as the one involving Stanley falling into a subterranean existence. I didn’t know what to make of it. Although critics have foamed at the mouth in admiration of this novel’s style, I’d call it self-indulgent. I had to make two attempts before I finally managed to read this novel.

This is one of the books I read for my Booker prize project.

Ducks, Newburyport

There but for the

As I Lay Dying

Review 1769: The Man from St. Petersburg

Back in the days when Ken Follett and John Le Carré were the major names in the espionage genre, I used to read both and sometimes confuse them. However, at some point I realized that, of the two, Le Carré is really the master of the genre and the better writer, so I stopped reading Follett. When Pillars of the Earth came out, I read that and decided that historical fiction was not Follett’s genre (I know many would disagree), so I stopped reading him altogether. This is a long way of staying that I picked up The Man from St. Petersburg by mistake.

The premise is intriguing. It’s 1909, and Winston Churchill wants to avoid a war with Germany by making a pact with Russia. The czar wants Prince Aleksey Andreyevich Orlov to handle the negotiations, so Churchill wants Lord Walden, whose wife Lydia is Orlov’s aunt, to handle the British side. Back in Russia, the anarchists want a revolution, which they believe would be kicked off by a war, so they want the negotiations stopped. One of the anarchists, Feliks, must kill Orlov, and he goes to England to do so.

I thought that sounded interesting, but not too far in I felt like Follett was just putting his characters through their paces, making them do what he needed them to do. The diplomatic conversations lacked the subtlety they actually would have had. They just seemed crude and too direct. Finally, a major plot point that was supposed to be a surprise on about page 80 was too loudly telegraphed on page 10. I stopped reading about one third of the way into the book.

Code to Zero

Munich

The Revolution of Marina M.

Review 1757: To Bed with Grand Music

To Bed with Grand Music opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband Graham swearing perfect fidelity before his deployment to Cairo during World War II. Graham more honestly doesn’t promise that but says he won’t sleep with anyone that matters. At first, Deborah contents herself at home, but when, in her boredom, she begins snapping at her little son, Timmy, her mother suggests she get a job.

Her mother is thinking about a job nearby in Winchester, but Deborah makes arrangements to visit a friend in London, Madeleine, and see about a job there. Intending to go home on the evening train, she ends up getting drunk and spending the night with a man.

Shocked at herself, Deborah is determined to stay home, but she has a talent for convincing herself that what she wants to do is right, so it’s not too long before she turns down a job in Winchester only to take a lower-paying one in London. From there, she begins a career of connecting with men of increasingly higher rank.

Deborah is definitely an antihero. She starts out selfish and nervous and becomes deceitful, amoral, and avaricious as she goes on. Her faint motherly instincts become almost nonexistent. This is an insightful, sardonic character study of a particular type of woman.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

A Fugue in Time

Vanity Fair

Review 1753: Faro’s Daughter

Max Ravenscar is exasperated when his aunt, Lady Mablethorpe, comes to consult him about Adrian, his young cousin for whom he is a trustee. She reports that Adrian has fallen in love with a girl from a gambling den and means to marry her. Ravenscar assumes the girl will have to be bought off.

When he meets her in her aunt’s home, which has indeed been converted into a gambling den, he is surprised at her well-bred appearance and demeanor. However, when he makes his offer, he finds she has turned into a termagant.

Deb Grantham, for her part, has no interest in entrapping naïve young men into marriage. Nor is she interested in Lord Ormskirk, who unfortunately holds some of her aunt’s debts and the mortgage to her aunt’s house. However, she is so angered by Ravenscar’s proposals that she decides to pretend she wants to marry Adrian and to behave as vulgarly as possible.

Even though this is not one of my very favorite Heyer novels, it is still great fun. It has some potentially melodramatic twists to it that are saved from seriousness by a feisty heroine who is not to be defeated.

Frederica

Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle

The Talisman Ring

Review 1743: The Family Upstairs

Here’s another book that qualifies for RIP XVI!

Libby Jones knows that she is adopted and that on her 25th birthday she’ll receive some sort of inheritance. However, she is floored to find she has inherited a house in Chelsea that is worth millions.

The house has a dark history, though. Twenty-four years ago, Libby was found in a cradle in the house with four dead people, an apparent cult suicide. Her teenage brother and sister were missing.

Alternating with Libby’s discoveries is the narrative of Henry Lamb, her brother, who was 10 years old when first Justin and Birdie and more fatefully, David Thomsen and his family moved into the Lambs’ house. Slowly, David begins bringing Henry’s infatuated mother and weak father under his thumb.

We also hear from Lucy, another former inhabitant of the house, who is barely surviving, homeless on Italian streets with her two children and her dog. She needs to get to England and to do so, must beg for help from her abusive ex-husband.

This novel feels like it is building to a suspenseful ending, but its ending is surprising and ambiguous. I wouldn’t exactly class it as a thriller, but it is dark and interesting.

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Review 1723: A Fugue in Time

Godden attempts something unusual in A Fugue in Time. She makes a house that has held the same family for a century into a sort of conscious entity and tells the story of the family in collapsing time.

It’s World War II, and old Rolls Dane has received notice that the 99-year lease on his house has elapsed and the owners want it back. The house was the one his parents moved into upon their marriage, and it has been the scene of many events, including his own unhappy love affair.

Rolls has been leading a reclusive life with only one servant left in the big house, and he is not pleased when his great niece, Grizel, an American officer, comes to ask if she can stay in the house. Later, Pax Masterson, an RAF officer being treated for burns, comes to visit the house that he’s heard about all his life from his mother, Lark, the girl Rolls’s father brought home many years before after her parents died in a railway accident.

Although I eventually got involved in this novel, its basic premise seemed at first affected and I didn’t think it was going to work. Early on, for example, there is a five- or six-page description of the house that slowed momentum to a standstill. Then, the shifts in time sometimes take place within the same paragraph, and at first it’s hard to grasp the when. There are some cues, for example Rolls’s name changes from Roly to Rollo to Rolls.

This is not one of my favorite Godden books, but the idea behind it is an interesting one. It reminded me a little of A Harp in Lowndes Square, in which images and sounds of the future and past reside in a house.

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Review 1679: Evelina

I haven’t read much 18th century fiction, but when I made my Classics Club list, I wanted to pick books from a variety of centuries. So, I picked Evelina.

Evelina’s heritage is unfortunate. Her grandfather married a vulgar woman much below his class and died without providing for his daughter, Caroline, leaving everything to his wife. When Caroline was old enough, her mother tried to force her to marry a cousin. Caroline instead eloped with Lord Belmont, but when her grandmother cut her off without a penny, Lord Belmont threw her off and denied they were legally married. After her mother’s death, Evelina was raised in isolation by the elderly Reverend Mr. Villars, who had been her grandfather’s tutor and had also raised her mother.

When Evelina gets an invitation from Lady Howard to visit London, Mr. Villars is reluctant to let her go because of her family history. But Mrs. Mirvan, Lady Howard’s daughter, offers to take great care of her. Evelina makes some social errors at her first appearances, for example, agreeing to dance with Lord Ormond when she has already turned down Lord Lovel.

Evelina is immediately attracted to Lord Ormond but she is barely able to speak to him at the dance and keeps making mistakes or having people impose upon her, so that she fears she creates a wrong impression. She herself is the typical 18th century heroine, virtuous, compliant, and innocent.

Later, her vulgar and coarse grandmother, Madame Duval, appears in London and demands her attendance. Evelina meets a series of ill-mannered and socially inferior cousins who keep putting her into embarrassing situations.

This novel is a social satire that pits the innocent, gentle Evelina against a number of snobbish or sexually aggressive members of the upper class and against the crassness of her relatives in the merchant classes. Some modern readers may struggle with the elaborate speech. That didn’t bother me, but my patience was a bit tried by the middle section of the book, in which Evelina is on a long visit to her grandmother and rude cousins. In that section as well as those featuring Captain Mirvan, I had a hard time believing anyone would behave so badly.

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Review 1678: The World My Wilderness

Seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston has grown up running wild in occupied France and was a member of the enfante maquis of the French Resistance. Now that the war is over, she doesn’t seem to know the difference and is still involved with the maquis, which is hunting down collaborators. Her mother, Helen, was neglectful while happy with her stepfather, but now that he has died, they’ve had a falling out. Helen decides to send her to London to live with her father, Gulliver. Also going is her stepbrother Raoul, who is to study and learn his uncle’s business.

Barbary is a fish out of water in her father’s upper-middle-class home. He is too busy with work to pay attention to her, and his wife, Pamela, dislikes her. In many ways immature, Barbary believes her parents would reunite if it weren’t for Pamela and her baby son, so she is determined to dislike them. Her father enrolls her at the Sloane and just assumes she goes there, but she and Raoul roam the streets and find a ruined section of London that reminds them of home. Soon, they are associating with deserters and thieves.

Macaulay treats all of her flawed characters with empathy, but it was hard for me to relate to Barbary. However, this novel made me realize how chaotic post-war France and London must have been. I haven’t read any other books that deal with that subject.

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Review 1655: Warlight

In 1945, Nathaniel and Rachel’s parents enter their young teen children into boarding school and leave for a year in Singapore. Hating school, the two children run away and end up at home in the care of their parents’ friend and boarder, whom they call The Moth.

Their lives become chaotic. Their house is filled with eccentric people. Nathaniel and Rachel grow apart, Rachel going off on her own while Nathaniel skips school to help the mysterious man called The Darter engage in low-level criminal activities.

They never see their father again, and it becomes apparent that their mother is engaged in some sort of espionage, which eventually proves dangerous for them.

This moody novel is intricately plotted, so that its secrets are revealed slowly, like peeling an onion. As Nathaniel becomes a man, he begins to look into the truths behind his formative years. What really went on? What did he know but forget? What was he oblivious to? This novel is dark, enigmatic and deeply engaging. I read it for my Walter Scott prize project.

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