Review 1462: Not at Home

Miss Elinor MacFarren is dismayed to realize that something must be done about her finances. With World War II just past, there has not been much recent demand for her beautifully illustrated books on botany. She decides, with the London housing shortage going on, that she must find someone to share her lovely family home, filled with treasures.

When she interviews Mrs. Bankes, whose husband is an American journalist, she has some misgivings, but Mrs. Bankes agrees to all her conditions, and she relies upon the warm recommendation of her friend, Harriet Greenway. It’s not too long after Mrs. Bankes moves in, though, that the house is noisy and disorganized. Miss MacFarren’s precious objects are being mistreated, and Mrs. Bankes is using up all the time of the shared housekeeper. She is even taking Miss MacFarren’s food from the kitchen.

Mrs. Bankes proves to be a manipulator and a liar, willing to do or say anything to get her way. The situation is complicated when Mr. Bankes arrives, because he is so nice and appreciative of the house. Miss MacFarren can’t bring herself to give them notice while he is there.

This domestic comedy is thoroughly enjoyable as Miss MacFarren gets out of her rut, meeting new people and re-evaluating old acquaintances. With their help, she tries to figure out how to eject her unwelcome lodger.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review 1461: Expiation

Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”

Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.

But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.

Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1426: The Wardrobe Mistress

In post-World War II London during a cold winter, the famous actor Charlie Grice, called Gricey, has died. His widow, Joan, a wardrobe mistress, is bereft. When a young actor, Daniel Francis, takes over Gricey’s role as Malvolio and plays it exactly the same, Joan comes to believe that he has become Gricey.

As Joan is beginning to befriend Daniel Francis, or Frank Stone, his real name, she makes a horrible discovery about Gricey. Behind the lapel of one of his coats she finds a badge, the emblem of Britain’s fascist party. This is doubly horrible because Joan is Jewish. Asking around discreetly, she finds what everyone else knows—Gricey was indeed a fascist.

The stress on Joan becomes even worse as her friend Frank begins working with her daughter Vera on The Duchess of Malfi. Vera’s husband and his friend Gustl ask her to help them fight the fascists by infiltrating them.

This novel is written from an omniscient viewpoint with a first person plural accompaniment by the ladies of the chorus. This technique lends it a certain ironic tone. It’s a creepy and atmospheric novel that chills to the bone.

I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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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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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1362: Begin Again

In the 1930’s, generational social changes away the Victorian age occurred, including sexual and social liberation. Begin Again follows four young women recently down from Oxford as they try to redefine themselves in the light of these changes.

Leslie is living at home, but she regularly visits her friends Jane and Florence in London. She has a romantic idea about the freedoms the two girls have and wants to get a place of her own in London, an artist’s studio, using her inheritance. Her mother doesn’t want her to use up her inheritance and has suggested she live with her aunt. Leslie, in truth, would like a little opposition to her plans instead of her mother’s acceptance and prefers complete independence to living with her aunt.

Jane and Florence are living the realities of the independent life, which means no servants and often very little food. Jane takes everything in her stride and doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings for anything or anyone. Unfortunately, this includes her boyfriend, Henry, who wants constant assurances of her devotion.

Florence, however, hates her office job and sometimes feels miserable about her and Jane’s lack of comforts. She feels that the girls who started work straight out of school have the advantage over her and that her Oxford education is not valued at work.

Sylvia lives in her parents’ home but has a lover, Claude. Despite their mutual devotion, Sylvia has kept Claud away from her family, assuming they will not get along. She believes in being absolutely honest and behaving honestly rather than worrying about how others are affected by this honesty. Her younger sister, Henrietta, has been taking Sylvia’s beliefs seriously, maybe more seriously than Sylvia intends, and is thinking of embarking on an affair with a middle-aged married man.

Each of the girls has to adjust her theoretical views about life to deal with reality. This is a sometimes amusing, true-to-life novel about how naive, idealistic young women learn to adapt between the gaps of Victorian and Edwardian values and Oxfordian theories and real life. I enjoyed it very much. The characters are depicted affectionately and seem very real.

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