Review 1673: Writers & Lovers

Ever since reading Euphoria, I’ve been wondering what else Lily King can do. Let’s just say that Writers & Lovers did not disappoint.

Casey Peabody is having a rough time. At 31 she is still waiting tables and trying to work on her novel. Her mother died recently, and she is grief-stricken. She just wasted a spot in a writing workshop on an affair instead of writing, and now she hasn’t heard from the man she spent so much time with. She lives in what used to be a gardening shed, and her landlord frequently belittles her. Finally, she has a crushing student loan debt, and she is working double shifts just to be able to afford to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As if all this isn’t stressful enough, she finds herself dating two very different men. She is supposed to go on a first date with Silas when he abruptly leaves town with no explanation. Then she meets Oscar, a middle-aged, established writer with two delightful young boys. Soon, she is going on outings with the three of them. But then Silas shows back up.

This is an intimate and engaging story of a few months in a complicated woman’s life. This description almost makes it sound like a romance novel, but it is much more than that. I found it absolutely compelling.

Related Posts

Euphoria

Monogamy

Four Letters of Love

Review 1607: Classic Club Spin Result! Oroonoko

Oroonoko was the book I read for the most recent Classics Club Spin.

There are a few issues with Oroonoko, written in 1688, that might make it difficult for modern audiences. One is its acceptance of slavery (although the novel is viewed as an anti-slavery work), which in the 17th century was common. The other is its graphic violence, albeit off-stage, that has caused it to vary in popularity over time. (Apparently, even the publishers of the edition I read disagree about that, because the introduction says it was Behn’s most popular work, while the cover says it was not popular because of its violence.)

Oroonoko has been considered a novella rather than a biography, because there is no proof that such a man as Oroonoko existed. However, Behn writes the story in first person as herself, and she is known to have traveled to Suriname, where it is set, shortly before the country was ceded to the Dutch. So, you have to wonder.

Oroonoko is the prince of Coramantien, an area of present-day Ghana, the grandson of the king and a great warrior. He falls in love with a beautiful girl named Imoinda, and she becomes his betrothed. However, his grandfather sends her the veil, which means she is to join his harem, even though because of her betrothal that is a break in custom. Oroonoko must accept this or die, so he accepts it with the thought that the king cannot live long. However, the king regrets his actions and sees no way to recover the situation except if Imoinda was dead. He is unable to have her killed, though, so he sells her into slavery and tells Oroonoko she is dead.

Next, an English slave trader whom Oroonoko has sold slaves to invites him for a party. When he and his men have passed out from drink, the trader enslaves them and puts them on a ship for Suriname. It is when Oroonoko arrives there that he meets Behn and her traveling companions and they learn his tale and witness the rest of the action.

Oroonoko might be the first anti-slavery novel, although it is subtle about it, showing some of its abuses while not really commenting on the institution. Behn reveals the dastardly behavior of a series of Europeans, either slavers or owners, and contrasts it with the image she builds up of a handsome, brave, forthright black hero and his beautiful and virtuous lady. The novel was interesting, but I found what happened to Imoinda through Oroonoko’s hands distressing and the reflection of a type of thinking I did not find admirable—and the ending was just plain gruesome.

Related Posts

Merivel: A Man of His Time

Washington Black

Sugar Money

Review 1588: This Is Happiness

My first introduction to Niall Williams was his wonderful novel History of the Rain. That was so good that I confess to having found Four Letters of Love slightly disappointing, just because it wasn’t as good. This Is Happiness, however, is a gem of a novel.

As an old man, Noe Crowe recollects the summer when he was 17. He has been banished to the small village of Faha in West Clare County, because he left seminary school. While living with his grandparents, Ganga and Doady, he’s supposed to find his way back to God.

First, it stops raining, in a village where it always rains. Then Christie arrives to help install the electricity. Christie, we sense, is a charismatic individual with lots of stories to tell. He has come with a mission, and it’s not electricity. He has heard Annie Moonie lives in Faha, and he wants to apologize to her for leaving her at the altar 50 years before.

In the meantime, Noe, in a village studded with eccentric characters, finds he has fallen in love with Sophie Troy, the doctor’s youngest daughter, or is he in love with Sophie and Charlie Troy, or is it with Sophie, Charlie, and Ronnie, all three of the doctor’s daughters?

The novel starts out funny and charming and it just gets better. Hoorah for another fine book by Niall Williams.

Related Posts

History of the Rain

Four Letters of Love

Nightingale Wood

Review 1539: Mary Lavelle

It was interesting to me to learn that Mary Lavelle had been banned in Ireland as an immoral book, for in its own way, it’s very moral. Still, I guess it was shocking for 1936.

Mary is a young Irish woman who is engaged to be married to a kind and worthy young man who must wait to marry her until he can earn enough. His prospects are good, but he is paid a niggardly wage by his miser father.

Almost on a whim and despite her fiancé’s objections, Mary decides to take a governess job for a year in Spain, and the beginning of the novel finds her on the way there by train. Spain is not as she imagined it, but from the first she likes it. The Areavaga family are gracious and kind, and their three daughters soon like Mary very much. She makes some friends within a group of British governesses she meets at the local café, although she is sometimes shocked at their behavior and their airs of superiority toward the Spanish.

Mary is unconsciously beautiful and innocent. She is immediately attractive to Pablo Areavaga, her charges’ father, but he is too principled to show it. Trouble comes, though, with the arrival of Juanito, Areavaga’s married son, for Juanito falls in love with her at first sight.

I have read two books now by O’Brien, and both gave me a sense of a ferocious intelligence. Both are set in Spain, and in both, she examines the conflict between religion, principle, and emotional drives. The descriptions of the scenery and people of Spain are vivid and sometimes lyrical. This is another good book from my Classics Club list.

One comment on my new edition of Virago Modern Classics. Almost as soon as I began reading the book, the last six or eight pages fell out. Thereafter, I was constantly tucking them back in, afraid I was going to lose them.

Related Posts

That Lady

Hot Milk

Alas, Poor Lady

Review 1509: Normal People

In school, Marianne and Connell ignore each other. They come from different social backgrounds. Marianne is from a wealthy family, while Connell’s mother is the cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although Connell is popular, Marianne is bullied and ignored.

Away from school, the two become lovers. However, a misunderstanding about their relationship causes Connell to hurt her and they break up.

At college in Dublin, they meet again. This time, Marianne is popular with a set of bright students and Connell feels like an outsider.

Normal People is the minutely observed story of a friendship and an on-again, off-again love affair. It has been widely lauded, but it was hard for me to be interested in this story of two very immature people. The relationship is a long series of misunderstandings that separate the two but do nothing to teach them to communicate more honestly.

It’s not that I disliked this novel. It’s just that I found myself getting impatient while wondering where it was going. When it finally got there, the conclusion was underwhelming.

Related Posts

The Interestings

This Side of Paradise

The Girls

Review 1420: The Talisman Ring

Having greatly enjoyed a play based on The Talisman Ring, I thought it was about time I reread the original. So, I pulled out my old, tattered paperback copy (copyrighted 1964) and read it again.

Sylvester Lavenham is dying and wishes to assure that his granddaughter is taken care of. So, he proposes a marriage to his nephew, Sir Tristram Shield. The granddaughter, Eustacie de Vauban, is young, French, and volatile. She agrees to marry Sir Tristram, but having romantic tendencies, she is taken aback by his matter-of-face nature. Changing her mind, she decides to steal away at dead of night to London with the aim of becoming a governess.

Unfortunately, she is taken by smugglers who are trying to escape some excisemen. To her delight, she finds that the leader is her cousin Ludovic Lavenham, famously wanted for murdering a man who refused to return his talisman ring, which he pledged while gaming. During their escape, Ludovic is shot, and Eustacie takes him to a local inn for help.

Here’s the poster from the play.

Of course, Ludovic is not guilty of murder and several characters join forces to prove his innocence. But if you think Ludovic and Eustacie are the romantic lead characters of this novel, you don’t know Heyer. For at the inn, they encounter Sarah Thane, an older young woman with a quick sense of humor.

The Talisman Ring is a typical Heyer romantic comedy, with a complicated, ridiculous plot, one brave but foolhardy hero, a vivacious heroine, and a likable older couple to anchor the romance. It’s lots of fun, as Heyer’s novels usually are.

Related Posts

Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle

Cotillion

Friday’s Child

 

Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

Related Posts

A Tale for the Time Being

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Day 1207: White Houses

Cover for White HousesAmy Bloom’s latest novel, White Houses, leads me to a topic that I’ve mentioned before. I think it is important, when writing fiction about real people, to keep their characters true to that of the original person. Historians disagree about whether Eleanor Roosevelt’s warm friendship with Lorena Hickok was a full-blown lesbian affair. Those who believe it was, base their supposition on Eleanor’s exuberant letters. Those who do not, base it on Eleanor’s dislike of being touched. I think that’s significant, and I think people these days misinterpret the tone of letters from earlier times, when friends expressed themselves more affectionately than we do.

Amy Bloom has chosen to believe that the women’s relationship was a lesbian affair, and that’s what White Houses is about—and all that it’s about. It is written from the point of view of Lorena Hickok—or Hicky, as she was called.

link to NetgalleyThe novel paints a relatively convincing portrait of Eleanor, although I don’t buy the bed bouncing, and it is a sad story and ultimately touching. Its premise, though, makes me uncomfortable for the reasons stated above.

Franklin does not appear in a positive light, and in terms of their marriage, he should not. The character study of Hicky as a downright, plain-speaking reporter who gave up her career for love is a good one, and one I can believe.

Related Posts

Lucky Us

No Ordinary Time

Rules of Civility

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.

Related Posts

Bramton Wick

A Winter Away

The Mingham Air

Day 1171: Seaview House

Cover for Seaview HouseAlthough Mr. Heritage has been friends with sisters Rose Barlow and Edith Newby for years, he is jealous of the attention of his godson, Edward Wray. So, he is not at all happy when he notices that Edward is attracted to Rose’s daughter Lucy.

Lucy has been friends with Nevil Fowler since they were children and has a dim expectation that they will eventually marry. That’s why it takes her a while to figure out that she has feelings for Edward. In the meantime, Mr. Heritage’s machinations have put matrimony in Nevil’s mind, and Lucy’s best friend, Philippa, has intimated that she is closer to Edward than she actually is.

Seaview House is another charming domestic comedy from Elizabeth Fair. I only recently discovered her novels, being republished by Furrowed Middlebrow, and wish there were more than six of them to read.

Related Posts

A Winter Away

Bramton Wick

The Mingham Air