Day 1046: The Whale: A Love Story

Cover for The WhaleIt seems as if I’ve read several novels lately where Herman Melville is a character or Moby Dick a theme. Such is the case with The Whale, a story about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The novel begins with a literary outing. Melville is invited along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others by Melville’s editor while Melville is vacationing in the Berkshires. The reclusive writer Hawthorne is also of the party, and Melville falls in love with him at first sight.

Melville is also dealing with Moby Dick. He is supposed to be nearly finished with it, but he is unsatisfied with the ending. His philosophical and literary discussions with Hawthorne inspire him to massive rewrites. In a way, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale represents Melville’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Hawthorne.

For, there is a mutual spark, but as a friend, Jeannie Field, tells Melville, Hawthorne is a Puritan. While Melville tries to get Hawthorne not to deny his true feelings, Hawthorne is determined to avoid an entanglement. Yet, he gives Melville a certain amount of encouragement.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I felt it was a little too modern in this regard. I couldn’t imagine a man in the mid-19th century trying to convince another man not to deny these feelings and being so obvious as Melville was at times. At this time and place, Melville would have been trying to hide it. I also have no idea what basis in reality this story has, although the author cites affectionate letters between the two. I was not sure whether Beauregard was aware that at this time men expressed themselves more affectionately than they do now. It’s fiction, though, which does not require any basis in reality.

Still, with language sometimes echoing that of Moby Dick, with really exceptional dialogue, with a fully realized Melville in all his self-absorption, this novel was really a treat to read.

Related Posts

Moby Dick or, The Whale

The Night Inspector

The Art of Fielding

 

Day 1029: The Fifth Petal

Cover for The Fifth PetalFans of Brunonia Barry will be happy to hear her novel is out. Like the others, this one is set in the vivid backdrop of Salem, Massachusetts, and features some familiar characters. It also harks back to the Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the characters appeared in her previous novels, it reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.

When Callie Cahill was five years old, her mother and two other young women were viciously murdered on Halloween. They had been performing a memorial ceremony for five of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, to whom they were related. One woman who was supposed to attend the ceremony was missing.

Callie was present at the time, as was Rose Whelan, a noted historian who helped the young women research their ancestry and took them in. Rose saved Callie by hiding her, and when she was found the next morning, she had gripped her rosary so hard that she had a rose-shaped scar on her palm.

Callie was told by the nuns who raised her that Rose died, but when she learns Rose is alive, she returns to Salem. Rose has been mentally ill since the event, and she sometimes sleeps under the oak in Rafferty and Towner’s yard.

Rafferty was not in Salem at the time of the murders, but Rose has committed a crime, Salem thinks, and that awakens an interest in the old case. Rose was accosted by three boys, one of whom held a knife to her throat. Rose told the police after the original murders that they were committed by a banshee and she had taken the banshee inside herself. According to her, when the boy was threatening her, she let the banshee out. She shrieked, and the boy died.

Rafferty returns to the old murders to find clues, but evidence is missing. He thinks that finding the fourth woman related to the original witches will help him solve the case. Assuming that each woman, including Rose, makes a petal in the five-petal rose Rose was using as a symbol, he calls this woman the fifth petal. But she has vanished.

link to NetgalleyCallie’s memories of that night are returning, but they are patchy. And she has met an attractive man in Paul Whiting, the son of a wealthy family.

This Barry novel stands up well to the others, although The Lace Reader is still my favorite. Callie is an interesting heroine, and the mystery is a difficult one. It is nice to see more of Rafferty and Towner, as well as Zee, from The Map of True Places. The novel wrapped in the history of Salem quite nicely, and the town provides an atmospheric setting.

Related Posts

The Lace Reader

The Map of True Places

The Witches: Salem, 1692

Day 983: The 1947 Club! The Iron Clew

Cover for The Iron ClewI read The Iron Clew for The 1947 Club and what a blast it was! I was expecting a typical Golden Age mystery—heavy on the puzzle, light on motivation and character. What I got was something completely different!

Leonidas Witherall is blocked. He is the author of a series of adventure novels starring the fiery Lieutenant Haseltine. But now that the war is over, Witherall thinks that his usual villains are passé. The Nazis are beat, and the Russians are our allies, for heaven’s sake!

Mrs. Mullet, his housekeeper, advises him to move from espionage to mysteries. In no time, Witherall has invented a plot involving brown paper packages and a murder of a prominent man.

Witherall has been ignoring his own brown paper package. It is a report from the Dalton Safe Deposit and Trust Company that he is supposed to be reviewing before his dinner meeting with Balderston, the bank manager. But the muse is calling, so Witherall has just enough time to dress for dinner before going down to the hall to pick up the package. But it is gone!

Witherall hears a door closing and realizes that the thief has just left. When he sees no one walking away, he surmises that the thief is hiding in the yews at the front of the house. He tricks the thief into coming out and sees a lady in a mink emerge with a brown paper package in her handbag.

1947 clubAfter he steals the package, he becomes the quarry in a rowdy chase through the neighborhood, to be rescued by Harriman, an old boy from his school-teaching days. This incident sends him on a rollicking adventure involving several brown parcels, a green handbag, a dinosaur footprint, a murder, a kidnapping, and a massive Massachusetts snowstorm. Leonidas is helped along by a plethora of young people and an old flame.

The plot of this novel is ridiculous. The writing is energetic and witty, the characters engaging. What more could you ask? This novel was a lot of fun!

Related Posts

Death in the Stocks

Death on the Nile

Death on the Riviera

Day 885: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Cover for The Last Summer of the CamperdownsHi, all, I just wanted to tell you before I get started that I began a new project, attempting to read all of the Man Booker Prize shortlisted books since 2010. See my new Man Booker Prize Project page for more information, and join me if you want to.

* * *

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of those books that I made a note I’d like to read some time ago, but by the time I got to it, could not remember what it was about. When that happens, I don’t read the cover. I just plunge in. I was surprised to find myself reading a sort of modern gothic novel.

Riddle Camperdown is a 12-year-old girl spending the summer at her family’s dune-side house on Cape Cod in 1972. Her name says a lot about the eccentricity of her family, for she is named after Jimmy Riddle Hoffa (yes, that one), and her father sometimes calls her Jimmy. “Camp” Camperdown is a labor organizer, composer, and politician, a noisy brash, boisterous, charismatic true believer. His wife, Greer, seems a mismatch for him. She is a cool, chic ex-movie star with an acid tongue. Riddle, who adores her father, thinks her mother only cares about money and status.

Another of the couple’s regular arguments starts up when they learn Michael Devlin is returning to the area. Michael is a rich, privileged man who used to be Camp’s best friend, but an incident during World War II drove them apart. Riddle is also fascinated to learn that Michael was engaged to Greer and stood her up at the altar.

Riddle and Greer are avid riders, so when that afternoon they go over to see Greer’s friend Gin, Riddle wanders off to the yellow barn to see a mare with a foal. When she is in the barn, something horrible happens, something she doesn’t see but only hears. She thinks she hears someone or something being chased through the barn and then dragged back to the tack room. She is terrified, but just as she is getting the nerve to open the tack room door, Gin’s employee Gula comes out.

Riddle is already terrified of Gula, so she pretends she hasn’t heard anything. Inexplicably, though, she is too terrified to tell her parents.

Soon, they learn that Michael Devlin’s youngest son Charlie has disappeared. It doesn’t take long for Riddle to guess it was Charlie she heard in the barn. That night, the barn burns down with several horses in it.

As Riddle is repeatedly terrorized by Gula, her parents’ marriage seems more and more fraught. Michael Devlin begins threatening Camp’s political campaign with a tell-all book, and Camp fears what he sees as his wife’s attachment to Devlin. In the meantime, Riddle falls in love with Michael Devlin’s oldest son, Harry.

This novel is quite suspenseful, with a plot that is far more complex than it first seems. If there were two small things I didn’t quite buy, one was the extremeness of the Camperdowns’ arguments at first. The other was how long it took Riddle to tell the truth, considering how Gula was threatening her, even going into her room and leaving things. Although ultimately Riddle was also hiding the fact that she hadn’t told the truth right away, I would think she would be too scared not to tell.

Related Posts

The Little Friend

Once Upon a River

Swamplandia!

Day 774: Miss Emily

Cover for Miss EmilyLast year, I read the novel Amherst, which was mostly about Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin but depicted Emily hazily. The excellent biography White Heat, about Emily’s relationship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, portrayed her more fully but she still seemed hard to grasp. The Irish poet Nuala O’Connor presents a more fully realized character—Emily in her middle age*—through her relationship to a (fictional) Irish maid.

Ada Concannon is a good worker but a bit too much of a free spirit for her Irish employer. She arrives at work one too many times smelling of the River Liffey, in which she has bathed on the way to work. She is demoted to scullery maid, and her mother decides there is nothing to be done but send her to America to find better opportunities.

Ada has good luck at first. She finds a pleasant home with her aunt and uncle in Amherst, and they soon learn that the Dickinsons need a new maid.

Emily Dickinson has insisted that her parents get a new maid after the old one left, because she is spending all her time on housework and none on writing. Although she loves baking, she is not really interested in most of the other chores. Other than poetry, her main interest is in her warm relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue, but Sue is busy with her family. When Ada arrives, Emily becomes fascinated by the small, neat maid.

Ada soon finds she is being courted. Daniel Byrne shows he likes her right away, and she is attracted to him. His boss’s son, Patrick Crohan, is also trying to get her attention, but she dislikes him.

When Ada finds she needs help, she has only Emily to turn to. Emily, in her turn, goes to her brother Austin.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is beautifully written, sometimes poetically, with delightfully old-fashioned chapter titles. It explores the relationship between two women across a class divide. The two main characters are interesting and convincingly developed. Austin is also developed more fully than the others, but is not as likable.

I enjoyed this novel, which made me feel as if I understood O’Connor’s fictional Dickinson as a person. Although Dickinson at 16 was just beginning to develop some of the quirks she becomes well known for, O’Conner her thinking believable.

*I originally said that Emily was 16, but Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses pointed out that I was mistaken. I thought I saw a reference to her age, but perhaps I got the age reference mixed up with one about Ada. My e-copy is expired, so I couldn’t go back and look it up.

Related Posts

Amherst

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Invention of Wings

Day 733: Little Women

Cover for Little WomenOver the past months I have occasionally reread a childhood favorite to see what I think about it now. The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, for example, came through with honors. Not only were both beautifully written, but I found them as entertaining as an adult as I did as a child.

Little Women doesn’t fare quite as well. I found some of the same parts of it affecting as I did when I was young. Who wouldn’t sympathize with these girls, bravely coping without the things their friends have, doing without their father for over a year, getting along as cheerfully as they can? However, as a child reading the book, I didn’t notice that almost every chapter ends with a moral lesson.

The novel covers about 12 years in the lives of the March family, beginning during the American Civil War. For the first half of the novel, Mr. March is away as a chaplain for the Union army. The main character is Jo March, at the start of the novel a tomboyish, gawky 15-year-old who loves writing and putting on plays, reading, and writing stories.

Her older sister Meg is more ladylike and laments having to wear old things to parties. Beth is the third sister, who is too shy to go to school. Amy is the youngest and a little spoiled. Although there are certainly events in their lives, the story is about how Marmee, their mother, raises them all to be good, productive women.

One of the closest relationships in the novel is the friendship between the family and their neighbor Laurie, a rich young man being raised by his grandfather. This and other relationships are warm ones, and the Marches all seem like real people, as do their friends.

If Alcott could have let up a bit on the moralizing, I would have enjoyed the novel more. The other two novels I mentioned earlier also have moral messages, but they leave the reader to figure them out themselves. Still, I’m sure any young girl reading this novel would be as drawn by it as I was years ago.

My comments have made me wonder what I would think of Eight Cousins, which was actually my favorite book by Alcott when I was a child. I’m a little afraid to find out.

Related Posts

Anne of Green Gables

The Loon Feather

Neverhome

 

Day 698: The Namesake

Cover for The NamesakeIn 1968, Ashima Ganguli gives birth to her first child. She has travelled from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to live with her husband, whom she barely knows, and is missing her family in India. When she has a boy, she and her husband Ashoke run into difficulty because they are waiting for a name to arrive from her grandmother. But the American hospital needs to put a name on the birth certificate. Finally, Ashoke picks Gogol, after Nikolai Gogol, a favorite author whom he credits with saving his life after a horrendous train accident when he was a young man.

Gogol grows up embarrassed by his name and rejecting the traditions of his Bengali parents. He is bored through the endless Saturdays spent with his parents’ Bengali friends and the biennial trips to India where they do almost nothing but visit family. His mother, on the other hand, has never stopped missing India. His parents want him to observe the customs of his homeland, while he just wants to be American.

This novel insightfully explores the stresses for Indian immigrants adjusting to American ways and the tensions between the traditional and the present for their first-generation American children. Lahiri’s prose is full of minutely observed details as well as empathy for both generations.

Related Posts

The Lowland

Unaccustomed Earth

Under the Lemon Trees