Day 1147: The Light of Paris

Cover for The Light of ParisEleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was just original enough to keep it interesting. Sadly, The Light of Paris is all too predictable.

Madeleine has never felt comfortable in her privileged life of debutantes and charity committees. When she was in high school, all she wanted to do was paint, but her mother considered her painting trivial. She finally married Phillip to please her mother and lives in a cold, sterile Chicago condo with a husband who insists on having everything his way.

Madeleine decides to take a break from Phillip, so she goes to visit her disapproving mother in Magnolia, her home town. She finds her mother preparing to sell the house. In helping her, Madeleine discovers her grandmother Margie’s diaries from her youth.

Margie is a naive, romantic young woman who is also a failed debutante in 1924. Her family considers her an old maid, and when she refuses the unromantic proposal of her father’s middle-aged business partner, they send her off to Paris to chaperone a difficult acquaintance, Evelyn. Evelyn almost immediately abandons her to go off on her own, but after some hesitation, Margie decides to get a job and stay in Paris.

While reading her grandmother’s story, Madeleine begins to work through her own issues, all the while wondering how the Margie from her diary became the distant woman she remembers.

Madeleine’s family secrets are fairly guessable, as is the resolution to the novel. That didn’t bother me so much as some other issues. A small point, perhaps, but in those days no one would have sent a 23-year-old unmarried girl to chaperone an 18-year-old. If Margie was 40, maybe.

A larger issue is my utter lack of sympathy with Madeleine’s problems. Many people seek the approval of their parents, but to think that Madeleine could see no alternative but her Junior League upbringing and marriage to Phillip is ridiculous in this day. I’m sure there are a few women in pearls and twinsets still around, but Brown has set this portion of the novel in the 1990’s, not the 1950’s. I had no patience with this heroine. She needed to grow a backbone when she was 16, not when she was in her 30’s.

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Day 1100: The Stranger’s Child

Cover for The Stranger's ChildI had the oddest experience with The Stranger’s Child. Although it was well written and sounded like something I would be interested in, for a while every time I started to read it, I fell asleep. There is very little movement to this novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the end of it had me wondering what the point of it was.

The novel is multigenerational, beginning in 1913 and ending in 2008. In 1913, Daphne Sawle, who is 16, is attracted to her brother George’s friend, Cecil Valance, down for a visit from Cambridge. Cecil is an aristocrat and a poet. Unbeknownst to naive Daphne, he and George are having a wild affair.

The next section of the book takes place ten years after World War I. Cecil died in the war, and the family is dedicating a memorial to him. The family includes Daphne, as she has married Cecil’s younger brother, Dudley, and they have two children. However, she is in love with Revel Ralph, a set designer for the theater.

By far the bulk of the novel is set in the 1960’s and 70’s and is from the point of view of Paul Bryant. In the 1960’s, he is a shy bank clerk. He has become involved with the family through his boss, who has married into it, and through his affair with Peter Rowe, a schoolteacher at Corley House, which used to be the Valance home. Cecil is now regarded as one of England’s minor poets.

Ten years later, Paul is a biographer, determined to out Cecil as a gay man despite the claims of Daphne to have been his fianceé. It is unfortunate that I found this main character of the longest section to be so unappealing and completely focused on who was or was not gay, although I realize that the 1970’s was the time for that kind of revelation.

Part of my problem with the novel may have been the blurb, which really oversells aspects of the plot. For example, it says, “Over time, a tragic love story is spun . . . .” Well, there are several love stories that come out, but I wouldn’t call any of them tragic, and it’s actually difficult to tell which of them this comment refers to. One of the secrets is so understated during the novel that even though it is the last revelation, it seems anticlimactic. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic that Paul is so focused on the possibility of one affair that he completely misses another.

Finally, this is a novel so focused on the sexuality of its characters that it gives the impression that the entire upper class male population of England is gay. We see a little into Daphne’s infatuations, but otherwise, only from the point of view of various gay men trolling for sex or obsessing about it. Those of you who know me will realize that I would have the same complaint if the sole focus was on heterosexual sex. So, not one of my favorites for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 1050: Golden Age

Cover for Golden AgeGolden Age is the last book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It begins in 1987 and finishes a couple of years into a slightly dystopian future.

The Langdon family tree has expanded since the first book. Now, the original Langdon children are in their 60’s and 70’s. One has died of cancer, and by the end of the novel, only one of them is still living.

By necessity, this novel concentrates more on some of the Langdon descendants than others. Frank and Andy’s sons Richard and Michael are continuing to clash. Richard forges a political career by being a compromiser, while Michael makes it big on Wall Street and subsequently misappropriates funds from several member of his family. Joe’s son Jesse continues to struggle with the farm while both of his sons go to war. Claire finally finds happiness with Carl. Felicity becomes an environmental activist, while Janet spends most of her time with horses. Henry and Andy are also important characters.

Like the other novels, Golden Age covers most of the important events in its time period, the past 30 years—recessions, wars, 9/11, climate change, and fiscal crimes. Guthrie goes to Iraq. A family member is killed on 9/11. Michael is a major criminal on Wall Street.

Although I still felt some distance from the characters because there were so many and because the narration skips around from one to another so often, I couldn’t help but be caught up by the sheer volume and breadth of the trilogy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the projection into the future of a country largely devoid of rain and mounting in chaos. Smiley, of course, couldn’t predict our current peculiar election results, which shows up the problems with this type of predictive writing in a largely realistic novel. Some aspects of her last chapters remind me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 984: A Tale for the Time Being

Cover for A Tale for the Time BeingMonths after the Japanese tsunami, Ruth, of Japanese descent, finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach of the island in British Columbia where she lives. The package contains a Hello Kitty box with the diary of a young Japanese girl.

Ruth gets involved in reading this diary. The girl, Nao, tells a difficult story of having been raised in Sunnyvale, California, until her father lost his job at a technology company. The family was forced to return to Japan, where her father has been unable to find work and is suicidal. Nao, seen as an outsider by her classmates, is viciously bullied. Nao, too, is considering suicide.

The only bright spot in the girl’s life seems to be Jiko, her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko has taught Nao a few of the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism, which help support her. Nao has stated an intention of writing about Jiko’s life, but she actually writes about whatever occurs to her, including the story of her uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot.

This story is punctuated with scenes from Ruth’s quiet life on a small island with her husband Oliver, a biologist. Both stories dip into philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and even a little magical realism. Ruth and Oliver become involved in Nao’s story and wonder if she committed suicide, if she survived the tsunami, and where she is.

At first I resisted this novel a bit. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it was not on my Man Booker Prize list. I wasn’t completely convinced by Nao’s voice, and I felt that the story was a way to sneak in lessons about Buddhist teachings. Eventually, though, I got sucked in and became just as interested in Nao’s fate as Ruth was.

However, in tackling its many subjects—suicide, bullying, the trash in the ocean, the nature of time, the tsunami, World War II, just to name a few—I sometimes felt this novel was all over the place. It is entertaining but kind of mind boggling.

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Day 953: The Glass Room

Cover for The Glass RoomThe Glass Room is one of the books I’m reading for my Walter Scott Prize project. The novel is inspired by a real house in the Czech Republic designed by Mies van der Rohe. Most of the reviews of the novel, as well as the novel itself, have spent some time describing this house, and although architectural elevations appear before each section of the book, it helps to look at the pictures online when you’re trying to visualize the house.

Liesel and Viktor Landauer are recently married and have decided to build a modern home on a piece of property given to them by Liesel’s parents in the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia. Viktor wants a house that is open and will have no secrets, one of the ironies of a plot with many that I started to think of as mirrors. Viktor is excited at the beginning of what he sees as modern, changing times in the formation of the new country. But of course Czechoslovakia will not be in charge of itself for long, and in fact now no longer exists. Then we have the irony of the house itself, built for no secrets, that harbors many.

Viktor and Liesel’s marriage and day-to-day life are hardly at all the focus of this novel. We see Viktor getting a little annoyed at the depth of Liesel’s involvement with building and decorating the house, but otherwise Mawer actually spends very little time on them together. Instead, he focuses on their relationships with other people, Viktor’s with his mistress Kata and Liesel with her friend Hana. But World War II looms ever closer and eventually the family must leave the country, as Viktor is Jewish.

The book is divided almost exactly in half, the first half devoted to the building of the house and its existence as a family home. The second half explores its use by the different political entities that take it over, when it is never a family home, another mirror. First, it is a Nazi laboratory for attempting to identify physical characteristics of Jews and Slavs. During this time, Hana gets involved in a dangerous affair with one of the scientists. Next, it is a horse stable for Russian cavalry, then a physiotherapy lab for polio victims, and finally a museum.

The huge windowed glass room that makes up the living room, dining area, sitting area, and music room has at its heart a stone wall made of onyx. In the evening sunshine this wall glows and colors the room bright red. I think this is a metaphor—the clean, modern, uncluttered structure, one that may seem cold, is taken over by the unanticipated heart of the house, this red, for passion. I’m saying this clumsily, but one of Mawer’s focuses is the eroticism that is repeatedly evoked in these surroundings, not between Viktor and Liesel, but between other couples. At first, I was confused by why we know almost nothing about Viktor and Liesel together but dwell repeatedly on Viktor’s sexual relationship with Kata. But sex is one of the focuses of this novel, one of its mirrors. For example, in the icy surroundings of the lab designed for the most evil of purposes, Hana makes passionate love with Stahl, who later coldly discards her and even betrays her. Also, there is a tension between the openness of the house and a sense of voyeurism.

This novel was definitely not my favorite of the books I’ve read so far for this project. It is called a novel of ideas, but really it is so detached as to be almost cerebral. Yet, we are repeatedly entertained by descriptions of pubic hair or of how Hana’s labia just show beneath it. I found it unsettling and could understand a bit why the original owners of the house refer to the book as “probably pornography.” It is not pornography, of course, but the family is not buying Mawer’s stance that it’s a fictional story about a real house. They think it’s about them. Or perhaps they are afraid people will think it’s about them.

Despite this detachment from the characters, I still found some scenes toward the end of the novel touching. As for the rest, perhaps Mawer wanted to make readers feel like they were voyeurs. (See? Another mirror—the openness of the house versus voyeurism.) I am not sure, but I could have forgone some of the intense sexuality of this novel. There is another book by Mawer on my list, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. (Oh, dear, it just won the Man Booker prize.)

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Day 930: Early Warning

Cover for Early WarningEarly Warning is the second in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It continues the story of the Langdon family, picking up in the 1950’s and ending in 1985.

The family, which began with a couple and their children and the occasional appearance of other relatives, expands during this period to grandchildren and eventually their children. As you can imagine, by 1985 we are dealing with many characters.

This is one of my criticisms of the novel. With so many characters, we don’t spend very much time with any, which creates distance from the novel. I already felt this with the first book, and this feeling increases for the second.

But is the purpose of this novel to follow the characters or the main events during these times? It seems to be the second, as we look at the ennui of suburban housewives in the 50’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and its associated protests, the counterculture and Jonestown, to name a few. Smiley manages to have at least one family member involved in each of these events or movements, which is quite an accomplishment for one family from Iowa.

Of the Langdon children whose families are the focus of this novel, Frank concentrates most of his attention on business and sexual escapades, while his wife Andie struggles with a feeling of pointlessness and self-absorption. Neither of them pays much attention to their children, except that Frank puposefully fosters competition between his two twin boys, Richie and Michael. All of his children suffer from this upbringing, and the boys are at times truly scary.

Joe is the only Langdon to stay on the farm, and although he was one of my favorite characters in the first book, we don’t see much of him in this one. He and Lois have had some lucky breaks, and the farm is in better financial shape than their neighbors’, but decisions of the Reagan administration make small farms a tough business.

Lillian and Arthur raise a rowdy and happy family in Washington, D.C. But Arthur’s job with the CIA brings him under terrific pressure, and a tragic loss creates ramifications for years. This family has more than its fair share of sorrows.

Claire eventually marries a doctor and settles down in Iowa. But she has selected her husband almost in competition with a friend and eventually regrets her choice.

The novel is saved somewhat at the very end by a touching event linked to the presence of a character who isn’t explained until the end, one who appears in the middle of the book and at intervals throughout. At first I found the introduction of this character confusing, but I figured he had to be a family member, so then it wasn’t too hard to guess who he is.

I will read the final book, but I fear that the distance I feel from the story will only increase.

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