Day 1275: The Women in the Castle

Cover for The Women in the CastleIn 1938, a group of Germans meet at Burg Lingenfels, a castle in Bavaria, during a party. They are resistors against the Nazis, and they are planning to kill Hitler. After the meeting, Connie Fledermann, a childhood friend of Marianne von Lingenfels, asks her, if the plot fails, to take care of his wife, Benita, and the other wives of the men involved in the plot.

In 1945, the European war is over. Marianne’s husband was executed during the war for his part in the conspiracy. She has returned to the castle and begun looking looking for the wives she promised to help. So far, she has only found Benita, who spent time in a camp, and Anie, the wife of a man she can’t really remember. But both women have secrets, and post-war Germany is a dangerous place. This novel tells the women’s stories through flashbacks as it moves forward in time to the 1990’s.

Although I don’t understand quite why, I didn’t really get that involved with this novel. It may have been because Benita and Anie have some secrets that aren’t revealed until the end, which leaves them relatively unknowable. Marianne is the only character who seems to have much depth.

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Day 1261: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

Cover for The Last Painting of Sara de VosBest of Five!
In 1957 New York, Ellie Shipley is a graduate student in art history who also does restorations. A contract for restoration work asks her to make a copy of a 17th century painting, “At the Edge of a Wood” by Sara de Vos, her only known work, for the owner. Soon, however, Ellie understands that she is creating a forgery, but she is too interested in the work to stop.

Marty de Groot, the painting’s owner, notices that his painting has been stolen. He determines he will find out who took it.

In 1631 Amsterdam, Sara de Vos and her husband are poverty stricken after the death of their young daughter. Because they have sold paintings without the permission of the guild, they have temporarily lost their membership. Sara has been painting flowers for a catalog and her husband has been working for a bookbinder. But secretly, Sara has been painting a symbolic memorial for her daughter, “At the Edge of a Wood.”

In 2000 Sydney, Ellie is now a respected academician and museum curator. She has discovered that both of the de Vos paintings, the original and the copy, are being sent to her museum for an exhibit on 17th century Dutch women painters. Now, after 40 years of strict integrity, she is afraid her past is catching up with her.

Although I found the story interesting, I was not at first that involved with this novel. Soon, however, I was totally captivated by all three stories. At first seemingly a crime novel, it goes much deeper. I really enjoyed it.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingBest of Five!
When Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was so popular, I was not a fan. I disliked how the two male college students patronized and abused the girl, even though she won through in the end. I also vaguely felt that the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were being trivialized, even though I was not really sure about the facts. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing confirmed that I was right.

Marie is a young immigrant Chinese girl living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1991. She and her mother are confused and grieved, because after the family escaped from China, her father, Jiang Kai, first deserted them to move to Hong Kong and later committed suicide.

Marie’s mother receives a call from China, from Ling, the wife of Jiang Kai’s beloved teacher, Sparrow. Ling says that her daughter, Ai-Ming, has had to leave China because of involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, but she has missed the amnesty offered by the U.S. Ling asks that they give Ai-Ming a home.

Ai-Ming becomes an older sister to Marie. She tells her stories about her family—her great uncle, Wen the Dreamer, who courted her aunt Swirl with chapters from a forbidden book called the Book of Records; her grandparents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, wandering musicians; and her father Sparrow, a composer of music. Ai-Ming tells of the days of her father, her cousin Jhuli, and Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Shadowing all their lives is the Cultural Revolution and its horrible excesses—murder and exile of intellectuals, forced denunciations of relatives, ransacked homes, humiliation and ruining of the innocent.

At first, I was irritated by the style of Ai-Ming’s story, which feels a little like a fairy tale, but it was not long before I was completely absorbed in it. The novel is a heart-rending tale about identity, music, love, and political destructiveness. This was another excellent book that I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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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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