Review 1455: City of Girls

So far, it’s hard to predict what Elizabeth Gilbert will write from one novel to the next. I read Eat, Pray, Love reluctantly, because it was so popular and I resisted reading a memoir by someone so young. But I loved it for its style and humor. The Signature of All Things was an enthralling 19th century story about the life of an unusual woman.

In City of Girls, Gilbert re-creates 20th century Manhattan, beginning in 1940. Vivian Morris is a heedless Vassar dropout with no idea what she wants to do and no inclination to do anything. Her status-conscious parents finally ship her off to her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg is the owner of a crumbling old theater in Hell’s Kitchen that puts on brainless entertainment for working class clientele.

Vivian begins a life of drunken nights running around town with the theater’s chorus girls and sleeping with just about anyone and days making costumes for the shows. For Vivian’s talent is sewing.

In the four-story building where the theater is located live Aunt Peg and her partner Olive as well as a motley crew of chorus girls, musicians, and others from the shows. Vivian is delighted to be given the apartment of Aunt Peg’s husband, the debonair Billy Buell, who hasn’t lived there in years. But things change after Peg offers a home to the famous British actress, Edna Parker Watson, whose home was destroyed in the Blitz. Peg decides to stage a good production for Edna, and Billy arrives to help write it.

The show is a success, but shortly thereafter, Vivian takes a fall because of her own foolishness. She ends up returning to her parents’ home in disgrace.

So far, the book was of a piece, even if I didn’t find Vivian a particularly interesting or sympathetic character. But that’s just the first half of the book. During the second half, when a wiser Vivian returns to New York to help out her aunt during the war and proceeding for the next 30 years, I began to wonder what the heck the book was about. It just seems to meander around a lot before coming to an admittedly poignant point.

The conceit employed by the novel is that the entire long novel is a letter to a woman answering her long-ago question of how Vivian knew her father. I think this first-person narrative is a weakness, because I can’t imagine someone writing some of this stuff to anyone, let alone a near stranger. Further, the second half of the novel seems like a different, less purposeful book.

It sounds like I disliked this book. I didn’t, I just feel it has problems, and I never warmed to Vivian.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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Review 1301: The Paragon Hotel

Cover for The Paragon HotelAlice “Nobody” James is on the run from the Mafia with two bullets in her at the beginning of The Paragon Hotel. She is obviously in distress when her train arrives in Portland, Oregon, so Max, the African-American railway porter, takes her to the Paragon Hotel. The hotel is the only one in Portland for respectable Negroes in the 1920’s, when this novel is set. In fact, it is illegal for them to even live or work in Portland.

Alice is grateful for the help, and soon after recovering gets to know some of the residents and employees of the hotel. In particular, she is drawn to Blossom Fontaine, a chanteuse who reminds her of a friend she had in New York. When Alice finds that the occupants of the hotel are worried about the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in Portland, she decides to help them with her skills in investigation—for she was a spy for Mr. Salvatici, a man known as the Spider, back in Little Italy.

As Alice and her new friends prepare to battle bigotry, a little boy disappears. The novel follows the search for the boy while flashing back to explain how Alice ended up being wounded by her own friend, Nicolo Benemati.

link to NetgalleyI have been a fan of Lyndsay Faye for a long time, but I did not find this novel as compelling as her others. I wasn’t interested at all in the Mafia story. I was more interested in the Portland story, but somehow the characters didn’t ring true to me, particularly Alice herself. Faye seems to have written this novel to explore Portland’s long racist history, which I found interesting, but it gets off track onto other issues.

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Day 1265: The Edge of Dreams

Cover for The Edge of DreamsHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

* * *

Sometimes a wrong detail will bother me so much that it detracts from my enjoyment of a book. This happened from the beginning of The Edge of Dreams, from Bowen’s Molly Murphy series, when Bowen’s heroine Molly and her baby son are caught in a train accident and she cracks some ribs. The plot requires Molly to have someone else take care of her baby while she investigates crime—that’s the only obvious reason for this incident until late in the novel—so her husband, Daniel, asks his mother to help.

Bowen has evidently never had cracked ribs, though, or she might have picked some other ailment. My husband has, and he says it hurts so much that all you can do is lie there and cry. Although Molly remarks that it hurts to breathe, she clearly doesn’t understand what this means and gets out of bed almost immediately, begins calling on friends, and investigating crime. This mistake was irritating as the novel continues to mention Molly’s injury while she takes trains and travels all over New York City.

Daniel is investigating a series of crimes that at first are linked only by letters Daniel receives at the police department. In fact, some of the incidents had already been treated as accidental. But the killer promises to continue.

Molly is more interested in the case brought to her by her friends Gus and Sid. A young girl’s parents were burned to death, and she was found asleep outside with no memory of what happened or any sign of having been near the fire. An eager young police lieutenant thinks she killed her parents. She is having nightmares, and Gus thinks an alienist skilled in the interpretation of dreams can help her.

Predictably, the cases prove to be connected. I was well ahead of the book’s sleuths when it came to identifying the murderer, if not the murderer’s identity.

If you think I wasn’t exactly charmed by this mystery, you’d be right. Aside from a slew of rather flat characters, it has such a ridiculously unbelievable solution that I didn’t buy it at all.

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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 1251: Mischief

Women Crime Writers coverMischief by Charlotte Armstrong is the first novel in the 50’s volume of my Women Crime Writers set. It is an excellent start to the second volume.

Ruth and Peter O. Jones are in New York for a convention at which he is a speaker. Because Peter’s sister cancelled her babysitting gig at the last moment, they have had to bring their nine-year-old daughter, Bunny, with them. The elevator man hears them talking about where to find a babysitter and volunteers his niece, Nell. Once Ruth and Peter leave, though, Nell begins to behave strangely.

Jed Towers is on his last date with his girl, Lyn, before moving across country to take a new job. They have a spat, however, and Lyn walks out. Jed goes back to his hotel determined to find another date for his last night in town. Across an open courtyard, he sees a girl in the opposite window, who seems to be inviting him over.

I can’t say more about this novel without giving away the plot. Suffice to say, it builds up a great deal of suspense as one guest after another starts to worry about what is going on in that room on the 18th floor.

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Day 1232: Laura

Cover for LauraBest of Five!
Laura is the first of eight mystery novels included in a two-volume set, beautifully bound, called Women Crime Writers, published by the Library of America. This is a nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping the best American literature in print, and I have ordered its catalog. (I received it after I wrote this, and I have to report that it publishes relatively few works by women. I am disappointed.)

Laura is a doozy of a mystery. I think it was made into a movie, and I believe I’ve seen parts of it, but I didn’t know the solution.

A young woman is murdered one Friday night by a shot in the face with a shotgun. Her body isn’t discovered until Sunday morning when the maid arrives. The apartment belongs to Laura Hunt, a successful advertising executive who is to be married the next week.

The first section of the novel is narrated by Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s long-time friend. He is an older man, a writer who considers himself an expert on crime. Mark McPherson, the detective in the case, calls to interview him about Laura.

Laura seems not to have an enemy in the world, but she was about to marry Shelby Carpenter, a man with a need to feel superior, which it was difficult to do with a woman like Laura. But Shelby was about to marry the golden goose, as Laura was much more successful than he was. Would he have killed her? To his dismay, Mark feels himself falling in love with a dead girl.

Laura has a couple of twists, one that I think I should have anticipated but did not. It packs quite an emotional punch, especially for a novel written in the 40’s, the era of the hard-boiled detective.

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