Review 1799: Summer Will Show

I have enjoyed the two other books I read by Sylvia Townsend Warner, but I am not as sure how I feel about Summer Will Show. According to the Introduction by Claire Harman, the two main characters bear a strong resemblance to Warner’s real-life companion, Valentine Ackland (Sophia) and herself (Minna). This may be the problem I have with this novel, because, as with Vita Sackville-West’s Challenge, depicting a semblance of her own true-life relationship, I think perhaps the closeness of the relationship inhibits the writing. In this case, I didn’t really get the attraction between the two women. It didn’t seem convincing.

in 1848, Sophia Willoughby has been running her estate and raising her children on her own for some time. She has long tolerated her husband’s affairs, but when she hears of one with Minna Lemuel, she is enraged. Minna is famous as a sort of actress/prostitute/mountebank, and she is not only unattractive but older than Sophia. Sophia tells her husband Frederick he can stay in Paris.

Although Sophia is an extremely competent manager, she is impatient in many ways with her woman’s role. She wants to live a free life. She is not happy in society and has no friends. Although an attentive mother, she thinks her children are too soft and doesn’t coddle them. Then a mistaken attempt to toughen them up ends in their deaths.

With no one to care for, Sophia decides to go Paris and talk her husband into having another child with her. She arrives there as the Parisians are preparing for another revolution.

In searching for Frederick, Sophia meets Minna and is immediately captivated. In a short time, she is caring for her instead of a new child. Minna is a revolutionary, however, and although Sophia is skeptical of the movement, whose advocates seem to hang around Minna’s flat and do little, she is slowly drawn to Communism. In the meantime, Paris is starving.

Aside from what I felt was an unconvincing love affair, I wasn’t really interested in the revolutionary setting or the turn to Communism, which wasn’t very coherently explained. I was also appalled by Sophia’s treatment of Caspar, her husband’s illegitimate half-caste son. So, not so excited about this one.

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Challenge

Review 1653: The Parisian

Midhat Kamal is the son of a wealthy textile merchant from Nablus in Palestine. His father more or less deserted him with his second marriage after his mother’s death and lives in Cairo, visiting a few times a year. When Midhat is 19, in 1914, his father decides he should study medicine in France and arranges for him to stay with a French professor of anthropology, Frédéric Molineu, in Montpellier.

Unfortunately, Midhat falls in love with Molineu’s daughter, Jeanette. Although his feelings seem to be returned, Midhat discovers a betrayal that makes him flee Montpellier for Paris. In Paris, he works on developing a reputation as a bon vivant and womanizer, only peripherally involved in his friends’ discussions about Arab nationalism.

Nonetheless, returning to Nablus, he almost immediately adopts the life his father demands, learning how to run the Nablus store in preparation for moving to Cairo and finding a wife. Events, however, will turn the course of his life again.

Although the novel covers the beginning of the fight for Arab nationalism against the British and French, which sounds interesting, as well as the time period of World War I, Hammad is hampered by her choice of main character, for Midhat is so self-absorbed through most of this book that he hardly seems to know what’s going on around him. This detachment affects the readers’ relationship to the novel, making me feel detached from its actions. Further, although there is a weak link between the first part of the book and the rest, there seemed to be little connection except that Midhat’s self-absorption is related to this character he has created for himself, the Parisian. I found the love affair unconvincing in any case.

For a historical novel set in an interesting time and place, there is very little sense of that time or place. So, not a big recommendation from me for this novel, which I read for my Walter Scott project. It is well written, but although important things happen in the novel, the action is at such a remove that it feels as if nothing is happening, if that makes any sense.

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Review 1562: #1956 Club! The Fall

I’ve never read any Camus before, so I decided to read The Fall for the 1956 Club. This I can say: after reading The Kreutzer Sonata, The Prague Cemetery, The King Without a Kingdom, and The Fall, I’ve decided I hate novels that are monologues.

An unnamed person meets Clamence, an ex-Parisian lawyer, in an Amsterdam bar. Clamence begins his monologue explaining how his life changed. He began as a successful lawyer for the defense—handsome, genial, charitable, always doing good—and a womanizer. As he talks, we see that his charitable impulses are rooted in self-regard. His discourse becomes more and more cynical until . . . .

Well, I don’t know, because 50 pages before the end, I realized I was struggling to pay attention, and I stopped reading. His “witty” discourse may have been ground-breaking in 1956, but in 2020, it just seems banal.

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Review 1530: The Last of Chéri

The Last of Chéri is the second novella by Colette about Chéri and Léa. I try to avoid spoilers, but in this case I can’t avoid one, although it is actually about the previous novella, Chéri.

At the end of Chéri, Léa, Chéri’s middle-aged lover, made a sacrifice of her own love by separating from the young Chéri so that he could grow up. Now, it’s six years later. World War I has intervened, during which Chéri received a medal he didn’t exactly earn. His wife, Edmeé, is heavily involved in running a hospital and is in love with its lead physician. During the war, Edmeé and Charlotte, his mother, took over managing his fortune, a task that he was good at, and he doesn’t know how to ask for it back. His friends have been killed or have gone to work. In short, Chéri feels no purpose in life. The old ways of living for pleasure are dead, and in any case, he finds them boring.

Chéri hasn’t thought of Léa for years, but with her he was loved. He wonders if he can return to her.

I frankly didn’t much like the Chéri of the first novella, but I have more sympathy with thirty-year-old Chéri, even though I regret the solution he finds for his problem. Ultimately, this book is an indictment of how he was raised, and I eventually found it touching.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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Review 1494: #1920Club! Chéri

I haven’t read any Colette for a long time, so I thought it would be fun to read Chéri for the 1920 Club. It is the story of Léa, a middle-aged but beautiful courtesan, and her young lover, called Chéri, set in 1913.

Léa has been with her spoiled, childish lover since he was a very young man, but now his mother, Madame Peloux, thinks it’s time he was married. So, he and Léa prepare to part. Once parted, though, they both realize that they loved the other more than they thought.

Colette’s world of wealthy and stylish early 20th century Parisians is in some ways more foreign to me than stories about cultures much further removed. I couldn’t help feeling how sterile are lives lived only for pleasure. Also, I don’t really understand the attraction of a young man who behaves like a petulant child. But this is part of the realization that Léa finally has, that it’s about time he grew up.

The descriptions of people, rooms, and clothing are evocative and lovely. Despite my not being over fond of it, this is a masterly examination of the human heart.

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Review 1477: The Collector’s Apprentice

I find that as I read more, I have a lot less patience with mediocre fiction. Either a novel has to grab me immediately or I have to feel that I am reading good fiction. So, I had only about 50 pages of patience for The Collector’s Apprentice.

Vivienne has taken on an alias after her fiancé, George, scammed her father and other investors of their money. Even though she doesn’t believe George was guilty (he told her a Swiss banker cheated everyone), she has been blamed for it and ostracized from her family. She finds herself with no means of support in 1922 Paris.

She has to put up with about five pages of hardship before being hired as a translator for Edwin, a collector of fine art from the United States. As her ambition was to curate her father’s collection, this job is perfect for her.

I was willing to put up with the chick-lit-like features of this novel because of my interest in the art world it seemed to be approaching. However, soon it became clear that we were going to get entangled with George again, and I found that not at all interesting. So, I quit reading.

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Review 1424: Little

Best of Ten!
Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Review 1408: Love Is Blind

Although generally speaking, I love William Boyd, I should have known better than to read a book named Love Is Blind. Even from the title, I could tell it was about a man who falls in love with a woman who is trouble, a plot that I hate. Although men love to write books upon this subject, most of the women incarcerated in the United States are there because of a man. Of course, it happens for both sexes, but a man enthralled by a lethal siren is the least of it and, for me, not interesting.

In 1894 Edinburgh, Brody Moncur is a piano tuner of significant skills. He is offered a position of assistant manager in his company’s Paris office which he takes, determined to get away from his controlling father.

In a promotional effort, Brody makes a deal with John Kilbarron, a famous pianist, to play only his company’s pianos. Soon, he has fallen in love with Lika, Kilbarron’s mistress, who is an opera singer. They begin an affair, and his life becomes a series of efforts to win her away safely from Kilbarron.

Disturbingly, we get very little sense of what Lika is like as a person. She serves pretty much as Boyd’s MacGuffin. The novel just focuses on Brody’s obsession and its consequences. It’s obvious that Lika has her secrets, and to me, it was even obvious what the major one was.

As well written as it is, I simply didn’t enjoy the theme of this book. As with Boyd’s other recent books, it takes in a sweep of history and visits many places while it meanders to its denouement.

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Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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