Day 962: The Red Queen

Cover for The Red QueenThe Red Queen is a novel split in two. The first half is a narrative written by the ghost of an actual 18th century Korean princess, Lady Hyegyŏng. The second half follows a modern British academic, Dr. Barbara Halliwell.

“Lady Hong” relates her difficult life as the girl chosen at the age of nine to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado. This role is already a perilous one, and she and her parents are terrified. It is made more terrifying, though, by the fraught relations between Prince Sado and his demanding father King Yŏngjo.

When it slowly becomes apparent that Prince Sado is mentally disturbed and somewhat dangerous, his wife’s life becomes even more one of stress and fear. The princess’s story eventually builds to the climax of her husband’s horrible death.

The Crown Princess’s story is interrupted occasionally by the comments of her ghost, who provides an acrid note informed by writings of thinkers like Voltaire and Freud. Obviously, this ghost has been doing a little reading since she died. I found these interjections odd, but they did little to disturb the flow of what was a fascinating story.

Then I got to Barbara’s half of the book. Barbara has received the princess’s memoirs anonymously and takes them along with her on a trip to an academic conference in South Korea. The ghost makes clear that she sees Barbara as a host whose purpose is to extend her legacy. Barbara is fascinated by the memoir and goes to visit some of the settings of the princess’s life, but she is also engaging in an affair with a famous Dutch sociologist who is the keynote speaker for the conference.

Here is where I thought the narrative broke down. Despite the occasional presence of the ghost and some similarities of taste and experience between Barbara and the ghost, I felt that there was only a flimsy connection between the two halves of the novel. And I wasn’t really interested in Barbara and her fascination with Jan Van Jost.

Additionally, the second half is narrated by some sort of pixie-like guardian angels who have no apparent role. What’s wrong with third-person limited? She’s writing in that anyway with an occasional lapse into second person plural. This seems like a pointless device that becomes even more wink-wink when Drabble introduces herself as a minor character. So, with a little sleight-of-hand, the novel becomes postmodern, but it does not contain any of the cleverness of technique and approach of other postmodern novels I’ve read. This novel is introduced as a tragicomedy, but I didn’t find it comic. Whimsical, perhaps, ironic, certainly.

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Day 914: History of the Rain

Cover for History of the RainBest Book of the Week!
The distinctive voice of its narrator is what stands out to me about History of the Rain. But again, I feel as if I may not be able to convey just how wonderful I found this lovely novel.

Ruthie Swain is a young girl bedridden from an illness. In her attic bedroom under a watery skylight she is trying to read her father’s thousands of books. She is also writing a novel to try to understand him. During this effort, she writes about Ireland, her village, and the history of her family, especially about the Impossible Standard. Her story incorporates the mythological heritage of Ireland as well as references to countless literary authors and characters and the eccentric residents of her village.

Ruthie’s mother’s family, she says, evolved from salmon, and her mother first meets her father salmon fishing, and is hooked. But that gets way ahead of the story, which in unchronological order recites the history of her father’s family, the story of the Impossible Standard and his evolution into a poet.

To give a flavor of the novel, here is how Ruthie imagines the first time Ruthie’s father Virgil is invited to dinner at her mother’s house:

“So, how do you like it here?”
“Very much.”
“Good.”
That exhausts the dialog. She realizes she hasn’t folded the napkins and takes hers and begins to press it in halves. Virgil does the same. Both of them are useless at it. Maybe evenness is a thing intolerable to love. Maybe there’s some law, I don’t know. She lines up the halves of hers, runs her forefinger down the crease. When she picks it up the thing is crooked. So is his. She undoes the fold and goes at it again, but the napkin wants to fall into that same line again and does so to spite her, and does so to spite him, or to occupy both with conundrums or to say in the whimsical language of love that the way ahead will not be a straight line.

She doesn’t give up, and he doesn’t give up. And in that is the whole story, for those who read Napkin.

This novel is funny, heartbreaking, and lovely. It is about the loves of reading and poetry and Ireland and life. I loved this book.

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Day 877: Literary Wives! The Happy Marriage

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Cover for The Happy MarriageA famous painter living in Casablanca tells the story of his marriage in a “secret manuscript” as he recovers from a debilitating stroke. From all accounts, he has married a woman who is almost a lunatic. He tells how his family objected to his marrying beneath his social status but he was in love. Now that he has married this much younger woman, his relatives’ fears have been realized. She has poor taste, she is vulgar, irrationally jealous. She has fits of rage where she disturbs his work and even destroys it. She is constantly asking for money and giving it away to her relatives. She drinks too much and hangs out with unpleasant characters.

In the artist’s story, he is mild-mannered and generous, just trying to figure out a way to handle her irrational outbursts. Finally, he begins trying to get a divorce.

Amina, the artist’s wife, discovers his manuscript and we hear her version of the story—which is completely different. Amina’s story is about insults to her family, consistent unfaithfulness, miserliness and lies.

This novel reminds me very much of Fates and Furies, which has the same structure and intent. However, Fates and Furies seems both more unlikely and more nuanced. The Happy Marriage deals in problems that can trouble marriage—infidelity, money issues, dislike of a spouse’s friends, real and imagined insults—but we see nothing of the more subtle aspects of human relations.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Although I think we’re ultimately supposed to sympathize with Amina, the two characters in this novel are so angry with each other that their whole relationship seems clichéd to me. I’m not sure what this book ultimately says about wives. Its main point seems to be a larger one about how people self-justify their own bad behavior and see things from their own point of view. Both of the narrators, but certainly the husband, are untrustworthy.

Still, it seems that the husband married to have a wife that he thought he could control. He picked a much younger woman who was in love with him and would be dependent upon him financially. Many of his other choices seem to be made from vanity about his position.

Literary Wives logoThe wife’s rights are changing under Moroccan law, but even though the book blurb mentions this, it does not seem important to the story except that she can prevent their divorce. In effect, the husband is reduced to blackening her name with everyone and depicting her as unstable.

But Amina seemed to be happy in their relationship as long as she could travel with him and thought he was being faithful. That is, she seemed content with being treated as a trophy wife until she had to stay home with the kids (and of course, this coincided with the infidelity, it seems). So, I’m not sure that her idea of marriage is any more strongly developed than his. In this particular marriage, everything seems to boil down to a struggle for control.

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Day 862: The Remains of the Day

Cover for The Remains of the DayBest Book of the Week!
Having seen the movie The Remains of the Day years ago, I think it is just as well I waited so long to read it. Even so, some of the book’s scenes made me envision the movie, though I had forgotten most of it.

Stevens is the butler for Darlington House in the 1950’s. Lord Darlington, whom he served for 30 years, is gone, and now Stevens works for Mr. Farraday, an American. At Mr. Farraday’s suggestion, he has decided to take a holiday to visit the former Miss Keaton, who used to be the housekeeper in Darlington House. He surmises that her marriage is not altogether happy. She has split from her husband, and Stevens hopes she will agree to return to Darlington House as housekeeper. As he travels, he keeps a diary reflecting his thoughts on the journey.

To Stevens, his professional capabilities are the most important areas of his life. He reflects a great deal on such concepts as what dignity consists of. He has removed himself emotionally from the events of his own life, so much so that when his father is dying in the house, he won’t leave the dinner party he is serving. Stevens’ dedication is taken to such an extreme that when he sees in Mr. Farraday a disposition to banter with him, he, who has no sense of humor, begins to practice witticisms.

The Remains of the Day is the striking portrait of a unique individual as he comes to consider some of his life’s decisions. He has devoted his life to the service of Lord Darlington, whose political decisions before World War II left him a ruined man. Stevens thought he was helping Lord Darlington do important work, but later he had to re-evaluate that idea. In the meantime, Stevens ignored a possible other life for himself with Miss Keaton.

This novel tells a sad, sad story. Stevens is not always a reliable narrator for us, as his perceptions are as limited as his point of view. This is a novel of depth and brilliance, intricate as a puzzle box, as we delve the depth of Stevens’ psyche.

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Day 799: The Sunken Cathedral

Cover for The Sunken CathedralThe Sunken Cathedral is Kate Walbert’s homage to Claude Debussy’s piano prelude of the same name. In turn, Debussy’s piano prelude was inspired by folk tales of a sunken city off the coast of Brittany. Walbert’s novel, like Debussy’s prelude, is impressionistic in nature. It begins with images of New York City under water after storms caused by global warming.

The novel moves immediately to a few months earlier, when we meet several different characters living in New York. Marie and Simone are two elderly French women who decide to take a course in painting. Marie is the principal character of the novel. When she was a child, her family members were victims of the Holocaust and she was in hiding.

Elizabeth is the mother of a middle school boy. She becomes obsessed with the Who We Are stories the school assigns the families to write. In this section I think Walbert is gently skewering the upper-class parents who are so wrapped up in their children’s school activities. But Elizabeth is unable to do the assignment, seeming to lack a sense of self.

The structure of this novel is unusual, as it presents us with little shards of each characters’s story, frequently interrupted by footnotes. Sometimes the information in the footnote is more important to our understanding than the main text. It took me a while to get interested in this novel, and at times I was irritated by this technique. I would just be getting involved in what was going on when a footnote would appear, sometimes in the middle of a passage, distracting me from the action.

Still, the novel is beautifully written. At times I wondered where it was going even though it was obvious where it would end up. I’m not certain, though, that I understand the purpose of the novel, except maybe to depict the lives of several people before the flood.

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Day 732: The Blazing World

Cover for The Blazing WorldBest Book of the Week!
Every once in awhile I read a book that is so remarkable that I doubt my powers to convey it. Such a book is The Blazing World. This novel was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014, but frankly, I think it is better than the novel that won. It is stunningly filled with ideas about such varying subjects as perception and misogyny in the art world, but it is ultimately the touching story of a flawed but compelling human being.

Harriet Burden is already dead when this novel begins. It is purportedly a book about her life, assembled through interviews, excerpts from her diaries, and art reviews and journal articles.

Our examination of Harriet’s life really starts with the death of her husband Felix. Harriet realizes that she has spent her entire life submerging her identity to please first her father and then Felix. She is a ferociously intelligent, well-read woman who has sat by and let Felix take credit for her ideas. Even more importantly, she is an artist. Although Felix was an art dealer, he never helped her find a market for her art. She has become convinced that no one pays attention to her work because she is an older woman.

Harriet, or Harry, as her friends call her, concocts a project she calls Maskings. She will convince a series of young male artists to present her work as his. Once the work gains the recognition it deserves, she will reveal it to be her own.

This novel is remarkable for the character Hustvedt creates in Harry—intelligent, articulate, caring, and extremely angry. Other characters are also complex and insightfully depicted—her grown children Maisie and Ethan, her lover Bruno, her second mask Phinny who becomes her friend, and even the Thermometer, a mentally ill man whom Harry gives a place to stay.

The novel is also remarkable for its ability to describe Harry’s art so that you can imagine it and understand its power. Some of Harry’s ideas are too abstruse for me—she is much smarter than I am and I couldn’t follow all of them even with Hustvedt’s footnotes. Still, this novel is an accomplished feat of storytelling, intellectual and dazzling.

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Day 724: & Sons

Cover for & Sons& Sons is a novel about fathers and sons, but it is really most about sons and the effect on them of their father’s actions. It is also about the fate of a lifelong friendship.

The friendship seems to be the catalyst for events. Charles Topping has died, and his funeral is packed with people waiting to see his best friend, the reclusive novelist A. N. Dyer, give the eulogy. Dyer is noted for several excellent books, but Ampersand has become a classic about prep school life.

At the funeral, though, it becomes clear that Andrew Dyer himself isn’t quite all there. During the eulogy, he becomes upset about the whereabouts of his young son Andy and has to be removed from the podium.

The story is told by a narrator who is not at all trustworthy, Charles Toppings’ son Philip. When Andrew Dyer meets him at the funeral and finds he has split from his wife, he kindly invites him to stay.

This suits Philip, who grows more malevolent as we get to know him. He is on hand a few weeks later when the Dyers reunite at their father’s request to discuss something important. He can be there to eavesdrop and look through old papers, but generally he cannot possibly be privy to all the details of the story he tells.

Andrew Dyer has been estranged from his ex-wife and two sons since the family learned about the existence of his third son, Andy. Andy is now seventeen. Andrew has tried to avoid neglecting him, as he did his two other sons, and do a better job of bringing him up. But Andrew knows he is nearing the end and is afraid Andy will be alone. He fears Andy is just as messed up as the other sons, only in a different way. Andrew has formed another preoccupation about Andy that shows how divorced he is from reality.

Andrew’s oldest son Richard is an ex-drug addict who has stabilized his life with great difficulty. He is now a drug counselor and has a wife and two teen children. The other son Jamie is a documentary filmmaker whose films for years have dwelt on the darkest of subjects. Philip Topping has a grudge against both of them for the teasing he received as a child.

The novel is told using letters between Andrew and Charlie, passages from Ampersand, and other artifacts from Andrew’s life, as well as Philip’s testimony. We find Andrew feverishly manufacturing an “original draft” of Ampersand because he burned up the original manuscript in disgust at what he did to his old friend Charles in fiction. Now he needs one to leave with his papers.

I waited to write my review for a few days after I finished the book, and I’m still not sure how much I enjoyed the novel. It is well written and absorbing, and it provides a lot to think about.

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