Day 1061: The Baker’s Daughter

Cover for The Baker's DaughterIn the Scottish town of Beilford, the Bullochs are worried about their granddaughter, Sue Pringle. Since her father remarried, Sue has led a tough life with her stepmother. Had she known her grandfather planned to offer her a job in his store, she would not have taken a job as cook for the Darnays to get away from home.

The first morning at work, Sue finds that Mrs. Darnay and her maid have left the house, leaving her alone with Mr. Darnay, an artist. Although for propriety’s sake she should leave him to find an older housekeeper, Sue decides to stay.

Darnay is so wrapped up in his painting that the practicalities of the situation don’t occur to him. He has previously been well paid for his paintings, but since changing his style, he is not making any money. He has a shock when he realizes he owes money in the village and hasn’t paid Sue. To make things worse, his wife has sued for divorce, naming Sue as corespondent, even though she herself created the situation that makes her husband and Sue look bad.

Sue is in love with Darnay but views him as unattainable and above her in class. Once he sends himself off in disgrace, she returns to work for her grandfather. But will she see him again?

It’s interesting to me that the class angle is still such a strong one in 1938, when this novel was written. Stevenson works around it, but this plot point seems even more important than the divorce. In any case, this is a slight but entertaining novel with likable characters.

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Day 1025: Dolly: A Love Story

Cover for DollyDolly lives a Bohemian life in what she calls Vagabondia with her sisters and artist brother Phil, his wife, and baby Tod. They are poor, so Dolly works as a governess for her disapproving Aunt Augusta. Dolly is not pretty, but she is witty and vivacious, and at a party she attracts the attention of the wealthy Mr. Gowan.

Only Dolly’s inner circle knows that Dolly has been engaged for seven years to Griffith Donne. The couple has not married, because they can’t afford to, although they dream of the day they can. Grif is a volatile young man who gets discouraged at the lack of progress in his career and becomes jealous of Dolly’s flirtatious behavior. He has a wealthy aunt, Miss Berenice MacDowlas, but she disapproves of him.

Dolly’s troubles begin when Aunt Augusta dismisses her, declaring that her children are too old for a governess. She must find work, and she finally gets a position as companion to Miss MacDowlas. Unfortunately, she must live in, which limits her meetings with Grif. He becomes more and more upset until an unfortunately convergence of circumstances and a true emergency lead him to believe Dolly is toying with him. He breaks from her without allowing her to explain.

Burnett creates a warm family life for Dolly, and we get to know and appreciate her family. She is also good at appealing to our sympathies for her heroine.

This novel was marred for me, however, by my dislike of Grif. The core problem between him and Dolly is that Grif does not trust her, but Dolly takes the blame because of her flirtatiousness, a Victorian conclusion, for sure (and worse, the novel accepts the problem as her fault). Even in their ultimate misunderstanding, when Grif refuses to listen to her very good reason for missing their date, Dolly blames herself. Well, obviously attitudes have changed, but these days his behavior would raise all sorts of red flags. I very much preferred the behavior of Mr. Gowan, who proves to be a true friend. So, I guess in this case I am guilty of judging a book by today’s standards.

And, to give away a plot point, Dolly goes into a decline. I thought that she was an unlikely character to do so. So, a mixed reaction to this one, one of Burnett’s first novels.

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Day 1024: Vittoria Cottage

vittoria-cottageVittoria Cottage is a gentle post-war romance with likable characters. Caroline Dering is a widow with three children. She was married at a very young age to a selfish, complaining man many years her senior, and the marriage was not a happy one. Now she is alone with her two teenage daughters, her son James being away in Malaysia.

Caroline meets Mr. Shepperton, a stranger to the village who doesn’t say much about himself. Caroline gets along with him very well, and he begins making himself at home with her family. Everyone likes him but her older daughter, Leda.

Leda, unfortunately, takes after her father. She soon announces her engagement to her childhood friend, Derek. Caroline and Derek’s father both have reservations because of the young people’s ages, but frankly Caroline does not believe they will be happy. Still, she and the admiral agree that the young couple can become engaged, as long as they don’t marry until Derek gets his degree.

But the central romance in the story is between Caroline and Robert Shepperton. Caroline falls in love with him and thinks he is in love with her. But then her sister Harriet arrives for a visit, and Caroline comes to believe he prefers Harriet.

It isn’t often that I develop an affection for a character within a few pages of meeting her, but that was how I felt about Caroline. The other characters are mostly engaging. This is a pleasant and touching little novel about post-war village life.

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Day 921: Vinegar Girl

Cover for Vinegar GirlWhen I realized that Vinegar Girl is a reworking of The Taming of the Shrew, my main reaction was to wonder how that could be pulled off in modern times. But, I have thought I should read more Anne Tyler, so I decided to read it. It is very short and perhaps predictable, a quick, light read.

Kate Battista feels she doesn’t have much purpose in life. She and her sister Bunny have been raised by a preoccupied scientist father who has loads of ridiculous systems for running the house (even worse than my husband’s). The girls’ mother died young, but before that she was almost always caught up in depression. Kate was expelled from college for being rude to one of her professors (which actually sounds like an unlikely reason for being expelled). Since then, she has been working as a preschool teacher, taking care of the house and garden, and being a guardian to her sister.

Kate is abrasive sometimes, and she keeps getting into trouble at the preschool for things she says to the parents. She thinks her beautiful young sister is silly for putting on a different personality for men. She has lost most of her friends through lack of shared interests, and the only thing she does that she likes is gardening.

She is taken aback when her father calls her asking her to bring him his lunch, which he has forgotten. Since he frequently forgets his lunch and never notices, that is surprising, but she doesn’t figure out that he is attempting to introduce her to his lab assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov. Ultimately, it comes out that Pyotr’s visa is about to expire, and her father wants her to marry Pyotr so that he can stay in the country.

Kate is insulted and infuriated at the same time. She is so angry that she ends up agreeing, just to get out of the house.

link to NetgalleyYou can see where this is going. The novel is a cute romance with some good dialogue. I found a little unlikely the climactic scene Kate makes at the wedding dinner, especially considering what had just gone on before. The thrust of her message is that it’s harder being a man than a woman, something my mother used to tell me that I have never bought. I think Tyler is showing her age here, but it’s the only disappointing thing in a book that is fairly entertaining.

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Day 892: Wild Strawberries

Cover for Wild StrawberriesThis title does not refer to the Ingmar Bergman film but to the second (or third, depending on where you look) Barsetshire novel by Angela Thirkell. Unlike the others I’ve reviewed lately, Wild Strawberries was written before World War II. It is a delightful and gentle comedy with a romantic triangle.

Wild Strawberries is about a summer with the Leslies. Lady Emily is universally adored, a vague woman always leaving a trail of her possessions behind. She is also a managing type whose attempts to arrange things that are already decided repeatedly throw the family into chaos. The novel opens with a hilarious scene in which the family is late for service and disrupts the sermon while Lady Emily tries to tell everyone where to sit. Lady Emily is the mother whose passing is much lamented in Enter Sir Robert, which I reviewed a few months ago.

And if I am not mistaken, Agnes, a daughter of the house, is the same Lady Graham who is a major character in Enter Sir Robert, and as in that novel, Robert is continually referred to but not present. Agnes is a young mother with three children, kind but silly, and entirely obsessed with the children.

Other members of the household are Mr. Leslie, gruff but kind, sons John and David, and grandson Martin. Martin is the son of the Leslies’ deceased oldest son. John is a widower who has been mourning his wife Gay. David is a charming but selfish playboy.

The Leslies have invited Mary Preston to spend the summer with them while her mother recuperates at a spa on the Continent. Mary is Agnes’s niece by marriage, and her affections play a major part in the plot. She is a young, naive girl who is immediately charmed by David. John, on the other hand, falls in love with her when he hears her singing. We find ourselves rooting for John, but in Thirkell’s novels, the characters we like best are not always successful in love.

Providing humor are a visit from Mr. Holt, a toady to the upper class and expert on gardens, who invites himself to visit the Leslies, and the establishment at the vicarage of a French family. Seventeen-year-old Martin gets himself embroiled in a demonstration to restore the French monarchy, and Mr. Holt finds himself rewarded for his gate-crashing by being entertained by Agnes and her children.

This is a delightful novel with sympathetic and engaging characters and a great deal of humor. I enjoyed it very much.

I have to say that my Moyer Bell edition (not the one pictured above) was riddled with typographical errors, including a chapter that literally ended in the middle of a word, to be completed after the next chapter title. I just picked this up at a used bookstore, but next time I buy Thirkell, I will look for a Virago edition.

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Day 875: The River of No Return

Cover for The River of No ReturnThe River of No Return was popular a few years ago, but I didn’t get around to reading it until now. The plot combining time travel and romance reminded me of The Time-Traveler’s Wife, which I loved. I found Ridgway’s book not nearly as interesting, though.

Nick Davenport appears to be a wealthy dilettante dabbling in cheese making in 2013, but in 1810, he was Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown. While fighting in the Peninsular Wars, he was suddenly thrust forward in time to 2003. There he was picked up by a society of time travelers called the Guild, trained to live in modern times, and given a potload of money to live on. Now, the Guild wants him to travel backward to 1815, something he didn’t even know could be done, and resume his earlier life to carry out a mission for them.

Back in 1815, Julia Percy’s grandfather has just died, leaving her at the mercy of an unknown cousin. Since she was a child, Julia has watched her grandfather play little tricks with time. She is just beginning to realize that she can do it, too. Then her cousin Eamon arrives and begins looking for something, a talisman. Julia eventually realizes that she herself is the talisman.

When Nick arrives back in time, he learns he is to find a representative of a rival time-travel society called the Ofan and kill that person. The Guild has learned that the time period within which they can go forward is moving backward in time, and they think the activities of the Ofan have affected the river of time. The Guild thinks this Ofan member lives in a house neighboring Nick’s, the home of Julia Percy.  But Nick has no intention of killing anyone.

A portion of this novel is more romance novelish than I like, a fairly standard romantic plot with unlikely (for the time) sex scenes. Since I am not a fan of the standard romance novel, this was not a plus for me.

Worse, though, is the theory of time travel and its link with human emotions and monetary exchange, which is scientifically absurd. Audrey Niffenegger’s genetic abnormality is at least faintly believable.

All in all, my reaction was fairly meh. The novel is well written, but I wasn’t particularly interested in most of the characters. I thought Nick was incredibly naive about the Guild and went along with it far too long. An alternate explanation of the moving time horizon seemed immediately obvious to me, although it is not addressed in this novel. Because this novel is clearly designed for a sequel, only the romance plot is resolved.

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Day 871: The Summer Before the War

Cover for The Summer before the WarBest Book of the Week!
I, for one, have been waiting for Helen Simonson’s second novel ever since I read the first one. And here it is!

Hugh Grange is preparing to pick up the new schoolteacher from the station at the beginning of The Summer Before the War. His Aunt Agatha has been instrumental in the school board’s controversial decision to hire a woman as the school’s new Latin mistress. Agatha has supported the hire because the woman was the most qualified applicant, but she is aware that her position as well as the teacher’s is precarious and that the mayor’s wife, Bettina Fothergill, is up to something.

So, Beatrice Nash arrives to take the position unaware that it is already threatened. She has been eager to leave the home of her father’s relatives, where she has lived since her father’s death. She soon finds that he has bargained away her freedom by agreeing to put her money into trust in return for being allowed to return home to his estranged family. Beatrice’s trustees start right out by assuming that she is mishandling her money.

Hugh is a medical student who is working under Dr. Ramsey, a well-known Harley Street physician. Hugh is a careful person whose future is neatly charted out. He will qualify in a year and then marry Dr. Ramsey’s daughter and join his practice. But the Great War breaks out, and Dr. Ramsey pressures him to accompany him to the front. Hugh wants to finish qualifying first, but Lucy Ramsey threatens to give him a white feather if he doesn’t join up.

Hugh’s cousin Daniel is a poet, and he plans to open a journal in London with his good friend Craigmore, Lord North’s son. But after Lord North sees Daniel and Craigmore together at the local hops festival, he makes Craigmore join the air corps. Daniel joins the Artists’ Rifles in reaction.

link to NetgalleyThis description doesn’t do much justice to the novel, which is about how all the characters’ lives are affected by the war. Aside from the same kind of class and town politics featured in Simonson’s delightful Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, we meet a handful of characters who are genuinely likable and we get very involved in several subplots.

Simonson evokes a bustling town of Rye in 1917, with it occupants becoming involved in their various war activities. Belgian refugees arrive, and the town begins to experience the first horrors of war. This novel makes an absorbing second effort that is at times very touching.

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