Review 1738: #1976 Club! Lady Oracle

My final choice for the 1976 Club is this early novel by Margaret Atwood, her third. Up until now, the earliest novel I’ve read by her is The Handmaid’s Tale, published nine years later. Although her novels have mostly been totally unlike each other except for frequent forays into dystopia, Lady Oracle was surprising to me. For the most part, it is quite a silly romp.

When we first meet Joan, she has faked her own death and run away from her life to make a new start in Italy. Over the course of the novel, we learn why.

Joan grows up with a distant and disapproving mother and a mostly absent and ineffectual father. Her mother focuses on her weight, though, so as she gets older, Joan changes from trying to please her mother to defiantly trying to get fatter. It takes the death of her beloved aunt to bring her down to a normal size, because if she loses weight, she’ll inherit enough money to run away from Toronto to London. However, she is thereafter haunted by the spirit of the fat lady.

As a naïve teenager in London, she gets involved in the first of a series of odd relationships characterized by her eagerness to please—first an impoverished Polish Count to whom she loses her virginity simply because she doesn’t know what to do in an embarrassing situation; then her husband, a fervent and ascetic believer in some cause, if only he could figure out which one; then the Royal Porcupine, an artist who offers a bit of romance, albeit on the shabby side. All the while, she is hiding two secrets—that she used to be hugely fat and that she writes trashy romance novels for a living. To hide her past, she accumulates complex lies. However, her secrets are threatened when she almost inadvertently writes a best-selling book of poetry.

By and large, I enjoyed this novel, which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, and sillier and sillier. I was deeply disappointed in the ending, which read to me as if Atwood just got tired of writing the novel and wanted to get it over with. Although Joan seems to be finally developing some self-esteem by the last chapters, everything is left up in the air, and I fear she is doomed to repeat her past.

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Review 1583: The Northern Lights

I so much enjoyed Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective that I made a note to myself to read more by him. I finally chose The Northern Lights because of its setting.

In the 1950’s, Noah Krainik lives with his family on an isolated lake in northern Manitoba. His father Anthony is a geographer who is mapping the far reaches of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, so he leaves Noah, his mother Mina, and his cousin Charlotte alone for months at a time. He blames his work, but there are some events that don’t add up. For example, while out working he somehow ended up in Halifax and arranged for Charlotte to live with them after her parents were killed in a factory collapse. Halifax is a long way from either Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Every summer, beginning when he is nine, Noah takes the mail plane to Quill, 90 miles away, to live with his best friend Pelly and Pelly’s aunt and uncle, Nettie and Sam. There he experiences the richer life of a village of Cree Indians, trappers, and others who prefer this wilderness life that smacks of a much earlier time period. The novel begins, though, in 1959, when 14-year-old Noah learns of Pelly’s death.

This evocative novel explores the life in the wilderness and what happens when Anthony’s desertion provokes a move out of the wilderness to Toronto. There, Mina gets a job at the Northern Lights movie theater, where she first met Anthony.

This is a novel full of interesting, colorful characters, and I greatly enjoyed it. I especially liked the portion set in remote Manitoba.

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Day 680: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Cover for As Chimney SweepersAfter 12-year-old Flavia de Luce’s last adventures, she starts out this most recent novel in the series on her way to Toronto. She has been sent away to school, to Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. Lest you worry that this will turn the series into a nonmagical version of Harry Potter, never fear.

Flavia has arrived by boat in the company of Dr. and Mrs. Rainsmith, an unlikable couple who are associated with the school. They drop her there late at night, and true to form, Flavia has discovered a corpse by morning.

Or rather, another of the boarding students by the name of Collingwood has. In an attempt to hide from the headmistress when she is out of her room at night, Collingwood crawls up the chimney in Flavia’s room, only to fall down again along with a desiccated body wrapped in a Union Jack.

Of course, Flavia is soon on the job, trying to identify the body. Several girls are rumored to have disappeared from the school. And then there is the mysterious death of Dr. Rainsmith’s first wife, even though she went overboard during a cruise, which makes the death a little harder to fit.

Although the series has taken a somewhat fantastical turn, with Flavia seemingly being groomed to be some sort of spy, she continues her inimitable self, naive enough to draw some pretty ridiculous conclusions from her evidence but smart enough to find the facts, and entirely neglectful of the school rules. I have to admit, though, that I miss Flavia’s village and the eccentric members of her family.

I’m sure I am not the only one to enjoy Flavia, an expert in chemistry who thrills over an electron microscope but still believes in Santa Claus, as we discovered a few volumes ago.

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