Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

* * *

Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

Related Posts

Fates and Furies

The Happy Marriage

Gone Girl

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.

Related Posts

Fates and Furies

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

A Circle of Wives

Day 872: Elizabeth Is Missing

Cover for Elizabeth Is MIssingBefore I begin my review, here is a little bit of news about the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Some of you may know that, along with Helen of She Reads Novels, I am attempting to read all the short-listed novels. Today the short list for 2016 was released. To see the list, check out my Walter Scott project page. I have only read one of the novels, but was disappointed, along with other readers, to see that A God in Ruins, which was on the long list, didn’t make the short list.

* * *

Elizabeth Is Missing is—I won’t disguise it—the third book about Alzheimers I’ve read in the last six months. When the book blurb says Maud is forgetful, that’s putting it mildly. After only a few pages of this novel, I wondered why Maud was living alone.

Maud is an old lady who is having trouble keeping track of just about everything. She writes herself reminder notes but loses them. She makes endless cups of tea and forgets them. Her caregiver comes in every morning and makes her lunch and she has eaten it by 9:30. She remembers occasionally that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Elizabeth doesn’t answer her phone and she isn’t home. But no one pays attention to a dotty old lady.

Of course, we realize fairly quickly that Elizabeth isn’t missing, but Maud has a more important mystery in her life. When she was a young girl just after World War II, her older sister Sukey disappeared, never to be seen again. Although Maud’s short-term memory is inconsistent, there’s nothing wrong with her long-term memory, at least not at first, so the more coherent narrative is the time around Sukey’s disappearance. Maud finds the boundaries between the past and present blurring.

I found this novel extremely painful to read at times, even more so than Still Alice. However, it is certainly compelling although not perhaps as realistic as Still Alice is.

One thing that bothered me, although only a bit, is that Maud clearly has all the information she needs to solve her sister’s disappearance, if only she can make sense of it. But she tried to investigate when she was young, and she had the same information then. That she would finally solve it in her current condition is a bit hard to buy. We’re to understand that she found something before the action of the novel, though. At least, that’s what I think happened, since sometimes the narration from the point of view of a confused old woman is a little opaque.

Related Posts

Still Alice

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Family Furnishings

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.

Related Posts

The Buried Giant

Life After Life

A God in Ruins

Day 858: Fates and Furies

Cover for Fates and FuriesFates and Furies is about a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde marry shortly before graduating from college, after knowing each other only two weeks. They are both very tall and blonde, considered by many to be a golden couple. Lotto is charismatic and loud, always the center of attention, with many faithful friends. Mathilde is quiet and aloof.

Although Lotto has had a bit of a Southern Gothic upbringing, he is the son of wealth and privilege. However, his mother cuts him off when she hears of his marriage. Mathilde appears to have no family or money. So, the couple’s first years are tough, as Lotto tries to make it as an actor in New York while Mathilde supports them. But one night Lotto stays up drunk and writes a play. When Mathilde reads it, she knows he has found his vocation.

The first half of the novel is from Lotto’s point of view. Success seems to come easily to him after he writes his first play. Even though he is prone to depression if things don’t go well, he has hit after hit. Mathilde quits her job to take care of the business side, and he becomes a little self-satisfied. Still, all in all they are remarkably happy. He considers his wife a saint.

It is not until the second half of the novel, when we see the marriage and past from Mathilde’s point of view, that we learn a different truth about their lives. Mathilde, who has been alone for much of her life, is fiercely loyal to Lotto. But she is no saint.

Lauren Groff seems to write completely different novels each time out. This one shows the complexities of human relationships. That this relationship is almost operatic in scope gives the novel a slightly gothic trend.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. I think we are supposed to like Lotto more than I did, but I distrust charismatic people. I think Lotto may be a little stereotypical, however, while Mathilde is mostly a cypher until her half of the book, when many secrets come out. It is not until we learn Mathilde’s side of things that the novel really begins to unfold. It is certainly an interesting novel and one that could provoke discussion.

Related Posts

Arcadia

Everything I Never Told You

All the Birds, Singing

Day 829: The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a controversial novella by Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy. It was banned in several countries because of its provocative message and because of what was considered at the time prurient content. If your nature contains an ounce of feminism, it will enrage you. Yet its origins are in eccentric ideas that Tolstoy almost certainly considered to be for the benefit of women.

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations brings together this work with others by the family on the same subject. Tolstoy’s wife Sofiya Andreevna (I’m using the spelling from the book) disliked the novella intensely and wrote two stories in answer to it, “Whose Fault?” and “Song Without Words.” These stories were suppressed by the family. Tolstoy’s son, Lev Lvovich, also wrote a story, “Chopin’s Prelude.” These stories are followed by a section including review comments by several contemporaries, excerpts from diaries, and other writings of all three Tolstoys.

So, what was “The Kreutzer Sonata” about and why did it evoke all this controversy? It is a virtually plotless story about a man who meets another man on a train journey and tells him the story of why he murdered his own wife. Throughout the story, the main character, Pozdnyshev, expresses abhorrent opinions about women, sex, and marriage, and shows no understanding of women at all. Although this character is not completely describing Tolstoy’s own marriage, he is giving voice to Tolstoy’s ideas about marriage. This story is harsh, disturbing, and reflects ideas that show no understanding of human nature, or for that matter, many other things. Tolstoy posits that marriage is simply legal prostitution, that sex is disgusting, and that people should just strive to be celibate (something he notoriously had a problem with). Because Tolstoy saw his role in later years as one to instruct and had too high an opinion of his own ideas, this information is presented didactically, in a polemic.

Sofiya Andreevna disliked the novella intensely and was embarrassed by it, because she believed that others thought it reflected her own marriage. She insisted it did not but mostly, I think, because she didn’t want people to think she became attached to another man while married to Tolstoy (and who would blame her?). She also felt that the story showed no understanding of the wife, and so she wrote her own story. In both, the story is basically the same, a madly jealous husband comes to believe his wife is unfaithful when she is not and kills her in a fit of anger. It was Sofiya herself who convinced Tolstoy that his story would be more effective if the wife was innocent.

It is in the context of the responding stories and other writings that “The Kreutzer Sonata” is most involving. The story itself is ridiculous to modern sensibilities. Two pages of quotations by contemporaries provide some interest, particularly the two (not surprisingly) that I most agree with.

No wonder the Countess was often near the end of her patience.—George Bernard Shaw

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination. Since reading it I have not the slightest doubt that its author is cracked.—Émile Zola

For an enlightening look at the Tolstoy’s marriage, I recommend the novel The Last Station by Jay Parini.

Related Posts

The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them

The Prague Cemetery

The House of Special Purpose

Day 779: The Quickening Maze

Cover for The Quickening MazeThe Quickening Maze is the first book I read purposefully because it’s one of the finalists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. By coincidence, I had already read half a dozen finalists and winners, and when I learned that Helen of She Reads Novels was trying to read them all, I decided to join her.

This novel is based on events in the life of the poet John Clare, known as the “peasant poet,” a man of rural background who was steeped in his natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Clare is having some mental problems and is staying in an asylum in Epping Forest. Nearby is Alfred Tennyson, whose brother Septimus also resides there.

John Clare seems to be doing well under the treatment of Dr. Matthew Allen. When we first meet him, his movements are relatively unrestrained and except for some confusion about a girl he knew named Mary, he seems sane enough. He is soon given a key to the gate so that he can walk in the forest.

Another patient important to the novel is Margaret, who is regularly transfixed by visions of angels and messages from god. At one point as Clare’s mental state deteriorates, he mistakes Margaret for his Mary.

Dr. Allen seems to have a gift for dealing with his patients during a time when mental health practices were deplorable. However, he also has a fascination with risk, and soon he is trying to talk his friends and the Tennysons into investing in his new invention, a machine for following the shape of furniture and carving additional pieces.

Hannah Allen at 17 has decided that Alfred Tennyson is the man she’d like to marry. She boldly begins seeking him out, not realizing that he is preoccupied with his brother and with grief over the death of a good friend.

Although this novel is more about the internal workings of some of the characters’ minds than its historical setting, it is beautifully written and atmospheric. I was interested in this narrow slice of history and curious to look at some of Clare’s poetry.

Related Posts

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Parrot and Olivier in America

A Good Hard Look