My rating: 9.5/10.
The standard set by this first novel is high; Sharp began as she was to go on, moving from strength to strength throughout her long writing career. Even her few “bobbles” in her later works are entertaining; her sheer writing skill and love and mastery of language make her a joy to read, even when the plotline falters. And it doesn’t do that here; this book is very well put together indeed.
This is the depressingly rare first ever Margery Sharp novel, long out of print, and extremely hard to come by. I finally tracked it down through inter-library loan; a complete search of the Canadian library database located one lone copy in Ontario. After paying a $20 borrowing fee, and waiting for what seemed like a terribly long time, it arrived in pieces, held together with several rubber bands, with a note asking me to use extreme caution when handling it.
Not knowing quite what to expect as a reading experience, but having very high hopes, I was more than rewarded for the time and trouble it took to get my hands on a copy of this book, at least temporarily, and I redoubled my efforts to find a copy of my own. This was something of a “take a deep breath” step, as prices range from a low of $200 to a high of $600; the most copies I’ve ever seen on offer at one time are the current seven on ABE.
I won’t tell you what I ended up paying for my own copy, pictured above, but it was a major investment for someone of my relatively modest resources. Not the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased – that dubious honour goes to the even rarer Fanfare For Tin Trumpets, Margery Sharp’s second (and just a little less stellar) novel. What I will say is that I haven’t regretted it at all. Either of them. But most of Sharp’s later works – she wrote something like twenty-six novels for adults, and a dozen or so juveniles, many starring the mousy “Rescuers”, elegant white Bianca and common brown Bernard (“the Brave”) – are relatively easy to find. She was a best-selling author in her time, with a humourous inflection which transcends time. I love her writing; for me it simply “flows”, carrying me effortlessly along. Each re-reading reveals another layer; I’m far from finished with my exploration and enjoyment of her work.
I do so wish that someone in the publishing world would catch the Margery Sharp bug and reprint her early works! Rhododendron Pie is such an exquisite little gem, with the genuine clarity and sparkle. There are much more pedestrian works being brought back into the marketplace to feed the current hunger for such nostalgic period pieces! I live in hope.
In the meantime, we do what we can. For those of you who are also Margery Sharp fans, and who have not yet gotten your hands on this little prize, I am now posting, as promised way back in August or September, the entire Prologue to Rhododendron Pie. One day, if no publisher blesses us with a reprint, I might be tempted to scan the whole book and turn it into a pdf file, to share with fellow Sharp aficionados. (Or perhaps it might qualify for Project Gutengberg? I thnk it just might be old enough, and long enough after the author’s death.) In the meantime, here’s a sample.
If you enjoy the Prologue, let me assure you that the rest of the novel is ever so much better.
But first, a contemporary review from 1930:
Rhododendron Pie is something more than an amusing and good-natured gibe at literary and artistic snobbery, for all the Laventie family–including the mother, who comes in with a great burst of rhetoric on behalf of the bank clerk at the finish–and the various minor characters are far more than argumentative counters in the attack or defence of aestheticism. They have all authentic lives of their own, and Miss Sharp is particularly successful in catching the accent of those inhabitants of the modern world who carry a magnificent undergraduate irresponsibility into the affairs of everyday life. – The London Times Literary Supplement
The story proper opens ten years later. Our heroine, Ann, is now twenty, and we find her dreaming the summer away, poised on the brink of life. Her brother Dick and sister Elizabeth are busy following their own intense pursuits – Dick as an art student and aspiring sculptor, and Elizabeth as a writer and editor – but Ann has so far found no particular artistic bent of her own to follow. She is mostly merely accomplished at being agreeable, and with her sophisticated family and their many visitors a listening ear and a pleasant, interested expression are much appreciated as the egoists expound and Ann takes it all in. But she has a rich inner life of her own, and she’s busy sorting it all out.
Ann settled down on the grass again with her chin on her fists and one shoe waving in the air. She wasn’t reading really, only pretending to, so that the others wouldn’t talk to her. It was too nice in the garden to talk. How queer to think she was lying on the surface of the world… an enormous warm green ball spinning slowly through space with somewhere, under a lime tree like a sliver of grass, a minute pink dot…
The Gayfords, ten years after we first meet them, are still persisting in being friendly to their uppish neighbours; continual delicate snubs are absorbed and ignored, and Ann has settled into her role as a liaison of sorts between the two worlds, which leads to occasional mockery by Dick, Elizabeth and Mr. Laventie, who assume that Ann is merely “collecting material” for reasons of her own.
But Ann is honestly fond of the happy Gayford clan, and this summer, with Peggy Gayford’s approaching marriage and John’s unchangeable good nature with every brief encounter, Ann is starting to wonder what is wrong with her, to find such healthy, hearty normalcy so attractive. For isn’t life meant to be an endless round of sensation-seeking, with the creation of an exquisite and “individual” persona for the edification of the other elite highbrows one’s chief occupation? So why is Ann having such difficulty working up a properly scornful attitude of her own to the Gayford’s enthusiastic embrace of the comfortable pleasures of upper-middle-class country life. (The Gayford patriarch is the local doctor; John has embarked on a career in banking, and his younger brother Nick is at medical school, in sharp contrast to the general Laventie bent for something more artistic and “fine” than mere useful “labour”.)
Avant-garde filmmaker Gilbert Croy appears on the scene, and with his languid courtship of her, which she warmly responds to, it seems that Ann will embrace the family tradition and rise above her delight in the everyday to take her place among the rarefied intellectuals. But circumstances and Ann’s innate common sense unite to turn things upside down …
Margery Sharp, though she does the conventional “happy ending” thing very well indeed, always seems able to put a twist into her story somewhere. Nothing is completely as it seems, and the clichés fall apart upon closer examination. There are some cleverly well-realized character sketches in Rhododendron Pie, as enjoyable to today’s reader as they would have been to those readers of the time more cognizant of the sly references Sharp has such a grand time making.
On re-reading what I’ve just written, I see that I haven’t done much in the way of detailing the plot, and I’ve completely ignored many characters who wander in and out of Ann’s widening orbit. There’s a lot in this little book; too much to share without giving things away completely, and too complex to detail without making this review even longer than it already is, what with all the images I’ve crammed in!
Sound appealing? If so, this is what you’re looking for in your library book sale and flea market travels. This lovely (and exceedingly rare) first edition with an intact dust jacket will set you back a cool $600, at Old Scrolls. Right now, April 2013, there are 7 copies listed on ABE, from $212 to the aforementioned $600.
There must be a few more out there in dusty corners for the persistent (and lucky) searcher. Particularly in Great Britain, or possibly the U.S.A. Happy hunting!