Archive for the ‘Dodie Smith’ Category

Oh, such high hopes I had for these ones!

Reviews I’d read and the past experiences I’d had with some of these authors led me to believe I’d love these books. But for various reasons, these were the reads that failed to thrill to the expected levels in 2012.

(I’ve read much “worse” books this year, but in all of those cases I had no expectations of excellence, so the disappointment wasn’t so deeply felt.)

*****

MOST DISAPPOINTING READS 2012

In alphabetical order of author’s surname.

*****

1. A White Bird Flying (1931)

and

Miss Bishop (1933) 

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

A double whammy of disappointment from this author, whose mild historical romances I generally quite enjoy. Both of these books started off wonderfully well, but by midway through each I was thoroughly out of sympathy with the heroines, and their every thought and action served only to annoy.

Laura in White Bird Flying seriously over-estimated her artistic abilities, and when she did chuck her not-very-viable dream of becoming a writer (key requirement: you have to be able to write) to marry her long-suffering swain, she rather moped her way through her not-very-exciting married life in much the same way as she’s drooped through college. Perhaps if she’d dreamed less and applied herself more? A bit of a whiner, was Laura, with a strong sense of her own “specialness”.

Ella Bishop, of Miss Bishop, might as well have been walked around with a “kick me” sign taped to her back. Her continual self-sacrifice buys her a few moments of gratification here and there, and a public ovation when she’s turfed from her job at the worst possible moment, but she still ends up a penniless old maid, having given and given and given all her life with no return from her selfish hangers-on. The author seems to approve. I really wanted Miss Bishop to show some selfishness and gratify a few of her own deep down desires, instead of being such a darned good sport all the way through. This whole story just irritated me. Grrr.

2. The L-Shaped Room (1960)

and

The Backward Shadow (1970)

by Lynne Reid Banks

I so wanted to enjoy the story of Jane Graham, a very liberated young woman who forges ahead with her life regardless of the opinions of those around her. I should have liked her, I wanted to like her, but ultimately I came away feeling that she was a morbidly self-centered and stunningly rude little piece of work. I pity her poor kid. I couldn’t make it through the second book of the trilogy, and I can’t even recall the title of the third book. Seems to me it focusses on Jane’s difficulties with her child. No wonder; I’m sure the mother-child relationship is as dismally ill-fated as all of Jane’s other relationships.

Too unspeakably dreary.

(However, Stuck-in-a-book’s Simon liked this one a lot, so don’t take my word for it; please read what he has to say, too. Most of his reviews agreeably jive with my own opinions, but this was a rare exception.)

3. Adventures of a Botanist’s Wife (1952)

by Eleanor Bor

A promising-sounding memoir of travels throughout northern India in the 1930s and 40s. In reality, the writing was a bit flat, and not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped for. The author didn’t include nearly enough detail either about her own thoughts and feelings, or about the botanical and geographical wonders of the areas she was moving through. A chore to finish; I kept expecting it to pick up, but the narrative deteriorated as the book progressed. This one could have been so wonderful; a sad disappointment.

4. Pippa Passes (1994)

and

Cromartie v. The God Shiva Acting Through the Government of India (1997)

by Rumer Godden

A pair of duds from veteran storyteller Godden. Written in the last years of her life, it is apparent that Godden’s stamina is failing in carrying these fictional ideas through to the higher level achieved by many of her earlier books. Moments of lovely writing, but generally not up to the standard I had hoped for from this master storyteller.

Pippa Passes concerns an impossibly gifted young dancer and singer and her trip to Venice with a ballet troupe. Previously sheltered and protected Pippa is ripe for romance – she attracts the amorous attentions of a dashing young gondolier and her lesbian ballet mistress. Unsatisfactory throughout; a sketchy sort of resolution which I cannot even really remember only a few months after my reading. That says it all. Godden was 87 when this one was published; I’m sure she felt tired; the story reads like she couldn’t really be bothered to refine her slight little romantic tale.

Cromartie vs. The God Shiva is also a disappointment, though a more ambitious, better-written story than the forgettable Pippa. A promising premise: a priceless statue of the god Shiva has surfaced in Toronto; it is believed to have been stolen from its niche in a temple alcove in a hotel on the Coromandel coast of India, with a clever replica substituted for the original. Romance, mystery, and tragic sudden death are all elements in this promising but shallow creation, the last published work by the veteran writer, who died shortly after its publication, at the venerable age of 90. Kudos to her for writing until the end, but sadly this last work is not up to the fine quality of many of her earlier novels.

5. The Middle Window (1935) 

by Elizabeth Goudge

One of Goudge’s very earliest published works – it was preceded by a forgettable (and forgotten) book of poetry, and the well-received Island Magic in 1934. The Middle Window is a sort of super-romantic Scottish ghost story, and it just didn’t come off the ground, atmosphere of Highland heather and noble-but-doomed ancestors notwithstanding. Lushly purple prose and terribly stereotypical characters, with a plot both predictable and outrageous in its premise. Some sort of weird reincarnation features strongly. Goudge herself blushingly dismisses this one in her own assessment of her works in her marvelous autobiography, The Joy of the Snow. Interesting only as a comparison to later books, to see how much better she could do once she found her stride. I’d heard it was pretty dire, but I’d hoped the panning comments were over-critical. They weren’t.

6. Mrs. de Winter (1993)

by Susan Hill

Contemporary “dark psychological thriller” writer Susan Hill takes a stab at a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Some things are best left alone. I wish I could erase this dreary piggyback-on-a-classic tale from my memory. What was I thinking, to read this? What was anyone thinking, to commission this train wreck – er – car crash – of a misguided pseudo-sequel? I hope Daphne puts a ghostly curse on Susan Hill for this defamation of her (du Maurier’s) characters. They might have some issues, but no one, not even fictional characters so firmly in the public domain as Max and his unnamed second wife, deserve to be tampered with like this. Ick.

7. The Honorary Patron (1987)

by Jack Hodgins

Hodgins is a very clever writer, but my own mind couldn’t quite stretch enough to take some of the mental steps needed to fully enter into the spirit of this ponderously gleeful “magical realism” word game. I definitely saw and smiled at the humour, appreciated what Hodgins was getting at with his sly digs and cynical speeches, but found it terribly hard to push my way through to the end. This wasn’t the happy diversion I’d been expecting.  Another time, maybe a deeper appreciation. Perhaps. But in 2012 at least, a personal disappointment.

8. Friends and Lovers (1947)

by Helen MacInnes

One of thriller-espionage-suspense writer MacInnes’s several straightforward romances – no guns, spys or dastardly Soviet plots in sight. I’d read and enjoyed a number of the thrillers, and one of the romances – Rest and be Thankful, so when Friends and Lovers crossed my path I quite eagerly snapped it up, took it home, and settled down for what I thought would be a good vintage read.

Two star-crossed lovers triumph over family roadblocks and challenging personal circumstances to eventually wed. Essentially humourless, this was a disappointing read, and not anywhere close to as entertaining as I’d hoped it would be. The hero was terribly, jealously chauvinistic; the heroine was ultimately spineless where her swain is concerned. I didn’t like or respect either of them by the end of the tale. The author was capable of greater things.

9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910)

and

A Tangled Web (1931)

by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Canadian literary icon Lucy Maud Montgomery has written some wonderfully entertaining books, but these two don’t count among them as far as I’m concerned.

Kilmeny presents an unbelievably lovely, incredibly musically talented, but vocally mute innocent country girl who is avidly pursued by the much more worldly Eric. A brooding Italian foster-brother acts as a rival in love. Aside from the rather creepy gleefulness with Eric displays upon his discovery of Kilmeny – “So young, so pure, so innocent – let me at her!” – the hateful prejudice the author displays towards the “tainted by his blood” Neil is exceedingly off-putting, even allowing for the era of the writing.

A Tangled Web concerns the internal struggles of a large family as each individual tries to prove worthy of inheriting a hideous heirloom – an old pottery jug. More dirty linen is displayed than I am interested in seeing; it could have been salvaged by better writing and non-sarcastic humor – both of which I know the author could have pulled off – but it missed the mark on all counts. I tried but couldn’t bring myself to even like most of the characters, and the author throws in a gratuitous racial slur on the last page which dropped this already B-grade novel more than a notch lower in my esteem.

10. The New Moon with the Old (1963)

by Dodie Smith

Yearning after a book of the same quality and deep appeal as my decided favourite read by this author, I Capture the Castle, I was ever so eager to experience some of her other quirky tales. And I was careful to ensure that before turning to the first page, my mind was consciously emptied of preconceptions and expectations, to be able to give New Moon a fair trial unshaded by the brilliant sun of Castle.

Even without a comparison to my favourite, The New Moon with the Old was not what I had hoped for.  Investment consultant (or something of the sort – I can’t quite remember the job description, just that there were clients and large sums of money involved) Rupert Carrington gambles and loses on an ambitious scheme involving his other people’s funds. He goes into hiding to escape prosecution, leaving his four offspring to fend for themselves with only a recently hired housekeeper to keep all of the practical wheels of a luxurious household running. Never having to have worked, and faced with the need to earn money to feed and clothe themselves, the four Carringtons – aged 14 into the early 20s – make forays into the larger world, taking on occupations as diverse as actress, novelist, composer and “mistress to a king”.  While not conventionally “successful”, all four land jam-side-up, being taken under the wings of various wealthy sponsors; swapping Daddy’s protection for the patronage of others.

I wasn’t so much shocked by the sexual/intellectual sellings-of-themselves most of the siblings indulged in, as by the ready acceptance of the father’s betrayal of the trust of his clients. This is never rectified; a skilful lawyer is obtained to get Rupert off the legal hook, and by the end all is looking potentially lovely in the Carrington garden. Cute characters and funny situations didn’t quite sugarcoat this one enough for me to swallow without gagging. Darn.

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The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith ~ 1963. This edition: Atlantic – Little, Brown, 1963. Hardcover. 367 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I have just laid down The New Moon with the Old with something like a delicate revulsion; I am subsequently wrestling with the dilemma of how best to describe this fantastic tale. “Fantastic” in this case meaning contrived and highly improbable.

That said, damning as it is, I’m going to keep this book, and I know I will re-read it, both to give it a second chance to redeem my first impression of its awfulness and because, despite that very awfulness, it has frequent moments of a quite appealing charm and clever turns of phrase that almost (almost!) redeem the awefully (fantastically!) bad bits.

Confused yet? If so, we’re on the same page.

Dodie Smith’s first novel, I Capture the Castle, is, in my frank opinion, more than a minor masterpiece of the “light novel” genre. There is so much that I like about that work that I have been eager to get my hands on some of Smith’s other, much more obscure titles, hoping that they would have something of the same delicate touch and deep appeal of Castle.  Sadly, New Moon did not meet expectations.

The New Moon with the Old is set in contemporary times, the early 1960s, though the heady atmosphere of that change-filled era is nowhere apparent in the story. A young woman, Jane Minton, has just been engaged as an assistant to wealthy Rupert Carrington. Her duties will be to act as occasional secretary and general overseer of the domestic arrangements at his country home, Dome House. Also in residence are Rupert’s four children: 14-year-old schoolgirl Merry, who is actively planning a stellar acting career; 20-year-old Drew, an aspiring “Edwardian-era” novelist; twenty-something Clare, unsure of her natural bent but toying with the romantic idea of being a “mistress to a king”; and slightly older Richard, a musician and neophyte composer. Two devoted elderly sisters acting as cook and general maid round out the cast of characters.

Jane arrives at Dome House and is immediately impressed by the quiet luxury which surrounds her. Absentee lord of the manor Rupert is more than generous in his provision for his dependents, but this is very soon to change. On her first full day in residence, alone in the house, Jane is surprised by Rupert’s sudden clandestine appearance. He hurriedly explains that there is suddenly no more money to pay for his family’s luxurious lifestyle, and he asks her (or, rather, she spontaneously volunteers, due to her unspoken crush on Rupert) to look after the young Carringtons and try to launch them into their careers. Rupert himself is about to flee the country to avoid prosecution for some undefined financial transgression related to his handling of his clients’ affairs. Jane, who fell in love at first sight with Rupert at her job interview and now welcomes a chance to openly show her rather sudden devotion, jumps in to the situation cheerfully, going so far as to seek outside employment so she can assist with Dome House’s operating costs.

After this sketchy set-up, the story continues as a series of multi-chapter interludes, following each Carrington as he or she attempts to pursue each driving ambition, or, in Clare’s case, to find an ambition to pursue.

The characterizations of Jane, Rupert, and the two maids are extremely superficial; the author insists on telling rather than showing the reasons for their actions, and, in the case of Jane and the maids, their over-the-top dedication to a rather offhand employer and his ineffectual, over-indulged (though endlessly sweet and charming) brood. The four young Carringtons are better presented; we do get more of a chance to get inside their heads as we follow them on their precipitous fledgling flights from Dome House.

The story takes off (as much as it ever does) with the first decision by the youngest child (Merry) to seek her fortune elsewhere. The adventures of Merry and her three siblings  are rather unusual and require a serious suspension of disbelief from the reader. New Moon’s world is one in which love at first sight is a commonplace, and serendipity and coincidence reign supreme. Great wealth, often unsuspected, abounds to save the questing characters from more than superficial worry and discomfort.

This collection of vignettes is tacked together by visits back to Dome House to see how Jane, the maids, and the rest of the family are making out; as the characters move out of their downy nest they generally fall into others even more generously feathered, much to this reader’s perpetual annoyance.

Near the end of the novel,  after waiting in vain  for the whole thing to jell into something a little more cohesive, the author did provide a spot of conversation between several of the main characters wherein they admit their own anachronistic traits, and poke a bit of fun at themselves. This went far with me to renew my flagging interest. I thought, “Aha! Dodie Smith realizes what a mess these people are, and she’s deliberately allowing them this exposition with a view to a stronger, more artistically satisfying and marginally more realistic ending.” But it was not to be.

By the novel’s end, everyone is neatly paired off with a friendly and/or romantic interest; everyone has found a solution to their financial woes. Though reasonably open-ended, the conclusion is quite clear in its optimistic tone for all concerned, most appropriate to this fluffy little fairytale.

I see that this title, as well as two others, The Town in Bloom and It Ends with Revelations, have been reissued in March, 2012. If the other two titles are at all like The New Moon with the Old in tone and complexity (or lack thereof) I would think that here we have nothing more than a trio of nice little beach or lawn chair reads, of value for several hours of light entertainment and inventive nostalgia.

The New Moon with the Old serves to display the perfection of I Capture the Castle as a diamond among literary rhinestones. Rhinestones being pretty enough for a bit of shine and dazzle, as long as they aren’t confused with the genuine thing!

And a bit of a heads-up here for the reader expecting a story as morally upright as I Capture the Castle turns out to be. New Moon shows Dodie Smith in a much more laissez-faire moral mood. She uses as a rather feeble plot device Rupert Carrington’s financial dishonesty, and she ignores the reality that his actions have doubtlessly injured many innocent parties; she offhandedly arranges for him to be bailed out of his disgrace by a wealthy connection who can afford the best lawyers and counsel; and her characters have surprisingly permissive views on sex and sexual arrangements. One of the most off-putting passages (to me) was near the story’s conclusion where Jane is scorned for her “frigidity” concerning extramarital sex: “No wonder she hasn’t been able to catch a man!” is implied. But I wasn’t shocked so much by the sophistication of the characters’ amoral sex lives as by their offhand acceptance of the “easy ride” that money brings; all concerned seem quite happy to act as sweetly smiling and endlessy charming parasites on various wealth-engorged hosts.

A strange little novel in so many ways.

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