Archive for the ‘Susan Hill’ 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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Mrs. de Winter by Susan Hill ~ 1993. This edition: William Morrow & Co., 1993. First edition. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-688-12707-x. 349 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10.

This is a book for fans of du Maurier’s now classic, noire-romantic-suspense novel Rebecca; I suspect anyone else would be completely bemused. Would this be what is termed as “fan fiction”?

Mrs. de Winter started off reasonably promisingly, but quickly got tedious. Susan Hill was very conscientious about channeling du Maurier’s voice as preserved in Rebecca, but in my opinion the greatest weakness of the book is that she stuck to that voice too strongly, instead of taking the characters to the next level.

I give Hill credit for trying, hence the (generous) 3.5 rating, and it is obvious that she holds Rebecca in great esteem, but I found this sequel ultimately boring and very depressing – wait! – no! – not merely depressing – downright sad is a better description. It was also about two hundred pages too long for the content, and very wordy and repetitive. The plot was contrived and unbelievable, and the ending, quite frankly, was deeply disappointing.

Rebecca ended on a tragic note, too, but it was a fitting conclusion to what had come before, and is likely one of the reasons why the story is so highly regarded. I tend to agree with those who say that Rebecca is du Maurier’s masterpiece. It is very much a polished and completed piece of work, and decidedly a stand-alone book, and a sequel written by another author should then at least be creative and take us in a new direction – “What if?” This just didn’t happen here. And that’s really too bad, because from what I’ve heard, Susan Hill can write.

*****

Mrs. de Winter continues the story that du Maurier so teasingly but perfectly tied up in 1938 in Rebecca. Fifty-five years later that book is still so widely read and admired that a sequel by a contemporary author comes in for much discussion and is greeted with high hopes. Interesting and cleverly imagined sequels are occasionally created on the coattails of classic novels, but they are rare creatures. Sadly this particular attempt was, in my opinion, quite decidedly a “miss”.

In Susan Hill’s take, Maxim and the first person narrator, his second wife so famously left unnamed in Rebecca, have not seemed to grow or emotionally develop in the ten years subsequent to the burning of Manderley. If anything, they have degenerated.

At the close of Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter has found a new maturity and confidence and faces her future with fortitude and a certain stubborn grace. Maxim himself has become a much more likeable character as he unbends enough to confess his failings to his new wife; their marriage looks like it may actually work, having weathered the storm of the murdered first wife and the malicious Mrs. Danvers and her revengeful arson.

In Mrs. de Winter, Maxim comes across as a boring, immature, moody manic-depressive, and his wife as just plain pathetic: still dowdy and unsure of herself, and acting much younger than her age. No wonder Maxim walks all over her, in this re-interpretation, even more so than in the original – she’s a true “Kick-Me-Charlie”.

Spoiler alert, for both Rebecca and Mrs. de Winter. If you want to be surprised, stop reading now.

Mrs. de Winter starts with a funeral in England. We don’t immediately know who has died; we find out on page 20, after much long-winded scene-setting and flashbacks, that it is Maxim’s sister, Beatrice.

It is now ten years after the burning of Maxim’s family estate, Manderley. As those of you who have read Rebecca will remember, Maxim has been emotionally scarred apparently beyond recovery by the whole saga of first having murdered his lovely but secretly treacherous first wife, Rebecca, and then narrowly escaping justice. Rebecca’s death has been officially recorded as a suicide, and Rebecca’s devoted ex-nanny, Mrs. Danvers, has set fire to Maxim’s beloved house in revenge – she knows the truth. Maxim has confessed all to his young second wife, and she in turn has forgiven him everything in her relief at finding out that Maxim is not still in love with his first wife, as she has been mistakenly thinking all along. (Interesting that Maxim can quite calmly deal with being a murderer, but the loss of his palatial estate sends him over the final edge. Not the most admirable of characters, when one steps back for some perspective, to put a house ahead of a human life, but in the original he shows enough character to allow us to conditionally forgive his numerous sins.)

The two have gone to live in Europe, to escape all the apparent gossip that is being generated by the complicated tragedy. Though Maxim is widely viewed as a bereaved husband and not a murderer, he is such a sensitive type that even a whisper about Manderley or Rebecca apparently gives him the jim-jams. His second wife meekly caters to his neuroses.

As the sequel begins, the second World War has just ended. Maxim and second Mrs. de Winter have apparently spent the war years safely ensconced in Switzerland. Maxim has no intention of going back to England, even for his sister’s funeral, but Mrs. de Winter convinces him that he must. It seems that she is dreadfully homesick and welcomes the chance to return to her homeland, even if the reason is the pathetically tragic death of a beloved wife and mother.

They get there, see Beatrice buried, and are reluctant spectators to her widower Giles’ deep distress. There is a terribly disfigured war hero son about as well. For a while I thought that was going somewhere, but it was a dead-end – he is merely part of the background colour. A mysterious funeral wreath appears, seen by Mrs. de Winter alone – the card is signed with dead(!) Rebecca’s signature initial. Oh my! What could this mean?! The note is hidden, but naturally not destroyed – and we know that it’s going to cause trouble later. (Cue foreboding music.)

Maxim is ready to head back to Europe, but Mrs. de Winter begs to stay in England for a while. He half-heartedly agrees, but pouts enough so that his wife starts viewing him with a certain distaste. After all, she has been a willing silent partner in his great deception, and has put up with his moody behaviour these past ten years. All she really wants to do is find a quiet corner in England, settle down and have a few babies.

Many pages pass. Eventually Maxim surprises his wife with the news that he has bought her a small country house. La la la – life is looking up! Mrs. de Winter sneaks away to London to inquire of a gynecologist why she’s not getting pregnant, which is kind of a strange little side story because I thought the implication in the original story was that Maxim chose to remain childless, so I’d assumed they were actively practising some sort of birth control. There were condoms in the 1940s, were there not? Well, according to Ms. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. de Winter were unable to have children due to bad luck, not from human preventative measures. The doctor tells the Mrs. that she’ll get pregnant once she learns to relax and be happy, and she is so thrilled by this she prances straight off home intending to break the good news.

But wait! Suddenly there appears on the scene the wicked Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin, who immediately announces his intention to blackmail Mrs. de W. With what I’m not quite sure. (My attention was wandering a fair bit at this point.) So much for less stress! Darn, no baby for you, Mrs. Maxim. (Yes, I’m being very facetious. I was strongly annoyed at the author by this point, and no longer enjoying the book in any way, shape or form.)

More pages about this and that. Shades of the Manderley costume ball in the original book – there is a party. Jack Favell shows up but is shot down. (Figuratively, not literally. Luckily for Jack, Maxim doesn’t have a firearm handy, as he did when Rebecca annoyed him severely in her turn.) Mrs. Danvers also shows up, but is coldly dismissed by Maxim. After the party, Maxim is all sad and angsty. “It is justice!” he moans, and proceeds to exit the scene and drive fatally into a tree.

The ashes are scattered, predictably, into the ocean off the coast of Manderley.

The book is gently put down, contrary to inner impulse. It is, after all, a library book, and we must return it in good condition.

Ick. Ick. Ick. Ick. Ick.

Why did I think this would be a desirable read?

Not recommended.

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