Posts Tagged ‘Relationships’

the gilded ladder laura conway hebe elsna 001The Gilded Ladder by Laura Conway ~ 1945. This edition: Collins, 1970. Originally published under author’s name Hebe Elsna. Hardcover. ISBN: 00-233272-8. 159 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Found recently among my mother’s stored-away books was this mildly engaging relationship novel. (One can’t really slot it neatly into the romance category as it has larger ambitions, and the love affairs are off on the sidelines as compared to the niece-aunt partnership at the centre of the drama.)

It is just good enough to get a pass from me, though I doubt it will be high on the re-read list. A keeper, I think, though one for the bottom shelf. It pleasantly helped while away the time I spent in the orthodontist’s waiting room yesterday while my son was getting his braces tightened up a few more notches.

Young Lucy Erskine, ten years old in 1888 when this novel opens, is slightly in awe of her Aunt Madelon. Lucy’s mother is dead; her father’s new wife has produced two step-siblings, and Lucy feels rather out of things and appreciates the occasional attention she receives from her father’s rather glamorous unmarried sister who resides in a small suite of antique-furnished rooms in the Erskine family home.

Lucy has a small but genuine talent for music, both for playing the piano and for composing original little melodies, which Madelon notices and files away for future reference as a trait worthy of further encouragement. Madelon herself is fully occupied with hoisting herself up on the social scale – the “gilded ladder” of the title – and she gains each rung by strenuous though hidden exertions and more than a little single-minded plotting.

In Lucy’s tenth summer, all are agog at the upcoming marriage of Madelon’s old school chum, Lady Pamela, to a wealthy young man who cherishes an altruistic interest in slum projects. Lady Pamela hesitates at the thought of David’s plans to turn the major part of their prospective home into a convalescent hospital for ailing factory girls and as Pamela momentarily bobbles, Madelon slinks in and scoops away the fiancé. Marrying in haste, the two decamp on a honeymoon in France, but tragedy strikes and David is killed in a railway accident, leaving Madelon a devastated widow, albeit an exceedingly wealthy one.

Back then to the Erskine family home, where yet more tragedy has occurred, for Lucy’s father has suddenly died. Bereft Madelon, looking about for a new interest to assuage her grief, offers to give a home to young Lucy, and our story is off and running.

Madelon is truly fond of her niece, but can’t resist speculating about the possibilities of Lucy’s mild accomplishments as a minor musical prodigy to gain entry into noble drawing rooms. Tea for auntie, and a command performance from pretty little Lucy is the unspoken “deal” Madelon makes with her acquaintances in the social strata directly above her own, for Madelon’s new wealth, and, ironically, her past friendship with Lady Pamela, have given her a renewed taste for the joys of class climbing.

The novel wends on its way following Madelon’s steady social progress, and detailing Lucy’s growing awareness of her aunt’s manipulative ways, which Lucy starts to quietly confound when they touch upon herself. Lucy’s growing self-awareness and her rather clever provisioning for an life independent of her aunt’s control were rather admirable and renewed my interest in the plot, which had started to flag just a little.

This is a shortish novel, so things do keep moving at a respectable pace right up until the last chapter, where Lucy’s love affair, originally sabotaged by jealous Madelon’s manipulations, promises to finally come out all right. Madelon herself gets a brutally permanent comeuppance: she perishes rather dramatically just as she reaches the pinnacle of her social ambitions.

More irony here, for, as the author delicately informs us, Madelon’s bitterly hard-won ascent up the social scale is about to be rendered obsolete, as mere wealth alone is now becoming the golden ticket to social status. Madelon was born a generation too early; her long-sought-for prize is merely gilded base metal, and her tragedy is only appreciated by Lucy, who has loved her manipulative aunt for the good qualities of her personality, and by Lady Pamela, who has forgiven Madelon for the long-ago treachery of the stolen husband-to-be.

The writing is far from stellar, being rather pedestrian, more tell than show, full of awkwardly-written dialogue from the lower-class characters, and with the characters remaining at arm’s length from the reader. Despite the flaws, it was well-paced and just good enough to hold my interest, though as the climax of the story approached the strands of plot were increasingly predictable. No surprises there, but I have encountered much worse in some of the “bestsellers” of our present day (Rosemary Pilcher, your name springs to mind), and it was a mostly painless reading experience, though I cringed at the pat predictability of the last few pages.

Though The Gilded Ladder is decidedly a formula story, it is a well-polished one. A search of the internet to find out more about the author yielded little in the way of biographical insight, but it did produce some rather startling information.

Laura Conway was one of the pseudonyms of the terrifically prolific Dorothy Phoebe Ansle, who published, between 1928 and 1982, something like one hundred (!) popular novels under a variety of names, including Hebe Elsna, Vicky Lancaster and Lyndon Snow.

A long list appears on the Fantastic Fiction – Hebe Elsna web page, and the titles are surprisingly intriguing. Now I don’t recommend you rush out and acquire any of these. If The Gilded Ladder is a fair example of the author’s output then it is a very average sort of casual romantic fiction aimed at the housewife market (forgive my using that phrase – it’s not meant to be derogatory of actual housewives, of whom I myself am one, merely descriptive of a certain cliché) and certainly not “literary”.

But don’t some of these sound quite fascinating in an “Oops, I didn’t do the dishes as I was too wrapped up in my latest dime novel” sort of way?

What could This Clay Suburb concern? What is a Receipt for Hardness? Is it really true that Women Always Forgive? What happened The First Week of September? Are Marks Upon the Snow as sinister as they sound?

I sadly suspect that the titles may be the best part of many of these…

Child of Passion (1928) The Third Wife (1928) Sweeter Unpossessed (1929) Study of Sara (1930) We are the Pilgrims (1931) Upturned Palms (1933) Half Sisters (1934) Women Always Forgive (1934) Receipt for Hardness (1935) Uncertain Lover (1935) Crista Moon (1936) You Never Knew (1936) Brief Heroine (1937) People Are So Respectable (1937) Like Summer Brave (1938) Strait-Jacket (1938) This Clay Suburb (1938) The Wedding Took Place (1939) The First Week in September (1940) Everyone Loves Lorraine (1941) Lady Misjudged (1941) None Can Return (1942) Our Little Life (1942) See my Shining Palace (1942) No Fields of Amaranth (1943) Young and Broke (1943) The Happiest Year (1944) I Have Lived To-Day (1944) Echo from Afar (1945) The Gilded Ladder (1945) Cafeteria (1946) Clemency Page (1947) The Dream and the World (1947) All Visitors Ashore (1948) Midnight Matinee (1949) The Soul of Mary Olivane (1949) The Door Between (1950) No Shallow Stream (1950) Happy Birthday to You (1951) The Convert (1952) A Day of Grace (1952) Gail Talbot (1953) A Girl Disappears (1953) Catherine of Braganza (1954) Consider These Women (1954) A Shade of Darkness (1954) The Sweet Lost Years (1955) I Bequeath (1956) Strange Visitor (1956) The Marrying Kind (1957) My Dear Lady (1957) The Gay Unfortunate (1958) Mrs. Melbourne (1958) The Younger Miss Nightingale (1959) Marks Upon The Snow (1960) Time Is – Time Was (1960) The Little Goddess (1961) Lonely Dreamer (1961) Vicky (1961) Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1962) Take Pity Upon Youth (1962) A House Called Pleasance (1963) Minstrel’s Court (1963) Unwanted Wife (1963) Too Well Beloved (1964) The Undying Past (1964) The Brimming Cup (1965) The China Princess (1965) Saxon’s Folly (1966) The Queen’s Ward (1967) The Wise Virgin (1967) Gallant Lady (1968) Heir of Garlands (1968) The Abbot’s House (1969) Pursuit of Pleasure (1969) The Mask of Comedy (1970) Sing for Your Supper (1970) Take Heed of Loving Me (1970) The Love Match (1971) The King’s Bastard (1971) Prelude for Two Queens (1972) Elusive Crown (1973) Mary Olivane (1973) The Cherished Ones (1974) Eldest Daughter (1974) Distant Landscape (1975) Link in the Chain (1975) Cast a Long Shadow (1976) Family Duel (1979) Bid Time Return (1979) Long Years of Loving (1981) Red Headed Bastard (1981) Heiress Presumptive (1981) My Lover – The King (1982)

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the rosie project graeme simsionThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion ~ 2013. This edition: Harper Collins, 2013. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-44342-266-6. 329 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Aw, how sweet!

A charming beach read of a book which felt rather odd for a Canadian snow-filled January, but then I twigged that it was set in Melbourne, Australia (a reference to a character’s skimpy dress being perfect for “hot January evenings” making me sit up and pay attention) and it all fell into place.

An unusual narrator, university genetics professor Don, tells of his hyper-scheduled life, and how it all changed when he decided to locate a suitable life-partner by undertaking the questionnaire-based Wife Project in order to pre-screen likely prospects. A friend sets him up with a certain “Rosie” as something of a cruel joke; she fails the questionnaire on all counts, but even as he dismisses her from his list of potential partners, she interests him in a number of other ways.

Do I really need to go on? This book is completely stereotypical on so many counts, up to and including Don’s reinvention of himself to fit the presumed requirements of the woman he loves, and her teary-eyed insistence (after the fact) that the original him was the one she fell in love with.

Total chick flick stuff, and I thought all the way through what a perfect Hollywood romantic comedy this thing would be, which turned out to be the case – it was originally written as a screenplay. So no points for catching that.

But it works. It’s very funny, and cute and sweet and adorable and very happy-ending-ish. Also insubstantial as cotton candy, or perhaps one should say apricot ice cream – a bit zingy here and there, but ultimately mostly just sweet. Definitely not a real meal of a book, but a delectable dessert.

Many thanks to Claire at Captive Reader for recommending this; it was a whole lot of fun, and a perfect use of my Christmas bookstore gift card, and I know I will reread it when I need a bit of a pick-me-up.

I did a brief reconnaissance of other reviews, and among the many to choose from (several thousand on Goodreads, with a substantial number of high ratings) I found this one, by Ottawa writer Zachary Poole, which nicely reflected my own pros and cons regarding the story. I was quite impressed that we both rated it the same, 7/10, and my thoughts echoed Zachary’s to a T, though I must add the disclaimer that never once was I even marginally teary eyed!

Zachary Poole at Pop Matters Review – The Rosie Project

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incidents in the rue laugier anita brooknerIncidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner ~ 1995. This edition: Vintage Canada, 1997. Softcover. ISBN: 0-679-30840-7. 233 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

There is no denying that Anita Brookner is a smoothly accomplished writer, for if she wasn’t I suspect I would have quietly laid this novel aside partway through without regret. As it was I had to steadfastly avoid glancing at the many more-tempting books waiting for me on the Century of Books shelves, in order to maintain my focus on this increasingly monotone novel.

The opening chapter sets the stage. An orphaned female narrator (“my parents died years ago…”) muses on the characteristics of her mother which she has started to notice in herself:

My mother read a lot, sighed a lot, and went to bed early…

Maffy, daughter of French Maud and English Edward, goes on to set up the story. She has happened upon a notebook among her late mother’s effects. There are only a few cryptic phrases jotted on the first few pages, but Maffy is inspired by these to create a speculative biography of both of her parents’ lives.

It is a fabrication…one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.  This unrecorded story…is a gesture only, a gesture towards my mother…who told me nothing either of what happened or what failed to happen, and how she came to live with us, so far from home.

Maud grows up in genteel bourgeois poverty, living quietly with her widowed mother and waiting the days away, passively beautiful, awaiting her future without attempting to shape it in any way. This changes when Maud meets the predatory David Tyler, holidaying in France. The two have an affair, and Maud awakens to the possibilities of love just as Tyler has had his fill of her and moves on, dumping Maud on his friend Edward, who has been watching the proceedings with jealous eyes. Edward and Maud end up marrying, and move back to England, where Edward is engaged in resurrecting a musty second-hand book shop he has inherited from a family friend. Maud stays home, keeping their apartment pristine, cooking under-appreciated gourmet meals, and otherwise spending her days reading.

And then nothing else happens. Even the birth of a child nine years into the marriage only serves as a minor blip; Maud goes through a long episode of depression, but Edward provides a nurse who remains with the family for many years, allowing Maud to drift along not really taking much interest in anything, though we realize that she does indeed love her daughter in an undemonstrative way, and that she respects and feels affection for the more passionate Edward, who has never quite forgotten that David Tyler was Maud’s first and deepest love. Anything that Edward gets is very much second best; he is willing to take it but something deep inside rebels, surfacing in his last months of life in a passive-aggressive form of personal neglect which ends in his death.

Maud hangs on four more years, until she too turns her face to the wall and drifts undramatically away.

Maffy is left to ponder the meaning (or lack thereof) of her parents’ lives, and how her own personality has been shaped by her dual heritage.

The End.

Did I like this book?

Well, “like” is perhaps too strong a word in regard to this novel. And no, I didn’t exactly like it, but I did admire it, in a shuddering “Why am I reading this? I know this will leave me feeling completely apathetic” sort of way.

There were moments of strong feeling, but these were isolated and served to emphasize the bleakness of the majority of the characters’ lives. The mood of a sultry French summer in the early 1970s and Maud’s brief sexual awakening is perfectly portrayed, and contrasts severely with the ambitionless futility of the remainder of her life, and her passive submission to everything else which happens to her from the moment David Tyler walks away. (Though farther along she pulls herself together enough to reject his advances when they meet again, showing a kernel of unsuspected pride, which kept me on her side even as she offhandedly absorbed Edward’s love without really attempting to meet him half way; passive acceptance with no overt sign of repulsion doesn’t quite satisfy, as Edward bitterly reflects.)

A beautiful bit of writing, all in shades of muted blush and grey. But not a writer whose novels I could read over and over and back to back. After reading a Brookner one needs something with more vibrancy to shake one out of the enervating trance of hopelessness which immersion in this sort of thing brings on, at least in me.

While some of the novels by Anita Brookner I read this past summer – Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives – reminded me of Barbara Pym in their rather sly wittiness, Incidents in the Rue Laugier was really like nothing I’ve yet read. It reclines in Proustian solitude on its chaise lounge with the drapes drawn against the sun, so very all alone.

Some thoughful reviews:

Roses Over a Cottage Door – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Bibliolathas – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

Hilary Mantel’s New York Times Review – Incidents in the Rue Laugier

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north face mary renault 001North Face by Mary Renault ~ 1948. This edition: Longmans, 1949. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This is a little-discussed novel by the author who went on to become world renowned for her historical fiction centered on ancient Greece: The Bull From the Sea, The King Must Die, Fire From Heaven, et al. Before Mary Renault hit her stride with the ancients, she wrote a number of contemporary novels, all concerning the romantic relationships and struggles for self determination of the characters. Most featured hospital settings or nurses and doctors as characters, as the author drew on her own hospital and nursing experience for inspiration and to provide accurate detail.

North Face was Mary Renault’s fifth published novel, released in 1948 in North America (and a year later in England), just as Mary Renault was settling into a new life in South Africa, where she had moved with her partner Julie Mullard after winning a $150,000 prize from the American motion picture company MGM for her fourth novel, Return to Night. Renault was to write one more contemporary novel, the highly regarded The Charioteer (1953) before turning to ancient Greece for the inspiration of her future writing years.

The story opens in a boarding house in rural Devon, where two opinionated single women who are staying for their holidays are making each other’s acquaintance and finding each other rather unsympathetic. Miss Searle is an intellectual college don who travels with her weighty works of Chaucer, which she has been immersed in studying for the past decade. Miss Fisher is a nurse, with a hearty, rather “common” manner; she has a jolly appreciation of the realities of life, and finds Miss Searle’s fastidious air to be more than somewhat annoying.

World War II has just ended, and everyone we meet is still showing signs of the many years of emotional trauma they have experienced. Some have been wound up so tightly they are finding it difficult to return to some sort of new normal; society itself has taken a giant step sideways, leaving those slow to adapt floundering. Add to this the effects of personal tragedies, which are exacerbated by the effects of the war, and suddenly the tense atmosphere of every sort of social gathering is perfectly understandable.

The Misses Searle and Fisher unite in speculation regarding their fellow guests. They are most interested in the solitary Neil, who is abstracted and unapproachable, and spends his days trekking about the countryside with knapsack and detailed maps. A man with a secret, surely? Which is found to be true. Neil is a more than competent boys’ school teacher who has had a fairly uneventful war. Deemed an essential worker, most of it has been spent in his usual occupation, despite his attempts at joining active service. Finally he was accepted into a Service position, still in England, but far from home.

While Neil was otherwise occupied, his young wife discovered and was discovered by the young officers at the nearby American army camp; what started as innocent flirtation turned into a series of sexual liaisons. Neil had returned from his military posting to find that his wife was no longer interested in him in a sexual or emotional way. The dissolution of their marriage led to personal tragedy, as the couple’s young daughter, adored by Neil, is horribly injured in a fire while Neil is out and her mother is entertaining a soldier in her bedroom. The child dies, and on his return from her funeral, Neil is confronted by his wife’s demand for a divorce. She is pregnant by her latest lover, and wishes to start a new life with him post-haste.

Neil is therefore wandering about in Devon in a sort of trauma-induced trance, agonizing over what next to do, and if life is even worth living. In this state he bumps up against another troubled soul, the slender, virginal (literally) Ellen, who has just arrived at the guesthouse.

Ellen has also had an emotionally fraught time of things after the death of her fiancé, a fighter pilot, in the closing months of the war. He was a childhood first love; the two were brought up together as their mothers were step-sisters, and though Ellen was deeply attached to him, she was unable to bring herself to share his deeper passion. She feels that her rejection of his physical advances had hurt him so much that he had been careless while on his last mission; she holds herself responsible for his death, and has punished herself and sought to get over her frigidity by arranging a liaison with another man at the guest house. This falls through, as Ellen is unable to carry through with the physical aspect of the “fling”, and she too is wandering the countryside in something of a daze.

Neil and Ellen discover some shared interests, most notably rock climbing, and the theme of frail human pitted against cold stone and working out emotional issues through physical exertion runs through the novel. As Neil’s and Ellen’s romantic interests in each other grows, Miss Searle and Miss Fisher provide a sort of argumentative and gossiping Greek chorus to the progress of the affair, each putting her own interpretation on what is going on.

Much self-analysis and heart-rending ensues, before Neil and Ellen find comfort in each other’s arms.

A slightly unusual novel, and definitely of strong interest to the Mary Renault completest. I had no trouble at all reading this one through, though it was rather deeply seeped in gloomy psychological trauma and all sorts of Freudian situations, including a gypsy’s warning to Neil and Ellen to “stay away from high places”, which immediately led me to expect some sort of tragic ending, what with all the clambering about on cliffs. (Which didn’t materialize, much to my relief.)

Each of the two main protagonists finds at least some of the solution to their inner turmoil through the concentrated effort of working across a sheer rock face, though I was rather annoyed at the author for allowing Neil to get himself out of a desperate climbing situation while leaving Ellen stranded and requiring Neil’s aid, a metaphor which I felt was likely to represent their future life together.

Oh, and because it is Mary Renault, I am sure you are wondering about the gay/lesbian themes. Not much going on here, unless our intellectual and buttoned-up Miss Searle is a latent lesbian, but as she is quite obviously attracted to the masculinity of Neil, that one doesn’t really fly. Neil has had a close friend and climbing companion, Sammy, killed in the war, but how close a friend is never detailed and the relationship seems to be platonic from the hints dropped by Neil. Ellen thinks that she may be lesbian due to her frigidity towards her fiancé’s advances, but she allows herself to be wooed by a female friend and it doesn’t “take” so she crosses that possibility off the list. I think that’s about it, or at least all I can think of without re-reading with this sort of analysis in mind. 😉

Not in the same league as the best of this writer’s works, but most interesting in view of her future accomplishments. Next on my Mary Renault want-to-read list is The Charioteer, which is deemed to be the best of her contemporary fictions, along with the satirical The Friendly Young Ladies.

 

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Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.

the mistress of nothing kate pullingerThe Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger ~ 2009.

This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.

My rating:  6ish/10.  (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)

This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.

Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.

Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.

The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.

When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything  to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.

All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.

Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…

Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.

letter from peking pearl s buckLetter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.

This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.

My rating: 3/10

Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.

This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.

Here’s the gist of it.

An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)

Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.

Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was  put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)

Not one but two prospective suitors materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???! By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared.

Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.

By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.

miss pettigrew lives for a day winifred watson 001Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson~ 1938.

This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.

My rating: 8/10

What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.

Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.

Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.

That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!

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understood betsy dorothy canfield 001

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield ~ 1916. This edition: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964. Illustrated by Catherine Barnes. Hardcover. 213 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a charming juvenile novel written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher after she had become deeply interested in Maria Montessori’s innovative theories of child rearing and education while on a visit to Italy. The Montessori Method stressed self determination and self regulation in all aspects of a child’s life, and operated under the assumption that if given access to a suitable space with appropriate materials, tools, toys and books, a child would develop a high degree of self motivation and a natural sense of order.

Since Dorothy Canfield was already very involved in women’s rights and educational reform, the Montessori philosophy meshed well with her other interests, and Understood Betsy, which can be read simply as an amusing story, can also be interpreted as an enthusiastic promotion of allowing a child to self-educate and self-regulate, while under a benevolent hands-off adult mentorship.

Little Elizabeth Ann is orphaned at the tender age of six months, and is eagerly adopted by an aunt and great-aunt, Frances and Harriet. Younger Aunt Frances in particular becomes completely wrapped up in mothering the child, lavishing all of her vast reserves of unused adoration on Elizabeth Ann’s tiny person.

 As soon as the baby came there to live, Aunt Frances stopped reading novels and magazines, and re-read one book after another which told her how to bring up children. And she joined a Mothers’ Club which met once a week. And she took a correspondence course in mothercraft from a school in Chicago which teaches that business by mail. So you can see that by the time Elizabeth Ann was nine years old Aunt Frances must have known all that anybody can know about how to bring up children. And Elizabeth Ann got the benefit of it all.

She and her Aunt Frances were simply inseparable. Aunt Frances shared in all Elizabeth Ann’s doings and even in all her thoughts. She was especially anxious to share all the little girl’s thoughts, because she felt that the trouble with most children is that they are not understood, and she was determined that she would thoroughly understand Elizabeth Ann down to the bottom of her little mind. Aunt Frances (down in the bottom of her own mind) thought that her mother had never really understood her, and she meant to do better by Elizabeth Ann. She also loved the little girl with all her heart, and longed, above everything in the world, to protect her from all harm and to keep her happy and strong. and well.

Aunt Frances is well meaning, but her technique is more than questionable.

Aunt Frances was afraid of a great many things herself, and she knew how to sympathize with timidity. She was always quick to reassure the little girl with all her might and main whenever there was anything to fear. When they were out walking (Aunt Frances took her out for a walk up one block and down another every single day, no matter how tired the music lessons had made her), the aunt’s eyes were always on the alert to avoid anything which might frighten Elizabeth Ann. If a big dog trotted by, Aunt Frances always said, hastily: “There, there, dear! That’s a nice doggie, I’m sure. I don’t believe he ever bites little girls. … mercy! Elizabeth Ann, don’t go near him! … Here, darling, just get on the other side of Aunt Frances if he scares you so” (by that time Elizabeth Ann was always pretty well scared), “and perhaps we’d better just turn this corner and walk in the other direction.” If by any chance the dog went in that direction too, Aunt Frances became a prodigy of valiant protection, putting the shivering little girl behind her, threatening the animal with her umbrella, and saying in a trembling voice, “Go away, sir! Go away!”

Or if it thundered and lightened, Aunt Frances always dropped everything she might be doing and held Elizabeth Ann tightly in her arms until it was all over. And at night—Elizabeth Ann did not sleep very well—when the little girl woke up screaming with a bad dream, it was always dear Aunt Frances who came to her bedside, a warm wrapper over her nightgown so that she need not hurry back to her own room, a candle lighting up her tired, kind face. She always took the little girl into her thin arms and held her close against her thin breast. “Tell Aunt Frances all about your naughty dream, darling,” she would murmur, “so’s to get it off your mind!”

She had read in her books that you can tell a great deal about children’s inner lives by analyzing their dreams…

Well, as you  can see from this lengthy excerpt, Aunt Frances is well on her way to creating something of a monster, if timid, terrified, hapless Elizabeth Ann could be labelled with such a horrific term. But things are about to change.

Aunt Harriet takes ill; Aunt Frances must accompany her to a warm climate; there will be no time to spare for or a place to keep Elizabeth Ann. So off in haste she is sent to another branch of the family, efficiently turned away – so much fuss, having to suddenly take on an extra child! – and helter-skelter put on a train to remote Vermont, to be cared for by the country family connections at Putney Farm.

Now Elizabeth Ann is well aware that Aunts Harriet and Frances have always held the Putney relations in deep scorn – such common folk, with no understanding for children – and to think that they had originally wanted to adopt her!

But they (Aunt Harriet and Aunt Frances) thought that they chiefly desired to save dear Edward’s child from the other kin, especially from the Putney cousins, who had written down from their Vermont farm that they would be glad to take the little girl into their family. But “anything but the Putneys!” said Aunt Harriet, a great many times. They were related only by marriage to her, and she had her own opinion of them as a stiffnecked, cold-hearted, undemonstrative, and hard set of New Englanders. “I boarded near them one summer when you were a baby, Frances, and I shall never forget the way they were treating some children visiting there! … Oh, no, I don’t mean they abused them or beat them … but such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitiveness of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart … No, I shall never forget it! They had chores to do … as though they had been hired men!”

Aunt Harriet never meant to say any of this when Elizabeth Ann could hear, but the little girl’s ears were as sharp as little girls’ ears always are, and long before she was nine she knew all about the opinion Aunt Harriet had of the Putneys. She did not know, to be sure, what “chores” were, but she took it confidently from Aunt Harriet’s voice that they were something very, very dreadful.

Elizabeth Ann is about to find out what chores are all about.

Needless to say her transformation from wimpy Elizabeth Ann to sturdy, competent Betsy begins at once. She’s not even at the farmhouse yet before Uncle Henry takes her in hand, by giving her the reins of the team and letting her worry out the techniques of guiding the steady farm horses along the quiet road. I need not go into details, only to say that immediately upon arrival at the farm the child learns to dress herself, comb her own hair, cook, milk a cow, and become wonderfully useful to have about, rather than a “charge”. And there are kittens and maple sugaring time and tug-of-wars at her tiny one-room school, best friends and a trip to the fair all of the usual rural delights to go along with the endless round of chores which make up farm life. And then Aunt Frances shows up to collect her former charge…

A sweetly old-fashioned sort of tale, with the lessons very evident but very easy to swallow. Dorothy Canfield treats her readers as if they too are sensible souls, and complicit in the process of salvaging Betsy from her disastrous first nine years of life, while never outright condemning the well-meaning Frances.

There is a lot of quiet humour in this short tale, and it is not at all a chore for an adult to read. In fact, it is a very nice read-aloud, suitable for the younger set, I would think ages up to 9 or 10 or so. (Older children might find it a mite too mild, and the tone just a bit too old-fashioned.) Betsy is a likeable heroine and as we follow her story we rejoice in her happy transformation.

Readers of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s much more complex and serious adult novels may enjoy this quick side trip into childhood; a visit as crisply refreshing as its nostalgic Vermont country setting.

And here it is at Gutenberg, though it is very easy to find in book form, too, being almost continuously in print for the hundred or so years since its first publication.

Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield

The Putney clan - Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann - with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

The Putney clan – Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann – with Betsy, illustration by Ada C. Williamson, from the Gutenberg transcription.

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Three quick reads this past few days ran the gamut from slightly-gosh-awful to thoughtfully-affirmative to poignantly-hilarious. All are deeply imbued with sense of place. Light reading, all three, easy to pick up and put down, though I must confess I read each one straight through. Without further ado, here they are.

one happy moment dj louise riley 001One Happy Moment by Louise Riley ~ 1951.

This edition: Copp Clark, 1951. Hardcover. 212 pages.

My rating: 4.5/10

I’m glad to have read this obscure Canadian novel, for it made me stop and muse on what makes a style of writing either a hit or a miss with a reader. This one felt awkward to me, stylistically and plot-wise, and even its glowing portrayal of a landscape I have personally known well didn’t quite make up for the clunky prose and the rather cardboard characters. I opened it up prepared to enjoy it; I closed it no longer wondering why this was the author’s only adult novel, and why it (apparently) never made it past that first printing.

She lifted her arms and pulled off her grey felt hat, shaking her head like a young horse, freed from his bridle. She ran to the lakeshore and tossed the hat into the lake, laughing at it as it bobbed primly over the ripples. She tore off the jacket of the grey suit and hesitated about throwing it after the hat. Instead she ran back to her suitcase, snapped it open, and took out a pair of plaid pants and a yellow sweater. Taking a last quick look about her, she pulled down the zipper on her skirt and stepped out of it, kicking it aside. Quickly she unbuttoned her grey blouse and took it off, tossing it on top of the skirt. She pulled her slip over her head and, as she stooped to take off her shoes and stockings, the warm sun felt like a caress on her back. She pulled on yellow knitted socks and heavy shoes. When she was dressed in slacks and yellow sweater, with a scarlet handkerchief knotted around her throat, she pulled the pins out of her fair hair, shook it free, and tied it back with a yellow ribbon.

And in case you didn’t quite catch the symbolism, there’s more.

Into the suitcase Deborah shoved the clothes she had taken off, added a few rocks, hauled the suitcase to the shore, and tossed it into the lake. She watched it sink. Her hat had floated several yards away from the shore, and she waved good-bye to it. Then, slinging her rucksack onto her back, she looked for the path up the mountain side.

The young woman so anxious to dispose of her city clothes – and, by inference, her dull, grey, prim and proper former life – is one Deborah Blair, and she’s about to hike nine miles up a trail to a tourist camp somewhere between Lake Louise and Lake O’Hara, on the Alberta side of the Rocky Mountains.

Her first encounter with another person is an old man just up the trail; he pops out of the bush, startling her greatly, and then proceeds to tell her that he knows she is running away from something, and that she is like a young doe, “…frightened…by a hunter, maybe, out of danger now, taking time to be proud of her speed and to taste her freedom, but still wary, remembering her fright…”

But the mountains will give her sanctuary, he goes on to say, and Deborah parts from him, mulling over what he has said, rehearsing her new role in preparation for meeting her fellow guest camp residents.

These are a motley crew indeed. Evangeline Roseberry is her hostess, an uninhibited, provocative and sultry woman of a certain age. Young ranch hand Slim appears to be very close indeed to his employer, and when Slim is not in attendance the male guests are often to be found in “Vangie’s” cozy cabin. Middle-aged Dr. Thornton is holidaying without his wife and apparently finding his hostess a suitable substitute; downtrodden Mr. Nelson is at the beck and call of his own formidable wife, though he glances hopefully at Vangie’s lush charms when Mrs. Nelson’s focussed gaze is elsewhere, and teenage Sue Nelson cherishes a passion for handsome, red-haired, flashing-eyed yet taciturn geologist Ben Kerfoot. In the kitchen brusque Mrs. Horton reigns supreme, dispensing pithy criticisms to all and sundry along with the bacon and eggs.

Deborah gravitates toward avuncular Dr. Thornton, as nosy Mrs Nelson attempts to probe into “Mrs. Blair’s” past, which appears to be decidedly mysterious, especially when an RCMP officer appears asking questions about why a suitcase with the initials D.B. was found floating in the lake at the bottom of the trail. The plot thickens, with heaving bosoms and flashing eyes from the female contingent all round, and lusty glances and/or darkly passionate glares from the men.

One after another, the people from whom Deborah seeks to hide track her down to her mountain fastness, but she gains strength from the purity of the air and the pristine beauty of the surrounding peaks – not to mention Mrs. Horton’s hearty cooking – and stands up for herself at long last.

Though this novel started out promisingly enough, but ultimately didn’t take me where I hoped it would, and most of that was the fault of the writing, and the lack of a cohesive plot.

Deborah’s vaporings are overplayed, and her flip-flopping between men left me bemused. She is decidedly attracted to both Dr. Thornton and Ben-the-geologist, who in turn steal embraces from whichever woman is present and willing, and, when a manipulative cad from her past appears she mulls over throwing her lot in with his, before the mountain breezes blow some sense into her head. An über-controlling mother appears and is finally confounded, and Deborah prepares to set her sights on making her fortune in Vancouver, being as far away across the continent as she can get from her previous life as a meek librarian in Montreal.

The author was a Calgary librarian and storyteller, and her work with children resulted in the naming of a library branch after her in her native city; the wealthy Riley family was well-known for their philanthropy and social conscience, and Louise by all reports was a fervent advocate for childhood literacy.

Four of Louise Riley’s books were published between 1950 and 1960, the juveniles The Mystery Horse, Train for Tiger Lily, and A Spell at Scoggin’s Crossing, as well as her only adult book, One Happy Moment. Though Train for Tiger Lily received the  Canadian Library Association Children’s Book of the Year Award in 1954, a quick glance into my standard go-to children’s literature reference, Sheila Egoff’s Republic of Childhood, finds that perceptive literary critic dismissing Louise Riley’s juveniles as “insipid and contrived”, which I can sympathise with after reading One Happy Moment. Interesting though it may be in a vintage aspect, this is not in any way inspired writing.

Worth taking a look at is the commentary at Lily Oak Books , where I first heard of One Happy Moment. Lee-Anne’s review is well-considered and thoughtful, and she includes some gorgeous pictures.

My copy of the book is going on the probation shelf; I’ll share it with my mom and then decide if it gets to stay or go. The attractive dust jacket will likely tip the balance. As it arrived in fragile shape, I went ahead and put it into Brodart, and its vintage appeal might be too tempting for me to part with, though the words inside the book are not of the highest rank.

a big storm knocked it over laurie colwin 001A Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin ~ 1993.

This edition: Harper Collins, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-092546-9. 259 pages.

My rating: 7/10

Moving right along to the other side of the continent and New England, for this gentle yet slyly cunning novel about love and friendship and transcending unhappy childhoods. It’s also about the terrifying act of bringing a child into the world, and an ode to the possibility of happiness, and our right to seek such out in an often unhappy world.

Does that sound impossibly twee and gaggingly chick lit? Well, it isn’t. (Okay, maybe just the tiniest bit. But it’s easy to get past. I liked this book.)

One Happy Moment has a stellar cover and ho-hum contents; A Big Storm Knocked It Over has a dreadful cover and a well-written inside. Ironically, for the protagonist of Big Storm is a graphic designer employed in the book trade, the blandness of the exterior presentation would not normally have received a second glance from me but for my previous encounter with this author. The late Laurie Colwin – she died suddenly in 1992, before this book was published – was a much-loved columnist for Gourmet magazine and  a bestselling cookbook author, novelist and short story writer. Big Storm was her fifth and last novel.

My first acquaintance with her was some twenty years ago, through Goodbye Without Leaving, about a white ex-backup singer for a black pop band – the token “White Ronette” on the tour bus – and her life after music. I read it just after my son was born, and it struck very close to home; Colwin perfectly captured that “now what?” atmosphere of the ultimate personal change of new motherhood and walking away from your past you, and I was comforted by the parallels between her fictional world and my own. It was also very funny.

In Big Storm, Jane Louise has just married her live-in boyfriend Teddy, and is surprised to find that marriage does indeed change things, even if all that is different is a piece of paper and a ring. We are introduced to an ever-widening circle of co-workers, friends and family, and watch with only slightly bated breath as Jane and Teddy find their new groove.

The gist of the novel is that sometimes family is rotten bad, but that you can always choose your friends. And that babies are quite amazing. And yes, life is terrifying, but if you can find someone to love, who also loves you, it still isn’t all shiny sparkly perfect, but it helps.

I don’t know what else to say. It was good. Not great, but definitely good. And there was a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing from the countryside to the city, and a lot of emphasis is placed on where you’re from and ancestral homes and the clannishness of small New England towns, so I figure it counts in my vaguely themed geographical surroundings thing I’ve got going in this post.

Laurie Colwin was an interesting person and a more-than-just-good writer. I still feel sad when I think about her too-soon departure from our world.

mama makes up her mind bailey white 001Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living by Bailey White ~ 1993.

This edition: Addison Wesley, 1993. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-201-63295-o. 230 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10

The best is last, and what an unexpected book this turned out to be. I had picked it up along with a random selection of others at the Sally Ann one day, thinking it was a light novel suitable for dropping off with my mom for her entertainment, but not really intending to read it myself. (It reminded me of something by Fannie Flagg, from the title and the cover illustration and the blurbs about “absolute delight” and “like sitting on a porch swing.” Look away! my inner voice chirped, because I have to confess that Fannie Flag leaves me utterly cold, though Mom can handle her in well-spaced intervals.)

My husband was between books, picked it up off the stack by the door and chortled his way through it before pressing it on me. I sat down with it over dinner, and looked up two hours later after having read it through in one continuous session. Easy as picking daisies to prance through, this one was. And I must say a laugh or two escaped me as well.

This turned out to be a collection of short – some very short – anecdotes and vignettes, many centered on White’s mother, the “Mama” of the title, and others more concerned with Bailey White herself. They were originally presented on NPR in the United States, with the author reading her own pieces, but they work exceedingly well in print.

Bailey White was born in 1950 and still lives in her rural family home in Thomasville, Georgia. Until her mother’s death at the age of 80 in 1994, the two were close companions. Their joint adventures as  “a widow and a spinster” are the focus of some of these lively vignettes, but Bailey White’s scope is wide and she draws inspiration from a vast range of experiences. Bailey White worked as a Grade One teacher for over twenty years in the Thomasville school she herself attended as child, after returning to Georgia when her eleven-year-old California marriage ended in 1984.

Between the covers of this delectable smorgasbord of a book you will find tales of an antique spyglass, the best movie ever made (Midnight Cowboy, according to Mama), Road Kill (and how to decide if it’s edible), Pictures Not of Cows, an Armageddon of a storm and how prayer proved not all that useful, feral swans, an alligator which bellowed on cue, snakes lethal and benign, Great Big Spiders, the perfect wildflower meadow, how to travel unmolested by men (involving a maternity dress and a fake wedding ring), D.H. Lawrence as a life-saving substitute for The Holy Bible, and tales from the classroom.

And much, much more. Something like fifty little stories are stuffed into this book, and they are, without exception, quite excellent.

Apparently based on real people and incidents, there is likely a bit of embellishment to some of these; they have the well-polished feel of anecdotes often told, but that in no way lessens their deep charm.

Passionate, deeply revealing, kind, maliciously humorous – all of these can and do describe the author’s voice. Loved this.

And to think I almost missed it!

A great quick read for the bedside table, or to tuck into a pocket for a waiting room stint. Or to read at coffee break, or over a solitary lunch. Watch out for those spontaneous moments of glee, though. You might get some odd looks. (Or even get in trouble with your beverage.)

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