In Brief: Mixed feelings for new fiction

Here are four new or reprinted works of fiction that caught my eye in the first half of the year — each offering something of interest, but none of which quite captured my heart. I can imagine other readers having a different response, though. Have you read any of these? What did you think?

StargazersSister copyThe Stargazer’s Sister by Carrie Brown
After loving the nonfiction book The Age of Wonder, which included a section on astronomical pioneers William and Caroline Herschel, I was so excited to learn that there was a new historical novel coming out that was centered around Caroline. I ended up being slightly disappointed, but it probably had more to do with my expectations than with the book. While it was a beautifully written and moving account of a unjustly overlooked woman in science, I found being trapped in the limitations of her life somehow too confining, and wished for a wider angle on the time. I was also a little surprised when I learned from the Afterword that several important characters and incidents were made up; this went beyond what I would expect from authors who are trying to make their narratives fit reasonably into the historical record. However, if you aren’t hampered by my expectations, and not bothered by authorial inventions, you may well find this a compelling look at a fascinating corner of history and a remarkable woman.
• Pantheon, January

MadwomanUpstairsThe Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
This novel had so many elements that I love — the Brontes, Oxford, a literary treasure hunt — that I hoped it would be a sheer delight, yet it left me feeling slightly queasy. I think the main reason was the relationship between the narrator/protagonist, a kooky American named Samantha who’s supposedly the last living descendant of the Bronte family, and her hunky tutor who can’t seem to remember or stick to the rules about, er, intimate relations with students. Aside from this disturbing theme, their interactions didn’t ring true to me, and the pathologically isolated Samantha made some amusing remarks but was otherwise just too odd to relate to. The literary discussions scattered throughout the text were also frustrating in their emphasis on the assumption that everything in the Bronte novels must have actually happened: Rochester’s bed was set on fire by a madwoman, therefore one of the Bronte girls must be mad and have committed arson at Haworth, etc. This is simply silly and not something one would write papers about at Oxford.
• Touchstone, March

LightYearsThe Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
This is the first in the Cazalet Chronicles, a series of five books about an English family during the years surrounding the Second World War. The whole series has now been reissued in e-book form, and is being marketed to readers looking to fill the gap left by Downton Abbey. I haven’t seen that show, but I can imagine Howard’s work, with its large cast of characters and lovingly detailed descriptions of a bygone time, fitting neatly into that niche. I found myself feeling strangely distanced from the characters, though; they were treated almost journalistically rather than novelistically, and I watched their trials and tribulations from afar rather than feeling caught up in them. Worth a look, though, if you love family sagas or WWII historical novels.
• Open Road Media, April (originally 1990)

VersionsUsThe Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
There have been many books and films in recent years about the theme of exploring different options or paths in life (Sliding Doors, One Day, Life After Life) — kind of like “Choose Your Own Adventure” for grown-ups. Here’s yet another one, which presents three versions of how a couple might have gotten together, or not, been married or not, split up or stayed together or come together again. Eva is a writer, Jim a painter, and their careers also take wildly different trajectories in each version, and some unexpected twists and turns. Each chapter takes up a version, usually though not invariably in sequence (1 – 2 – 3), and usually giving three different snapshots of the same point in time in these different lives, before moving on some months or years, as the narrative unfolds from youth into old age.
There is no supernatural explanation, or suggestion that the Eva and Jim in each version know about the others; they are simply presented side by side like a triptych of the same subject with variations between the panels (a kind of painting that Jim does indeed create in one scenario). I enjoyed it, though not as rapturously as did the reviewers of the original UK edition. Following the versions was often quite confusing, with their sometimes minor differences that were easy to mix up. Though this was an interesting and well-executed concept, for me the fragmenting of the characters’ lives ultimately weakened their impact rather than multiplying it.
• Houghton Mifflin, May (original UK edition 2015)

Finished copies of The Light Years (e-book) and The Versions of Us (hardcover) were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

My First Georgette Heyer: False Colours

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (1963)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

FalseColoursAs with Terry Pratchett, I saw Georgette Heyer’s books on the shelf for years before I picked one up. I had her pegged as a “romance novelist,” and romance was not a genre I was particularly interested in. Wasn’t she one of those formulaic, swoony writers like Barbara Cartland? So I passed her by, until who knows what whim prompted me to take home one of her books from the library and start reading.

Well, that book, False Colours, had me hooked from page one, with its witty banter, well-realized period setting, intelligent, likeable central couple, and screwball-comedy-style plot. It starts when Kit Fancot, returning home from the Napoleonic wars to his mother’s London townhouse, learns that his twin brother Evelyn is missing on the eve of an important appointment … for which the twins’ mother begs Kit to stand in for Evelyn for just one day … which stretches into weeks, during which the masquerade becomes more and more difficult, particularly as he finds himself falling for Cressy, his brother’s potential bride …

Yes, this is a Regency romance; Heyer basically invented the genre, and she practiced it in a way that many have tried to imitate, but few have bettered. Her Regency is not the lived one of Jane Austen, but a constructed universe that is slightly unreal, a bit too technicolor. Her period slang is genuine, but nobody would really run it all together in one speech the way her characters do. Her female characters, while behaving with a thorough understanding of the proprieties of the time, have a slyly modern side that allows them much more knowledge of certain “unmentionables” than was probably the case. And no writer of Austen’s era would spend so much time on descriptions of clothing, especially masculine fashions.

Heyer had an exhaustive knowledge of Regency styles for both men and women, some of which are represented in this period fashion plate.

But such alterations are clearly not the result of sloppy research and careless writing (which sometimes drive me mad when I try to read other Regencies). It was Heyer’s choice to consciously craft this fictional world, full of details from a time she clearly loved and knew much about, but with an internal coherence and logic all its own. She did it brilliantly, and most importantly she used it to tell wonderful stories about people who come to life on the page, so that we care about them and want them to find happiness with each other.

I was enchanted by this world, and by Kit and Cressy and all their friends and relatives. Most notable in this particular book are the twins’ flighty mother, who seems to be modeled on the Duchess of Devonshire, and her portly suitor Bonamy Ripple. Heyer uses them to poke fun at some of the excesses of the era, but her humor is more light-hearted than coldly satirical. We want this unlikely couple to find happiness too, even as we laugh at them.

After my first Heyer, I went on to read as many others as I could get my hands on. Not a one-note writer, she wrote with astonishing flair and facility in a variety of genres and historical settings. Quite a few of her other novels are better than False Colours, which has too much talk and too little action, and suffers from Cressy not being given enough to do (aside from a memorable scene in which she puts paid to the blackmailing mother of one of Evelyn’s paramours). It’s when Heyer’s heroines really get to shine, as in The Talisman Ring or Friday’s Child or Cotillion, that her books are at their best, I think. But every one has pleasures of its own, and if you haven’t yet discovered them for yourself, I hope you will soon.

Thanks to First Impressions Reviews for inspiring me to write this post for her Georgette Heyer blog hop! Please visit the other posts for more about this author and her marvelous books.


Elizabeth Goudge Day Wrap-up

EGButton2016_edited-1Thank you to all who joined me in celebrating Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday last Sunday, April 24. Whether you read a book in her honor, posted your own review, or just enjoyed the contributions of others, I’m so glad we got to take this day to celebrate an author who has fallen out of fashion, but still has much to offer. On that topic, I’d like to point you toward an excellent article, Elizabeth Goudge: Glimpsing the Liminal by Kari Sperring, which appeared in Strange Horizons back in February. It does a fine job of describing what makes Goudge’s novels so special for many of us. (Thank you to Terri Windling for pointing me to it — and to Helen and Lark for pointing me to Terri’s blog post about Elizabeth Goudge, which was another lovely discovery this week.)

Here are the links I’ve gathered; if I’m missing anything, please let me know. And mark your calendars for next year!

I wrote about The Rosemary Tree:

Old wrongs are brought to light and their pain dispelled, relationships are created and strengthened, and new resolutions for reconciliation and healing are made. Some might find such a tale lacking in bite and conflict, and the solutions Goudge offers too simplistic — but they have hidden depths.

Jane of Beyond Eden Rock also chose The Rosemary Tree:

‘The Rosemary Tree’ is a quiet, slow book, but it speaks profoundly. The spirituality threaded through it may feel old-fashioned or odd to some, but  I think that Elizabeth Goudge is simply addressing the same concerns that might today be addressed in the language of psychology or social concern in a very different language.

GreenDolphinJean of Howling Frog Books ventured into the land of Green Dolphin Street:

Goudge was really quite a genius at taking a hackneyed old plot like “two sisters in love with the same man” and turning it into something unexpected, fresh, and redemptive.

And so did Kelsey of Kelsey’s Notebook, preferring the original title of Green Dolphin Country:

Most books are add-ons to life: you read them and they capture your surface attention, but you’re always conscious of your real life. Green Dolphin Street: not so for me. It became a part of my life while I was reading it, and now that I’m finished, I miss it. I feel like I do when I return home from a great trip.

Helen of She Reads Novels enjoyed The White Witch:

What I loved most about this book were the details of daily village life in the seventeenth century, the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside, and the undercurrents of magic, mystery and mythology which run throughout the story.

Lark of The Bookwyrm’s Hoard loved revisiting The Blue Hills (aka Henrietta’s House), and is still working on her review. I’ll link it here when it’s finished!

ValleySong2Helen of A Gallimaufry felt lucky to find The Valley of Song:

The Valley of Song is just so wonderfully beautiful and so perfectly described, with a sensitivity to inner as well as outer beauty. I would like to quote chunks of it at you all day.

And thanks to a comment from Helen I learned that Terri Windling had written about Elizabeth Goudge: A Sense of Otherness a few days earlier from her Dartmoor studio. She includes beautiful pictures of the area along with quotes from Goudge’s autobiography, The Joy of the Snow, and from Sperring’s essay. I hope you’ll stop by her lovely blog.

Finally, congratulations to the winner of the giveaway, Valentine! She chose to receive Green Dolphin Street from Hendrickson Books, our generous sponsor. They’ve just added Island Magic to their list of Goudge reprints, bringing the total to ten. Whether you take advantage of these, or find them and more at the public library, or hunt down copies in used bookstores or online, I hope you will read something by Elizabeth Goudge over the coming year and join us again on April 24, 2017.

Elizabeth Goudge Day: The Rosemary Tree


Elizabeth Goudge was born on this day in 1900, and went on to write many beloved novels that are still read today. In her honor I’ve invited anyone who is so inclined to read and post about one of her books. You’ll find my review below, and I’ll be posting a round-up in a few days. Drop me a line in the comments if you’d like to be included.

In the meantime, be sure to enter the Elizabeth Goudge giveaway, generously sponsored by Hendrickson Publishers — a chance to win your choice of one of their new paperback Goudge reprints. Just click on the link for details.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Rosemary Tree (1956)

RosemaryTreeIt was odd how they had been drawn together like this, their lives intertwined to their immense happiness and advantage, all in a few weeks of this unusually lovely spring. Did rhythmic times of fresh growth come in the lives of men and women, as in the world of nature? And did one growth help another, as birds build their nests where the new leaves will hide them? What was the motive power behind it all?

As this passage from near the end of The Rosemary Tree suggests, you’ll find in its pages a warm, hopeful story about how a group of people are brought together, seemingly by chance, for a brief but intense period of transformation, change, learning, and growth. The story takes place in Devon, in the postwar world of the middle of the last century, in one of those lovely villages complete with church and manor house that are so marvelous to visit through Goudge’s work. It centers around the vicar, John Wentworth, his wife Daphne, and their three young daughters.

John is by rights the lord of the manor, but in typical self-effacing fashion he’s relinquished it to the great-aunt who has lived there all her life and loves it more than life itself. Daphne, impatient with John’s clumsy goodness, wishes he would take it back and sell it to improve their finances; too fastidious to send their children to the village school, she’s chosen a private school for them that is in fact much worse. John and Daphne are sadly unaware that one of the teachers is bullying their most vulnerable child, and remain caught in patterns of misunderstanding and blame within their marriage, until a stranger comes to town and things begin to move…

Old wrongs are brought to light and their pain dispelled, relationships are created and strengthened, and new resolutions for reconciliation and healing are made. Some might find such a tale lacking in bite and conflict, and the solutions Goudge offers too simplistic — but they have hidden depths. Is it really possible just to decide to love someone instead of hating them? If so, it’s not as easy as it may sound, and might be the most important thing we are able to do as human beings. As we come to know and sympathize with Goudge’s characters, we take on their struggles as our own, and we have the chance to learn along with them. Maybe we do have the choice to be the good we want to see in the world. The rosemary tree, symbol of memory, stands at the center of a story that’s about remembering who we really are.

Rosemary for remembrance. Source

“What was the motive power behind it all?” is a question that resounds throughout the book, and Goudge clearly believes in a divine power: the creative Word that mysteriously manifests itself in our human struggles and sufferings. This is one of her more overtly religious books, with much musing and discussion on themes of prayer, sin, and repentance, and if you find such language and ideas bothersome, this book may not be for you. But as usual with Goudge’s writing, I don’t find that she’s espousing a rigid system of morality and passing judgment on those who fall short. Rather, she wants to tell about how people experience the brokenness and emptiness of life without love, and how they move toward healing, the wholeness that is the real meaning of “holiness.”

Goudge does provide a rather startling example of the refusal of such healing in the character of Mrs. Belling, the owner of that dreadful school. Frozen by fear, unable to turn aside from her own inward selfishness and cruelty, she comes to a horrible end that is really only witnessed by us, the readers — for she has deliberately cut herself off from all other people, and thus from the divine mercy. If we have the choice to move toward good, we also have the choice to fall into evil, and Mrs. Belling is a chilling portrait of the fruits of that choice.

On the other end of the spectrum we have the endearingly fallible, imperfect characters who learn that loving one another, though not always simple or easy, really is the only way to wholeness. Chief among these for me was the vicar, John, a chronic bumbler who considers himself a failure, but whose humility and kindness shine more brightly than he himself realizes. I also especially enjoyed his housekeeper Harriet and his great-aunt Maria, two of those wonderful elder women full of life’s wisdom that Goudge draws so well. And of course there is the house, Belmaray, a character in its own right and a lovely place to spend some reading time.

I’m not sure this will become one of my favorites — the story was occasionally bogged down by the religious meditations that, while beautiful, sometimes seemed to belong to another kind of book, as well as by too much “telling” of the characters’ history and motivations. I find these elements more gracefully woven together with the narrative in some of Goudge’s other books, notably The Dean’s Watch, which she wrote just four years later. But I am certainly glad that I finally read it, and its message of hope and healing will remain with me for a long time.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Of Islands and Idylls: Two by Elizabeth Goudge

Elizabeth Goudge, Green Dolphin Street (1944)
Elizabeth Goudge, The Child from the Sea (1970)

GreenDolphinAs regular readers of this blog will be aware, I’m a longtime fan of Elizabeth Goudge, whose books have accompanied me from childhood into middle age with unabated pleasure. I realize she’s not to everyone’s taste, with her strong religious themes and sometimes swoopily romantic prose, and I’m sure she’d be the first to admit she’s not a perfect writer. What I appreciate about her is the honesty of her writing; I never have the feeling that she’s playing for effect or trying to bamboozle her readers. When her characters are people of faith, it is because it is an inseparable part of their being, one that is explored in complex and sensitive ways. When they are rogues and villains, they receive the same treatment. In fact, it is the depth and richness of human moral experience that Goudge attempts to bring to us in her stories — sometimes more successfully than others, colored by her own preferences and predilections, but always, I believe, with pure intent. And when she succeeds, she can make fictional places and people real for us in an unforgettable way.

The two most recent reissues of Goudge’s novels from Hendrickson Publishers give ample opportunity to experience these qualities: Green Dolphin Street, the breakthrough book of her early writing career, and The Child from the Sea, her final novel. Both are chunksters, weighing in at around 600 pages each, and will appeal primarily to readers who like to settle into a lengthy historical saga, with characters who grow up from childhood to old age and plenty of scenic description. For me, they proved to be just what I wanted to curl up with during some long winter evenings, and gave me many hours of enjoyment.

Having read Island Magic last year for Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week, I was eager for more about the magical Channel Islands, and Green Dolphin Street did not disappoint. Though the beginning is a bit slow, once I got past the description of the girls confined to their backboards I was swiftly caught up in the story of a 19th century family with two very different daughters in love with the same man. When the story departs for New Zealand, Goudge is not on such firm ground (never having actually been there), but her embarrassingly dated depiction of the Maori aside, she still creates a compelling and vivid narrative that is convincing in its essence if not in every detail.

With plentiful earthquakes, shipwrecks, fortunes won and lost, and other outer tempests to complement the stormy inner lives of its characters, one can see why this book was chosen as the winner in an MGM film contest — the event that gave Goudge a much-needed boost in name recognition, even if most of the prize money was eaten up by taxes. I find it a pity, though, that the film and the American edition of the book changed the original British title, Green Dolphin Country, which is a more appropriate and evocative name than the prosaic “Street.” The novel is largely about our search for our true spiritual home, and “Green Dolphin Country” is the phrase some of the characters use to describe and tell stories about that elusive land. “Green Dolphin Street,” in comparison, is just a place to be found in their real island home — a lovely and charming place, to be sure, but the book wants to give us something more.

I’ve purposely said little about the plot here, which turns on a strange-but-true incident from Goudge’s own family history, because it’s well documented elsewhere, and also because I’d like you to have the pleasure of discovering it for yourself. Do see if you can get through the first chapter or two, and if you fall in love with the Patourel family as I did, you won’t want to stop reading.

ChildSeaWhen I turned to The Child from the Sea, the pull of the story was not quite so strong, and I read it in a more leisurely, on-and-off way. Here, rather than taking a thread of fact and spinning a story out of her imagination, Goudge works with known historical events and tries to cast them in a different light than is usually given them. The central character is Lucy Walter, mistress to Charles II during his exile, later claimed by some to be his wife, and thus mother to a legitimate firstborn son. Lucy’s reputation as it has come down to us is quite dreadful, but after Goudge visited Lucy’s birthplace, Roch Castle in Pembrokeshire, and read a book that suggested she might have been maligned unfairly by her enemies, she became fascinated by the subject and wrote this lengthy novel in defense of Lucy.

The first section, which is basically pure invention — almost nothing is known about Lucy’s childhood — gives a wonderfully vivid picture of seventeenth-century life and of Lucy as a half-wild, fiercely independent but warm-hearted child. She is torn by the separation of her parents, who are engaged in a bitter divorce and custody battle, and in dire need of love and security amidst the first rumblings of the English Civil War. It’s during this time that she meets the young Charles, who is nearly of an age with her, and forms an instant semi-mystical bond that leads to the fateful secret marriage.

The later sections of the novel, dealing with this event and its aftermath, were not so convincing to me. The bond forged in childhood (for which there is no historical evidence) must have been powerful indeed for Charles to travel across the country in the middle of a civil war and marry a girl with absolutely nothing to bring him in terms of political advantage. In maintaining her romantic picture of Lucy, Goudge increasingly has to strain for explanations to fit with the facts, such as why she was known as “Mrs. Barlow,” and how she could have a child with another man while still considering herself a devoted and faithful wife. (Yes, I know the double standard that allowed Charles to have as many mistresses as he wanted was terribly unfair, but such were the mores of the time.)

Putting these objections to one side, though, there is much that is moving and true in the tragic story. I was left with sadness for the fate of Lucy-who-might-have-been, and for the young king whose radiance was dimmed by conflict and betrayal. But as Goudge herself describes it, the theme of this final novel is forgiveness, that power which transforms our errors in the light of love — and so its sadness still bears something of beauty within it.

If either of these titles sounds like something you might enjoy, the perfect occasion would be Elizabeth Goudge’s birthday, which I plan to celebrate on April 24. I hope you will join us to share your thoughts on these, or any others of this wonderful author’s books that you care to sample; you can find a list here along with links to posts from last year’s EG Reading Week. Thanks again to Hendrickson for bringing these back into print, and for giving me the opportunity to share them with you. Others to look forward to in the coming months are Island Magic (Goudge’s first novel, set in the Channel Islands) and The White Witch (her other novel set during the Civil War).



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New Release Review: Nelly Dean

Alison Case, Nelly Dean (2016)

NellyDeanUpon rereading Wuthering Heights last year, I finally realized what a major role Nelly Dean — the servant who tells most of the story-within-a-story to hapless outsider Mr. Lockwood — plays in that novel. Far from being a passive observer of events, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations to suit her own idea of what is right. Is her version of what happened at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange even true? What other facts might she be keeping back from us? What would we learn if she were asked to tell her own story?

In Nelly Dean, first-time novelist Alison Case gives Nelly another chance to speak, this time focusing on her own life and experiences. Her narrative overlaps mainly with the first quarter of Emily Bronte’s novel, up until Nelly is forced to move from the Heights to Thrushcross Grange. She fleshes out several scenes that only take up a sentence or two in the original, and fills in much of the background story that was barely hinted at or not present at all. She also rearranges events and casts characters in a different light, but since we already know Nelly is an unreliable narrator, this does not come as a complete surprise. What emerges is a moving portrait of a woman caught between conflicting loyalties, trying to find the meaning of love and family within a setting that has distorted both almost beyond recognition.

But how does it measure up to the towering classic that inspired it? While in its writing style it successfully evokes the period without slavishly imitating the original, the tone overall is much gentler and softer. It even includes some humorous passages, which some readers may find a welcome change from the bleakness of Bronte’s novel, but which brings in quite a different mood. Heathcliff in particular, who stays on the periphery of the story, does not appear as the psychopath Bronte created, and Nelly has a more sympathetic attitude toward him than in the story she originally told Mr. Lockwood. Indeed all the characters, including Nelly herself, are more likeable, more easily comprehensible than Bronte’s people, who often seem more like forces of nature than human beings.

For these reasons, even though I very much enjoyed Nelly’s story as a novel in itself, I didn’t find it quite worked as a convincing extension of Wuthering Heights, which remains an astonishing singularity in fiction. At the same time, I’m not sure it would work as a standalone either, as it frequently refers to the plot of the earlier novel, without going into detail. The drawback is that readers who are looking for a repeat of the passion and drama of Wuthering Heights will not find it here, and may be disappointed.

If you can accept it on its own terms, though, you might be absorbed by this version of Nelly’s story as I was. The characters touched my heart, the story drew me in, and the language was unobtrusively artful. I’m very much looking forward to whatever Alison Case writes next, and I hope it’s going to be a true original this time. She has some wonderful tales to tell.



Reading New England: Fiction

Reading New England


Welcome to the second month of the Reading New England Challenge! This month I’m focusing on fiction, a very broad category indeed. Out of the abundance of classic, contemporary, historical, and literary fiction produced about the region, readers should be able to find something to suit their tastes, whatever those may be.

From the New England Book List I’ve selected one title that interests me from each state. I doubt that I’ll get to all of these this month, but it gives me a good set of options.


New Hampshire: A Prayer for Owen Meany

I just finished this 600-page saga of two boys growing up in a New Hampshire town (based on Exeter), and coming of age in the Vietnam era. It was my first John Irving novel and at first I found his digressive style a bit difficult to get into, but it grew on me. And now I finally know what that armadillo on the cover is all about.

Maine: Olive Kitteridge

I’ve heard great things about Elizabeth Strout’s writing, so this will be a high priority for me. And I just received a copy thanks to a giveaway at The Book Stop! Perfect timing.

Vermont: The Inn at Lake Devine

A romantic comedy by Elinor Lipman — with a serious strain about anti-Semitism —  could be just the thing to liven up dull winter days.

Massachusetts: The Wolves of Andover

I received this in a book swap last year and this would be a great time to finally read it. This historical novel by Kathleen Kent draws on the ever-popular theme of the Salem witch trials.

WitchesEastwickRhode Island: The Witches of Eastwick

Keeping with the witchy theme, this black comedy/fantasy set in a seaside town sounds like a lot of fun. I really ought to read something by John Updike at some point, too.

Connecticut: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

I have this on my list for the Back to the Classics Challenge, so this would be a good time to knock it off.

A few other New England novels I’d really like to read:

  • The Country of the Pointed Firs (Maine)
  • Midwives (Vermont)
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham (Massachusetts)
  • I Know This Much Is True (Connecticut)


What’s on your list? Any other recommendations?

In Brief: Three from the Theatre

As I was in search of light reading over the holidays, I grabbed a few random books off my shelf that turned out to share a common theatrical theme. I’m always fascinated by backstage stories, and for a few days it was a pleasure to get to vicariously share in the thrill of putting on a show. Though uneven in their quality, each of these books has something to offer for those of us who are enticed by “the swish of the curtain.”


The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
None of Smith’s other adult novels quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, but they offer certain pleasures of their own. In this one, narrator Mouse (we never learn her real name) is prompted by a reunion with old friends to reminisce about how she met them. Her brashly naive attempts to break into the London theatre of the twenties — undeterred by a total lack of talent — give us a priceless glimpse into that bygone era, of which Smith had ample knowledge through her career as an unsuccessful actress and successful playwright. It’s when the plot veers from theatre to romance that things go awry, and Mouse’s naivete begins to pall; I wished she would mature through her experiences, but it became evident that even forty years later she never had. With a different ending this could have been a gem, but even with its flaws it’s worth a look.
• Corsair, 2012 (originally 1965)


The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown
This book about seven theatre-mad English children who start their own company and put on elaborate shows sounded like more fun than it was to actually read. Somehow it had escaped me that the author — who went on to write several sequels and other books — was only a teenager when this was first written, and it definitely shows in the flat style and cardboard characters. There’s very little plot structure, conflict, or tension; the children effortlessly and somewhat incredibly produce everything from original musical comedies to contemporary drama to Shakespeare, fiercely opposed by their cartoon-ogre parents but triumphing (of course) in the end. Noel Streatfeild did this sort of thing much better, so I’m not sure how much effort I’ll make to seek out Brown’s other writings. An interesting if immature curiosity.
• Hodder, 1998 (Originally 1941, revised 1971)

UnderfootShowUnderfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff
Now for one that didn’t disappoint: After recently rereading 84, Charing Cross Road I was curious to look again at Helene Hanff’s earlier memoir and see if it was as good as I remembered. It certainly was, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who is interested in a humorous take on Broadway history, the New York literary scene, summer stock, artists’ colonies, or even early television; Hanff gives us her sideline impressions of all of them, from the time when she was trying to make it as a playwright but having to earn a living in multiple other ways. You’ll cheer for her even as you know her efforts are doomed to failure; she’s so funny and unpretentious you can’t help but adore her.
• Harper and Row, 1962

Margery Sharp Day: The Gipsy in the Parlour

Margery Sharp, The Gipsy in the Parlour (1953)

GipsyHooray, it’s Margery Sharp Day! This event, formerly hosted at Fleur in Her World and now at Beyond Eden Rock, introduced me to a delightful but sadly overlooked author of the mid-twentieth century. I’m glad that Jane is once more celebrating Margery Sharp’s birthday by offering this opportunity for us to read her books and share our reviews.

My library, sadly does not have ANY of Sharp’s adult books, but I was able to track down a not-too-garbled e-book of The Gipsy in the Parlour through Open Library. The title, cover, and Victorian setting of this one intrigued me, and I was not disappointed. It was another humorous, breezy read that yet had a serious side in its closely observed characters and emotional insight.

At the beginning we’re introduced to the magnificent Sylvesters, a salt-of-the-earth family of Devonshire farmers and their formidable women who are waiting for a fourth bride to be brought to their home. Also present is our unnamed narrator, a child relation who is there from the city on one of her much-cherished holidays. It’s through her perspective that we see the ensuing events, and Sharp skillfully manages to convey her naively mistaken impressions, though the more jaded eye of adulthood gradually comes to a different interpretation.

As the bride Fanny becomes the “gipsy in the parlour,” putting off her marriage to go into a dramatic decline, and the narrator becomes her “little friend” and ally, the parallel phrase of “cuckoo in the nest” comes to mind. How the parasitical Fanny is eventually dislodged makes for a slyly comical story with a host of marvelous characters. I especially adored the quietly heroic Charlotte, oldest of the Sylvester wives, but you’ll have a wonderful time with all of them.

I also loved how Sharp artfully renders the Devonshire speech patterns without resorting to impenetrable dialect transcription. If you’re doing the Reading England challenge, be sure to consider this one for Devon.

It’s a brief novel that left me certainly wanting to read more Margery Sharp. And so I’m off on the hunt again…and looking forward to seeing what other readers have found this year.


Reading New England: A Separate Peace

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.



Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20