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Posts Tagged ‘women writers’

This was an impulse buy — I saw The Towers of Trebizond at my local independent bookstore and immediately thought I’d always intended to read it, so I should get it (it was a nice used copy, so I even felt virtuous about my purchase). Little did I know the devotion some readers, such as Joanna Trollope, feel towards this book and its author, Rose Macaulay. I am still reeling from the ending, which I read a couple of hours ago. I can see why this book might bear re-reading well, because I am so caught up in the end that I’m struggling to describe my overall feelings about it.

Essentially this novel is the story of Laurie, a young woman (Probably? I struggled to find any gender reference and Laurie can be male or female. The only indication I find is that when Vere, Laurie’s lover, comes to stay, her Aunt Dot’s servant Emily is not shocked, because Laurie’s sister is also at Aunt Dot’s house. Regardless, I think it doesn’t matter which gender Laurie is.) traveling with Aunt Dot, a woman in her fifties, and Father Chantry-Pigg, a recently retired Anglo Catholic priest. The trio are in Turkey in the fifites, where Aunt Dott and Father Pigg want to convert people to Anglicanism and bring attention to the plight of Turkish women (Aunt Dot’s special interest is the condition of women). They seem to be losing the opportunity to convert people because Billy Graham’s people precede them by a week or so as they travel.

Laurie is along to help Aunt Dot with a book she is working on. Most of the their circle of friends are working on some version of a book about traveling in Turkey, and Macaulay pokes gentle fun at this tendency of a certain class of British traveler to write about their journeys. At a certain point, Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear — I’ll leave the details for you to find out yourself — and Laurie is left with their gear and luggage and the camel Aunt Dot has brought along from England for the journey. (Again, would a young woman be left to travel alone? I’m not certain.)

So — eccentric British people, a lot of musing on and analysis of Anglicanism, subtle humor, exotic locales. So far, so good. But this book goes way beyond being a funny send-up of British travelers and missionaries. Laurie struggles deeply with “adultery” — Vere is Laurie’s lover, and Laurie refers to not wanting to give that up, but clearly feels it would be right to. Father Pigg seems to know of Laurie’s struggle, even counseling that a return to church would be a solution. So readers have an incomplete picture, but understand there is something forbidden about Laurie and Vere’s relationship.

As the book unfolds, Laurie thinks a great deal about faith, religion, and the state of each in the mid twentieth century. That part of the novel is interesting — Laurie is curious and well spoken about various Christian denominations, and learns more about Islam. There is a lot of reflection on why church and faith diverge and while claiming not to know much, is actually quite wise. Laurie tells a friend who thinks Christianity odd, “The light of the spirit, the light that has lighted every man who came into the world. What I mean is, it wasn’t only what happened in Palestine two thousand years ago, it wasn’t just local and temporal and personal, it’s the other kingdom, the courts of God, get into them however you can and stay in them if you can, only one can’t. But don’t worry me about the jewish Church in Palestine, or the doings of the Christian Church ever since, it’s mostly irrelevant to what matters.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one reply, and it sums up Laurie’s crisis — Christian faith is everything, but is at the same time beyond reach. Readers (at least this one) might pass this off as troubled youth (Laurie is young, although how young is also unclear) in a post-war world, where communism and baptists both draw off Church of England members, until the shattering end of this novel, when the enormity of Laurie’s struggle comes into focus.

I loved The Towers of Trebizond. It’s neither a quick nor a simple novel, and I suspect I’ll be mulling it over for some time.

 

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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I heard a piece recently on NPR about The Millstone. I have loved other books by Margaret Drabble, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby, so I sent off for The Millstone on inter-library loan. It’s wonderful. Like much of Drabble’s work, this novel explores the inner life of a woman, in this case a young woman working on her PhD in Elizabethan poetry named Rosamund Stacey. It’s 1960’s London, she’s living in her parents’ flat not far from Broadcasting House, home of the BBC, and it is in that neighborhood that she gets to know George, a BBC radio announcer. George believes Rosamund is having two affairs, when in fact she is dating two men she doesn’t really like all that much but not sleeping with either of them. In fact, she’s a virgin.

She really likes George, and after one brief evening together, she hopes to hear from him again, but he doesn’t call. Shortly thereafter she finds herself pregnant. She considers her options and decides against an abortion. But she also decides against contacting George, “I still could not believe that I was going to get through it without telling him, but I could not see that I was going to tell him either.”

The rest of the book is about Rosamund’s determination to continue her scholarly work, to keep teaching private students who are preparing for university entrance, to try to live as independently as she can and to have her child. The sections about baby Octavia’s birth and the first months of Rosamund’s motherhood are really lovely. Her self-examined life, and her thoughts on her friendships and family relationships, are lucid and observant.

There’s a scene where the baby is in the hospital, and Rosamund sets herself to the task of getting past the old-fashioned Matron who believes mothers shouldn’t be allowed to visit their children, that is delicious. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what she does and who she meets, but this portion of the book is emotionally complex, tender, funny, sharp, and thoroughly entertaining to boot. All the scenes at St. Andrew’s Hospital – before and after Octavia’s birth, focus a sharp lens on women in 1960’s London society. Even the minor characters in these scenes, as well as Rosamund’s friend Lydia who moves in and both complicates and simplifies her life, and other characters we meet only seldom, are fully realized. Rosamund’s parents, who appear only in a letter they write home and in Rosamund’s remembrances of how they raised her, feel like people the reader knows enough about to recognize them.

Drabble writes such beautiful prose. Here Rosamund is taking Octavia home after she’s been in the hospital, “The air was bright and clear, and as we drove past the formal determined structure of the Crescent, ever-demolished, ever-renewed, I suddenly thought that perhaps I could take it and survive.” In that one sentence, the outer and inner worlds intersect, Rosamund notes with perception and tenderness her own resilience, the reader has a sense of her growth as a character and her potential.

Lovely, clear, and without extra words. Drabble is one of my favorite writers and I’m really grateful to NPR for running that piece, which reminded me of how much I love her work.

 

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Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’m an Anglophile. I’ve loved English novels since childhood, and when I visited (Twice! Thanks, Mom & Dad) during the winter mini-term in college with a favorite English professor, it felt like all the literature I’d absorbed came alive as we traveled and talked about books.

But despite reading a lot of British literature, I still come across writers I haven’t yet read. Over the weekend I read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. Spark is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read. I picked up this book because Maria Popova at Brain Pickings quoted from the book in October in a post titled “How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity.”

Spark is considered one of the best British writers of the 20th century but her books are “slim” (according to her New York Times obit) and for some reason not widely taught, at least not in the United States. Perhaps because her sharp humor and her matter-of-fact illumination of moral issues is so subtle?

Anyway I’m glad to have finally read her. A Far Cry From Kensington features the indomitable Mrs. Hawkins, a smart book editor known for her good advice. She’s a loyal friend and no nonsense woman. In her postwar London boarding house, we meet her Irish landlady and a zany cast of neighbors, and in her various publishing jobs we see Mrs. Hawkins capably handling nutty bosses, fragile co-workers, and obnoxious authors. She’s kind and empathetic to those who are suffering and firmly critical of those who are mean or even evil. I adored her. And I want to go on and read more Spark.

Ruth Hamilton is a writer from Bolton in northern England, where Teen the Elder spent his gap year. I was using a “reader’s advisory” tool at the library called NovelList, helping a patron find books like one she’d just finished, when Parallel Life came up. I noticed it was set in Bolton and made a note to look for it later. Hamilton reminds me a bit of Maeve Binchy — this novel has a large and varied cast of characters, from different walks of life, facing issues straight out of the headlines.

The women in Hamilton’s novel stick together. When Lisa Compton-Milne ends an affair with a dicey alarms installer, his wife, Annie Nuttall, confronts her in a posh restaurant. A few pages later they are becoming friends, and by the end of the book Annie and her children are practically part of Lisa’s family. Harriet, twenty-one when the book opens and Lisa’s elder child, is holding her dysfunctional family together, and her grandmother, who has MS, rules over all of them from her attic suite. By the end of the book these two tough ladies have settled into new understandings and purpose as well.

I got a kick out of the strong women, the plot twists, and the setting, and this was a nice read over the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Some parts of the story were a bit repetitive, but overall it was interesting and kept me turning pages. For me the references to Bolton were especially interesting, since I recognized places my son had visited.

Next up I have books checked out by two American authors I’d been intending to read: Lauren Groff and Ben Ryder Howe.

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