Modern Lit: Our Picnics in the Sun, by Morag Joss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our Picnics in the Sun is a quiet, deeply introspective book, one which, for the first half, creates the impression that it is little more than a slice of life tale. The focus is the life that Howard and Deborah Morgan have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to build for themselves by living in tune with nature in a tumbledown cottage on Exmoor, aptly called Stoneyridge.  Their son Adam, now grown, rejected his parents’ philosophies, and decamped as soon as possible for a job that could provide him with all that was missing from his childhood. A picture of this family’s strained relationship is related alternately by husband, wife, and son. Howard emerges as a virtual dictator with iron clad ideals, and Deborah as his often unwilling minion. They are as poor now as when they so hopefully set off on their life together so many years ago.

Then, while practicing yoga in the pig shed, Howard suffers a stroke. He survives, and Deborah is left to care for him alone. While this gives her somewhat more autonomy, the couple is more poverty stricken than ever, and she can’t possible manage the house, chickens and sheep along with her patient, who can speak only with halting difficulty. From this point forward, the novel turn from prosaic to masterful. The depiction of Deborah’s struggles as caretaker is brilliant, restrained yet so vivid that the reader can feel what she’s feeling. When Adam fails to return home for a long awaited birthday celebration, her anguish is palpable. This may be one of the most effective evocation of loneliness ever written. Rescue comes in the form of a visitor,  a young man by the name of Theo, whose neediness is immediately evident to Deborah and provides an outlet for her frustrated maternal urges.

As the second half unfolds, there is a growing sense of isolation and a vague sort of menace. The moors, upon which the eponymous picnics took place, are a splendid metaphor for the reality of the Morgans’ existence. Suspense builds, although there are no overt threats of any kind. But Deborah, encouraged by Theo, begins to question all the choices she has made. The memories that she recounts are striking, especially the one she most painfully regrets. Perhaps the novel’s conclusion shouldn’t be so startling, but I never saw it coming.

Its darker overtones notwithstanding, Our Picnics in the Sun is  lovely and memorable, lyrical in many places and dramatic. It will linger in my mind for a long time.

The Classics: The Hand of Ethelberta, by Thomas Hardy

Ethelberta Chickering grew up determined to raise her status in the world, and when the son of the house where she served as governess proposed marriage, she agreed with alacrity. Her mother-in-law is snooty, but when Ethelberta is suddenly widowed while on her honeymoon, she takes the young woman under her wing. When the old lady dies, Ethelberta’s sole means of support is gone, and, frantic about losing her social position, she determines to marry as soon as possible. Granted the use of the family townhouse in London, Berta recruits her entire family, bumpkins all, to pose as her servants until she can snag herself as husband.  She is young, beautiful, and conniving, and has no trouble attracting suitors. The plot thickens.

This is far from Thomas Hardy’s typical moralistic, tragic tale of woe. Subtitled “A Comedy in Chapters”, the novel is not funny in the modern sense of the word,  there are some remarkably droll moments. Rather, it lacks his signature tragic ending. But one of the themes prevalent in most of his work concerns problems of sexuality and marriage, and that is the case in Ethelberta. It also focuses upon Victorian restrictions upon women, and social inequalities, and some critics characterize him as an early feminist in his leanings, which seems to be the case here. Ethelberta is not a vacuous woman, but one torn between her dread of returning to her humble origins and her genuine concerns for the welfare of all the members of her family.  While she does have her flighty side, so do her male acquaintances, and she is determinedly singleminded. Romantic love is a notion that she rejects;  although she is powerfully attracted to Christopher Julian, an impoverished music teacher, she never considers him an acceptable match. In her pursuit of what she views as happiness, she is not unlike many of her modern contemporaries.

Hardy, of course, writes in a 19th century style, with 19th century sensibilities, which in places becomes tedious. But his books revolve around timeless themes, and Ethelberta is no exception. As for the ending, for Hardy, it’s a surprisingly happy one.

 

Historical Fiction: The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I felt the shadows draw around the house. They went up with the blackouts while I was sleeping, but when Mrs. Ellsworth unfastened the blinds, the shadows remained.” Elise Landau, main character.

1938 Vienna. The Landau family is Jewish, and they had a lovely, almost idyllic life, full of music and literature,   until the Nazis interfered. Now they must endure a painful separation, fleeing to safer places for the duration. Eighteen year old Elise must go to Tyneford, England and work as a housemaid to the Rivers family, of the landed gentry. Her change in circumstances is difficult and trying, but when Kit, the heir to the estate, comes home on a visit from college, he and Elise fall in love, much against convention. To marry one’s maid, and a Jewish one at that, is simply not done. But the Mr. Rivers is kind to Elise, selling a valuable painting to acquire the funds to bribe Austrian officials into issuing  exit visas for her parents.  Then war, at last, breaks out, and each day becomes a waiting and hoping game.

There are two story lines in this novel, both centering upon the massive changes that war imposes on “life as usual” for civilians.  The main thread concerns all the heartache and obstacles that young Elise must endure and overcome, and the other, the struggles faced by the Rivers family and their staff as they helplessly watch their traditional way of life crumble around them.  This is a character driven book, in which the butler and housekeeper, Kit’s social companions, and various villagers are drawn as palpably as are Elise, Kit, and his father. The plot is simple and unfolds slowly. Natasha Solomons is truly gifted in her ability to conjure evocative, often poetic images, the atmosphere as a whole  charming but decidedly melancholy. And she deserves credit for preventing the elements of romance from overwhelming the story and obscuring its  themes.  True to form, the ending is bittersweet. While some reviewers have criticized it as unrealistic and too convenient,  for me, it hit the right note. Though quite different from Austen’s Jane Eyre, in some places I found Tyneford somewhat reminiscent in terms of location and the plight of the heroine.

An interesting side note: Tyneford, and much of the novel’s plot, are based upon an actual Dorset village, Tyneham, where remnants of both the manor house and the village now comprise a museum of sorts.

Historical Fiction: Martha Peake, by Patrick McGrath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

English author Patrick McGrath has been hailed as the master of the neo-gothic, but he prefers to describe himself as the creator of “stories of love and madness”.  I haven’t read his other novels, which have generally been highly acclaimed, but having devoured Martha Peake, I can say that the gothic and romantic certainly blend seamlessly here. Told by two unreliable narrators, decades afterward, Martha’s tale plays out in four  18th century settings, each equally dark and threatening. Harry Peake makes his first appearance in  Cornwall, where he’s a good looking, hard drinking smuggler who loses his wife and most of his family in a fire that he caused. His own injuries have left him a bitter, hulking hunchback. He removes with his one loyal daughter, Martha, to London,where, crazed by guilt and grief, Harry tries to expiate himself through humiliation, by displaying his spine nightly to strangers in a seedy bar room. He draws the attention of macabre anatomist Lord Drogo, who employs his own personal resurrection man and displays misshapen human bones at his mansion in the marshes.  Martha, who loves her father dearly, becomes terrified about what Drogo might have in mind for Harry. When an unspeakable calamity befalls her, Martha has no choice but to flee alone to America, which is on the brink of revolution.  But she can’t forget her father, who was alive when she fled, and the choices she makes as a result will make her a symbol of  the revolution itself.

The extremes of grotesquery and madness are there, along with injustice and poverty, sordid backstreets, crumbling estates, and foggy cliffs, but what is also there, for those who care to look, are the issues and philosophies of the era. It may even remind you why the war for independence was fought, both the noble and the selfish reasons. To McGrath’s credit, he manages to deliver a satisfactory ending while also leaving a sense of mystery about some of the tale’s most vivid images (no spoilers, so I won’t elaborate).  Martha Peake is a finely crafted, multilayered novel, one that deserves to be savored and considered rather than rushed.

 

It’s a Mystery: Arson and Old Lace, by Patricia Harwin

my rating: 2 of 5 stars

Catherine Penny has fled New York City for an idyllic English village, struggling to come to terms with her failed marriage. She and her husband had visited Far Wychwood in happier times, and Catherine is dismayed as those bittersweet memories mar her pleasure in her new home. Still, living near her daughter’s family provides some compensation, and Catherine is determined to fit in with her neighbors and make a new life for herself. But she has a disconcerting way of stumbling into trouble. She begins by offering assistance to the elderly man across the lane, unperturbed when he rebuffs her, and alienates his arrogant son.  She agrees to babysit for her two year old grandson, only to find herself exhausted by his boundless energy. Though some of the local ladies accept her with kindness, it isn’t long before Catherine is known as a pushy busybody. Then the old man’s house burns down, and she strongly suspects arson.

Catherine is an interesting protagonist, and the question of arson is an intriguing one. But in truth, she IS a pushy busybody. At her age (60-ish), she should have learned to control her impulsiveness, but Catherine repeatedly throws herself into one iffy situation after another. Some are mildly comical, but the way that she ignores her daughter’s wishes about the care of the little boy is deplorable. It’s true that she comes to reveal one of the town’s dirty little secrets, but in the process, manages to muck up several lives in which she had no business meddling. Look out, Far Wychwood, you’ll never be the same.

I plan to read the second in this series, to discover whether Catherine develops a modicum of wisdom. For a more appealing lady sleuth, read the Dorothy Martin series by Jeanne M. Dams.

It’s a Mystery: Holy Terror in the Hebrides, by Jeanne M. Dams

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England.  Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive,  and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.

Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement  is curiously lacking in suspense.  But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.

 

Kid-Lit: Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years,  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough  that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”.   When their umpteenth nanny quits,  Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.