“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

The quest for Mr Right…

Last week you may have seen my post about ephemera (here) reporting my finding of some marginalia in an old book – well it made me want to read said book instantly – so I did!

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

pursuit of love 2Published in 1945, The Pursuit of Love is the companion piece to Mitford’s later novel Love in a Cold Climate (1949) (which I reviewed here previously). Both are narrated by Fanny, somewhat of an outsider to the central families of each novel, but otherwise they are standalone, so reading them in the wrong order doesn’t matter. I was delighted to find that I enjoyed The Pursuit of Love a lot more than the later book – it was funnier and more frothy.

The comedy is evident tight from page one, where Fanny describes her eccentric and irrascible Uncle Matthew’s prowess in WWI with an entrenching tool. Fanny always stays with the Radlett family at Christmas – and it can be a stressful time:

There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katie in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.

Fanny lives with her Aunt Emily, Sadie’s sister, her mother, known as the Bolter, having abandoned her when she was just one month old, and her father now being on his fifth wife! The story starts when Fanny and Linda, one of Sadie’s daughters and Fanny’s best friend, are both fourteen – at this age they are both ‘very much preoccupied with sin’, finding out about sex and looking forward to their coming out in the future.

Despite frequently falling foul of Uncle Matthew’s bad temper, the children have the most marvellous time with minimal education, loads of riding and outdoor pursuits, together with closeting themselves away in their hiding hole ‘Hons’ cupboard – where people they like are declared ‘Hons’ and those they don’t – Counter-Hons.

The girls reach their coming out ball, and no-one except Fanny could have imagined that Linda would fall for the first boy to look at her. Tony is the son of the Governor of the Bank of England, in his last year at Oxford, in the Bullingdon(!).  ‘Tony is Bottom to Linda, isn’t he?’ says Fanny sadly. The marriage isn’t to last, after nine years, leaving her daughter, Linda takes after her aunt and does a bolt – falling for Christian, a communist whom she will follow out to Perpingnan on the Franco-Spanish border, only to find out that she’s not what he wants at all.

It’s not until Linda escapes again ending up in Paris, that she meets the love of her life. Fabrice is older, extremely rich (he’s a Count), wordly, a serious and serial lover of many women. I now know, thanks to my mum’s marginalia, that the character of Fabrice was based upon Mitford’s lover Gaston Palewski to whom the novel is dedicated.  Fabrice is the great love of Linda’s life, only for them to be separated by WWII. Back in London, Linda and Fanny catch up:

Oh, don’t pity me. I’ve had eleven months of perfect and unalloyed happiness, very few people can say that, in the course of long long lives, I imagine.

It’s notable that these privileged young women seem totally immune to scandal – all this bolting from one love to the next would be completely frowned upon by the working classes. This freedom lets them be giddy and frothy and have so much fun. What is refreshing is that Linda, for all her excesses and lack of formal education, except for schoolgirl French and riding it seems, is a game girl in her pursuit of romance, and we can’t dislike her for it. Fanny our narrator may be terribly witty but, with her own happy marriage and children, she comes over as a bit staid in comparison.

As Fanny says though, this is Linda’s story – and it’s funny and sweet and touching – I loved it. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Pursuit of Loveby Nancy Mitford, Penguin paperback.
Love in a Cold Climate and other novels (Penguin Modern Classics)omnibus edition includes The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing.

When your best friends don’t get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford.

Thank heavens for Dinah.  They met on their first day at school and will remain best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, and she takes Lovie under her wing.

Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage they are individually friends with Lovie.

Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up a lunch for the three of them…

‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look bewildered. …

… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’

So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy

A dreamlike novel of longing

Glaciers by Alexis M Smith

Glaciers Alexis M Smith I couldn’t resist the cover of this short novel the moment I spotted it, and felt it – you can’t see the embossing of figure, her bicycle and the title. There’s a sunny hopeful quality to the cover, and it matches the story perfectly. This debut novel is short with just 174 pages and text surrounded by plenty of white space, but it is perfectly formed for reading in one sitting as I did.

Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a young woman who works as a book repairer and restorer at a library in Portland Oregon. She lives alone with her cat, and dreams of travel to explore the great cities of Europe, and remembers her childhood in Alaska. Her story begins thus:

Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.

As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Eliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.

She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.

Finding out Isabel’s story through those memories that surface alongside new thoughts as she goes about her daily life, we build up a picture of her over the events of just one day.

She thinks about her family, her sister Agnes, the break-up of her mother and father, and her aunt who inspired her love of vintage clothes and retro ephemera, and she dreams of those far-off cities viewed through old postcards and found photographs of unknown vacationers.

She muses about her friends, including Leo, who writes his name alongside the ‘gayest of passages‘ in library books when by accident she finds one of them in a book sent for repair as a page falls out.

She wonders whether Spoke, the former soldier who now fixes their computers, will notice her. Can she pluck up the courage to ask him to the party she’s going to this evening?

She wants a new vintage dress for the party. Will it be possible to find the perfect one during her lunch hour?

Reading this dreamy yet clear and delicate prose, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another short novel whose events are fixed in the thoughts of a young woman as she walks through Rome to go to a concert. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (my review here) perfectly captured the butterfly nature of the woman’s train of thoughts, flitting from memories to visual stimuli to questioning the world she’s in, and other thoughts, travelling back and forth between them.

This is the case too in Glaciers, and it also shares many of the qualities of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, with its elements of living in northern climes, getting through loneliness, and the strong local community. There is a purity to it that really allows us to get to know and like Isabel, whose life is filled with longing.  Underlying the gentle nature of Isabel’s life and work though, is a serious point about losing people – through break-ups, to working far away, to death, and especially to war.  Smith has written a great blog post, with suggested reading on this topic and books that influenced the writing of this novel here.

This bittersweet little novel is a gem that will stay with me for a long time. (10/10)

See also Jane/Fleur Fisher’s review here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Glaciers by Alexis M Smith, pub July 2013, Oneworld paperback, 174 pages.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

A book that wants to be a family saga

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman A proof copy of this book has languished on my shelves since its publication in 2011. I generally prefer not to read books that are getting all the hype during the hype, so, during the final days of my TBR pledge for this year, it was finally time to read it, and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it a lot.

But, and there is a but …  In common with many debut novels, it felt like the author was just overflowing with ideas and had to cram them all into this book so they were used and didn’t disappear into the ether.

When God Was a Rabbit is the story of Elly and cover her entire life so far from 1968 to recent years. Elly narrates her story:

I decided to enter this world just as my mother got off the bus after an unproductive shopping trip to Ilford. She’d gone to chance a pair of trousers and distracted by my shifting position found it impossible to choose between patched denims or velvet flares, and fearful that my place of birth would be a department store, she made a staggered journey back to the safe confines of her postcode where her waters broke just as the heavens opened. And during the seventy yard walk back down to our house, her amniotic fluid mixed with the December rain and spiralled down the gutter until the cycle of life was momentously and, one might say, poetically mingled.

We are introduced to Elly’s family – her mother and father and brother Joe, who was five years older than her and, of course, her pet rabbit whom she called ‘God’. We meet her neighbours including Mr Golan, about whom a rather unwholesome mystery will linger throughout the story.  We also meet Jenny Penny, Elly’s best friend, who will come to play a major part in the older Elly’s life after disappearing  for the middle of the book.

During this period Elly’s family relocate to Cornwall after a win on the football pools. They open a B&B which becomes home to a collection of oddballs – a loveable old chap, Arthur; his friend Ginger – an ageing chanteuse with a good Shirley Bassey impression; and Alfie – an ex-con who becomes their driver.

It’s an idyllic place to come of age, but everyone grows up and goes out into the world.  First Joe, whose heart is broken by his first love Charlie, and then Elly, who finds it hard to settle at anything; life for Elly is full of ups and downs.

I enjoyed Winman’s writing which, section by section, matches Elly’s moods, going from the childlike questioning and naturally funny to practical, restless, melancholy, fretful and just now and then joyful or triumphant.  I particularly enjoyed all the characters of her family friends and her big brother – theirs is such a strong bond.

Winman has managed to fill Elly’s first decades with so much life and love in all its forms, one wonders what this girl did next.  Elly’s story has the feel of book that wants to be a family saga, but falls a little short of being the kind of epic that it would like to be.  However,  I do hope that Winman didn’t exhaust all her ideas in this debut novel, as I’m looking forward to more – this was an easy and enjoyable read.

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My review copy came via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman. Headline review paperback, 352 pages.

A ‘Hardy’ Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

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The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

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I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

How to live alone and get by, Brookner style…

July 16, which will be Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday, has been renamed International Anita Brookner Day by Thomas at My Porch and Simon at Savidge Reads.  To celebrate this author, they have set up the IABD Website with a competition to win AB books for those submitting reviews by July 16.  Naturally, I decided to join in the fun, especially as I haven’t read a book by her for some years. The book I chose to read from my TBR piles was …

The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner

This, her 22nd novel published in 2003, is typical Brookner with all her trademark features.  The story is about two women who meet at school but stay in touch throughout their lives.  Two girls, both called Elizabeth meet at school.  They’re both only children, Elizabeth’s parents divorced, Betsy’s died and she then lived with her aunt.  Betsy is the pretty one, and when they both spend some time in Paris, it’s Betsy that falls passionately in love; Elizabeth uses her time there coming to terms with being on her own.

Later back in England, Elizabeth marries Digby, a widower many years her senior. Theirs is a comfortable marriage – no surprises, no passion, no children either. Elizabeth is happy with this, but then she embarks on an affair with one of Digby’s friends – this relationship is one of convenience, physical needs are satisfied, but Elizabeth gradually begins to fall for Edmund.  Then Betsy comes back into her life, and things are gradually turned upside down – and Betsy’s life will continue to impact on her oldest friend’s for years to come.

If you didn’t know the book I was describing was by Brookner, from the description above, you might guess it was by Joanna Trollope say with some complicated entanglements amongst the middle classes.  But it’s not. Through the voice of Elizabeth, Brookner tells the story of an ordinary woman disappointed with life and love, ultimately content with her own company, but somehow deep down wishing she’d had the wide-eyed innocence of her friend to take her down another path.  Elizabeth meditates at length on her life, relationships and friendships, decisions taken, and things not done to keep life unruffled.

This is where I had a problem with this book.  In reality nothing much does happen – at least not to Elizabeth. It all happens to Betsy, but Elizabeth is telling the story, so we don’t know the half of it. Instead, we’re subjected to Elizabeth’s introspection about life, the universe and everything.  Characters’ actions were described in intricate detail in this book, however I felt I never really got under Elizabeth’s skin, despite having over 250 pages to get to know her.  I wish I’d been able to write more enthusiastically about this novel, for I have enjoyed the others I have read, but I feel that The Rules of Engagement is one for Brookner completists, first time readers should probably start elsewhere.  (6.5/10)

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I bought my book.  To explore on Amazon UK (via my affiliate link), click below:
The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner.

A man, his lover, & his dog

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

This is the story of a mongrel dog with the ‘saddest eyes in the world’.   One day a stray dog turns up at retired British composer Cockcroft’s Italian villa.  The dog has beautiful eyes and Cockcroft is very happy to gain a new companion, for he has been lonely since his last lover left.  Soon man and dog become inseparable.

Cockcroft hates being alone, and has over the years since his enforced retirement from the UK in disgrace, somehow managed to attract a stream of willing house-guests by offering room and board in return for a weekly blow job!  One day, a visitor arrives unexpectedly – a handsome Bosnian, whom it turns out Cockcroft invited him to visit when he was last in Florence.  Timoleon Vieta growls at him taking a mutual instant dislike, but Cockcroft welcomes him even though he can’t remember who he is. The Bosnian, who is keen to lie low for a bit, insinuates himself into Cockcroft’s life.  He does odd jobs, and performs his weekly service, but he wishes all the time that he could get rid of the dog.  His wish comes true on a trip to Rome,  when he forces Cockcroft to abandon Timoleon Vieta there.

The second part of the book is then the story of all the people whom Timoleon Vieta comes into contact with as he tries to get home to Tuscany and his beloved master.  All these people are falling in and out of love, and Timoleon Vieta passes through their lives briefly, but their love is no match for his master’s.

This novel was Dan Rhodes’ first, and having read and loved one of his later ones, Gold, which was like a twisted version of Last of the Summer Wine, I was hoping to really enjoy this book.  Timoleon Vieta come home is much more savage in its humour and darker throughout than the later novel.  With some graphic descriptions you need to be rather broad-minded too.  I didn’t engage with the stories within the story of the second half much though – they were full of emotion and exquisitely crafted but some were quite extended, and I was itching to find out what was happening with Cockcroft and the Bosnian.

Rhodes has created some memorable main characters:  Cockcroft is a silly old fool, and the Bosnian, although not nice, turns out to be quite complex – but what of the dog?  Sorry, I can’t tell you – you’ll have to read it yourself.  (7.5/10)

For another take on this book, read Simon Savidge’s review here.  I did a bookswap for this book.

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To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Timoleon Vieta Come Home, Gold both by Dan Rhodes.