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

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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.

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.