Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)

Before reading The Age of Innocence I was familiar with the basic story of the unrequited passion and doomed love between Newland Archer, a member of high society New York in the 1870′s, and his wife’s cousin, Madame Ellen Olenska. I’d seen the movie and also read many reviews of this classic Pulitzer Prize winning novel. What I was unprepared for was the depth of emotion and strong mixture of reactions that Wharton’s complex tale provoked in me.
Newland Archer and May Welland have both matured in the strict and fussy New York society that demands adherence to its convoluted codes of “form”. While May fully believes in and rarely wavers from the code, Archer has always maintained his distance while going about the motions of what is expected of a young man in his position. When May’s worldly cousin Ellen Olenska arrives from Europe trailing the scent of scandal (she’s abandoned her husband) Archer is immediately captivated by this young woman so different from the women of his acquaintance. And, he wants her. He is sexually attracted to her like he could never be attracted to May. This exhilarating enthrallment begins to consume Archer and it is reciprocated, if not entirely enthusiastically, by Ellen.
Part of Wharton’s genius is her ability to put the reader in each of the major character’s shoes and cause us to feel their anguish and despair. I completely sympathized with Archer when I wasn’t totally disgusted by him. I understood Ellen’s hesitation toward Archer while she was drawn toward him, yet I felt disappointment that she would betray her cousin. My heart ached for May as, at the same time, I felt irritated by her lack of imagination and her rigid conformity.
This is one of two classics I’ve read in the past few years that have really made on impression on me. The other was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. That they both deal with the issue of following your heart as opposed to doing what your family and society think is right for you says a lot to me. But that is a story for another day…
So who in the novel do I believe was right? It’s hard to say. It would be wonderful if everyone could get what they want in life, but part of Wharton’s message is that we can’t possibly. Choices must be made and how you choose reveals where your loyalties lie. Hearts will be broken and dreams will be smashed no matter what, especially in this situation.
The Age of Innocence is not a happy novel and it certainly isn’t innocent. It is a tragic story of star crossed lovers and the power society and family traditions have on our life choices. It is one of the most memorable and dynamic books I’ve read in years.
Edith Wharton had a wonderful gift for simile. Some from The Age of Innocencethat I particularly admire:
“It was the weather to call out May’s radiance, and she burned like a young maple in the frost”.
“They sat down on a bench under the orange-trees and he put his arm about her and kissed her. It was like drinking at a cold spring with the sun on it…”
“She threw back her head with a laugh that made her chins ripple like little waves”.
“Her color did not change, but a sort of white radiance of anger ran over her like summer lightning”.
“…coming back to his wife would never be like entering a stuffy room after a tramp in the open”.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

I'd been planning for weeks to start reading Flush, and finally it was time.  It's in the Persephone catalog, so it was top on my TBR list for that reason; also, Amanda from The Zen Leaf chose it for me last year in our first-ever Reading Swap.  And it's been sitting around on my TBR shelf for a couple of years now, so my timing was perfect. 

Now that it is time to put words on the blog I find I'm at a bit of a loss.  This is a short little book about a dog written by Virginia Woolf; specifically, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog.  Ostensibly, it is a biography, but is it about a dog or a poet?  Or is it just an excuse to start reading Virginia Woolf, who scares me?

Flush is not a hard read, and I suppose it's not one of the Woolfs that is studied and discussed and analyzed extensively by the literati.  (Which I am not, believe me!)  It begins when young Flush is given as a gift by his owner to Ms. Barrett (not yet Mrs. Browning), an invalid.  He must give up his days of sniffing and running and exploring the outdoors to be the indoor companion of this bedridden poet.  He loves her and becomes extremely protective and suspicious of Mr. Browning, and he is along for the ride during their elopement and marriage and journeys to Italy and back.  The story moves back and forth in places between his point of view and that of his owner.  

I know next to nothing about Elizabeth Barrett Browning but now I am intrigued by her life as well.  I do remember Browning and Flush are included in a book called Shaggy Muses, which is a nonfiction work about the lives of several women writers and their pets.

Like the life of a dog, Flush is sadly short.  This was the first of Woolf's fiction that I really liked, and I wish I'd had more of it to read.  I am glad, however, that the ending wasn't terribly sad -- there are so many tearjerking stories about beloved pets these days, I really did not want to cry at the end of this book.

Virginia Woolf seems to be all over the blogs the past couple of weeks.  My good friend Amanda was baffled by Orlando; Carolyn at A Few of My Favorite Books brought To the Lighthouse to Florida for a beach read!  To the Lighthouse has been sitting on my shelves unread as long as Flush, but it scares me -- it's such a short little book but I've heard it's challenging.  Stream-of-consciousness is not really my thing.  

The endpapers from the Persephone edition of Flush

I did read Mrs. Dalloway and was underwhelmed, but that was a few years ago when I had just started reading classics.  Maybe I didn't know enough about her work to appreciate it.  Last year, my classics book group at the library read A Room of One's Own, which I quite liked, but that's really a long essay, so I don't know I'd like her fiction.

This probably isn't the best review I've written, but I feel like I don't know enough about Woolf or her writing to think of something clever and insightful.  I would love to hear other people's thoughts -- how does this compare to other works by Virginia Woolf?  Should I take the plunge and read To the Lighthouse or start with something a little easier?

This is my third book for Persephone Reading Weekend, hosted by Verity and Claire.  Check out their blog links for more thoughts on Persephone books!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann (1932)

Invitation to the Waltz was an impulse purchase spurred by the wonderful reputation Rosamond Lehmann has around the bookosphere.
It is set in 1920 in a small village and centers on Olivia Curtis. The novel begins on her 17th birthday when she receives, as part of her birthday haul, a beautiful swath of crimson silk fabric to be used to make a dress to wear for her neighbor Marigold’s much-anticipated dance. Olivia is a bookish girl, somewhat in the shadow of her beautiful and polished older sister Kate. The majority of the novel takes place at the dance, as Lehmann neatly portrays the dizzying experience of a large and chaotic dance and the ups and downs of Olivia’s feelings and attitude during the evening.
I have to say right away that I really, really loved this novel, which was surprising to me because I hated the opening pages. The narrator is a bit annoying and the description of the village and the Curtis family was very confusing. Once the narrative got into Olivia’s head, though, I was thoroughly involved in the story.
Lehmann is gentle on her characters. She doesn’t shy away from exposing their weaknesses. There are several characters who are silly, ridiculous, pathetic, snobby, mean or just plain odd. Yet Lehmann has a fondness for them that shines through and makes them human and recognizable.
The relationship between Olivia and Kate is a lovingly true portrayal of sisters. There is lots of love and affection, yet a faint strain of rivalry that colors their approach to one another.
I thought the occasional references to the war were interesting – Olivia dances with a blind party-goer who had received his injury as a soldier. This passage revealed a lot to me about how a teen who wasn’t directly affected might experience war:
“A cousin in the flying corps killed, the cook’s nephew gone down at Jutland, rumour of the death of neighbors’ sons -(that included Marigold’s elder brother), and among the village faces, about half a dozen familiar ones that had disappeared and never come back…. and butter and sugar rations; and the lawn dug up for potatoes (the crop had failed); and knitting scratchy mittens and mufflers; and Dad being a special constable and getting bronchitis from it: that was about all that war had meant.”
Olivia is a fascinating character and Lehmann a wonderful writer and I am so happy to know that there is a sequel to Invitation to the Waltz, called The Weather in the Streets, which is in the mail for me as we speak.
Has anyone else read this or other Rosamond Lehmann novels? Which ones do you recommend?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Professor's House by Willa Cather (1925)

I'm having a hard time writing this review.  This book puzzled me. I was really looking forward to reading more Cather, since I just loved My Antonia and O, Pioneers!, two of her most famous works.  I liked this book but it's hard to explain it.

Let me back up a little.  The story begins with Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a fiftyish man who teaches at a nameless university somewhere in the Midwest.  It's in the 1920s, and he and his wife are moving from the house they've rented for many years to a lovely new house built to their specifications -- after years of hard work, the Professor's research has finally received recognition and they're financially very comfortable.  However, the Professor is having a hard time letting go of his old house, his tiny study in the attic, and his old life.

There are two grown daughters who are married, and the oldest, Rosamond, is also very financially secure.  In fact, she's very nouveau riche because she was the sole heir of her former fiancee, Tom Outland, who died in WWI before the story began. Apparently Tom invented a special kind of engine after graduating from the university, and was smart enough to patent it and make a will leaving everything to Rosamond.  Her new husband developed the engine and made them a fortune.  The Professor loves his daughter and likes his son-in-law, but he seems uncomfortable with they way they're spending all the money.  He and Tom had been very close when Tom was at the University.  A significant section of the book is told as Tom's diary, telling the story of his experiences working in New Mexico before he moved to the Midwest.

I think I'm undecided about this book because it seems almost like two different books; the change in narration and story line are so distinct.  Tom's history is hinted at during the Professor's section, but to me they seemed like two totally different books, and I'm having a hard time fitting the whole story together in my brain.  There's so much going on in this book and it's only about 250 pages -- Cather writes about the Professor's dissatisfaction, sibling rivalry, how money changes people -- I wish this book had been longer, since there was so much more I wanted to learn about the characters.

What I liked best about it was Cather's great writing.  Her characters are really well-developed, but very subtly -- it doesn't take the reader long to realize exactly how Professor St. Peter feels about his son-in-law.   Also, her descriptions are just beautiful, without being long-winded and flowery.  She can really capture the essence of a midwestern prairie or a mesa in New Mexico in just a few words.  I hadn't read any of her books set in the southwest so I'm really intrigued to read more.

My real-life classics book group is reading Death Comes for the Archbishop in June, and I don't know if I can wait that long to read it.  I'm limited by the TBR Dare to books on my shelves for the next couple of months, but I still have The Song of the Lark if I need more Cather. Ultimately, I liked this book even though I found it slightly unsatisfying.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel at Book Snob.  And many thanks to Thomas at My Porch for recommending The Professor's House, one of his favorite books of all time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

The beautiful endpapers
 from Making Conversation

I'm slowly but surely making my way through the Persephone books list.  I recently received four new Persephones as belated Christmas gifts -- even though they arrived in January, I can still count them towards part of the TBR dare, since they're technically Christmas gifts. (I will make exceptions due to the slow arrival of the mail because of weather and holidays.)

Anyhoo.  I put Making Conversation (1931) on my Christmas wish list back in December, and now I can't remember why.  The description in the Persphone catalog says it's a comic novel, in the vein of Cold Comfort Farm.  Well, I don't know if it's because I'm not British, or because I'm not educated enough, but I just did not get this novel.  It's about a young woman's education just after WWI, and about conversations in general (which you might have gathered from the title).  The book is full of Martha's conversations.  In fact, the whole book is mostly conversations, and not much action.

The novel begins in the 1910s, when Martha Freke is a young teen.  She's being raised by her single mother, since her father, a former military officer, has done a runner.  Her mother has been forced to take in lodgers (it is NOT a boarding house!) who are mostly students, so Martha gets an unconventional education from the interesting people who seem to drift through her life.  It certainly seems better than the school in which she's enrolled which sounds just horrible.  She's forever putting her foot in her mouth and there are lots of misunderstandings, one of which ends up getting her kicked out of school. Nevertheless, Martha is bright enough to get a scholarship to Oxford, where she has lots of other conversations, mostly with female students since they appear to be quite segregated from the men.

I suppose this is supposed to be satirical in some way, but I just didn't get it.  I know that Cold Comfort Farm was poking fun at the pastoral novels of the era, and I really enjoyed it, even though I didn't get all the references.  I also loved Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (and if you've read Brideshead Revisited, this is nothing like it.  Brideshead has its great moments, but Decline and Fall is just a hoot).  Maybe the humor in this is too subtle for me, or too specific, or maybe I would have gotten much more out of it if I'd read classics or history at an elite British university (for the record, I majored in journalism and history at a well-respected university in the Midwest, so I'm not a complete moron).   I was hoping the introduction would give more insight, but it's mostly biographical information about the author.

Anyhow, I'm not saying this is a bad novel.  I just didn't really connect with Martha or her friends, most of whom I couldn't keep straight, and I didn't find her story particularly interesting or compelling.  It was an easy read, but I wasn't at all excited about it the way I have been with most Persephones.  I'm mostly just disappointed because I've really liked most of them so far. If anyone has read this novel and can help explain it to me, please do.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

This extraordinary novel was published in 1930 and has fully established Jean Rhys as one of my favorite authors.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie follows Julia Martin, a thirtyish woman who has shunned polite society to live off the generosity of various men and who’s main occupations are sleeping and wandering the streets. When the novel begins she’s living in Paris on an allowance from her former lover Mr. Mackenzie. When he decides to cut her off she returns on a whim to London where she reconnects (unsuccessfully) with her mother and sister. We then follow her ten-day tour of disaster before she leaves London to return to Paris.
Similar in theme to Good Morning, Midnight, which I read last month, this novel is, in my opinion, better. Unlike Midnight, we occasionally see the story from the other characters’ viewpoints so we’re not stuck in Julia’s sick head the whole novel. Also, this novel is funnier and has a lightness that Midnight is lacking and could have used. The following passage is typical of Rhys’ humor:
“The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a Frenchwoman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.”
I’m so impressed with Rhys’ writing and sad that her troubled personal life halted her creative abilities and that she didn’t write more novels. I’ll next read Voyage in the Dark and then her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen are school teachers in the village of Beldover who begin relationships with Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin, respectively. Women in Love recounts the ups and downs of their courtships, the desire and ambivalence and fear of beginning a new relationship.
I was struck by Lawrence’s stunning and quite brilliant descriptions. He is an expert scene setter, a genius at painting pictures of memorable and gorgeous vividness. The scenes I loved the best were the chapters focusing on nature – the water party and the various descriptions of the snow and ice in Austria.
This book is also has fiercely drawn characters, characters of extremes, characters with all their faults and weaknesses exposed. Lawrence risks readers hating these characters by truthfully portraying their ugliness and darkness. And I have to say I didn’t really like any of the characters as I strove to understand them and found myself arguing with them in my head.
The power struggles between men and women are dismayingly emphasized and left me with the feeling that Lawrence had little hope for the state of marriage or partnerships. The constant wavering and arguments over the meaning of love, the futility of committed relationships, the intense fear that leads to tedious pronouncements by the characters and cringe-worthy decisions is the major thread of the novel.
At first this quote by one of the characters described how I felt about the book:
“I really do not want to be forced into all this criticism and analysis of life. I really do want to see things in their entirety, with their beauty left to them, and their wholeness, their natural holiness.”
On reflection, however, I do believe Lawrence has much of importance to say on the subject of relationships and he brutally depicts the negativity of relations between the sexes in an honest way that I haven’t seen portrayed in quite this way.
In the end, Lawrence’s writing saves the day and will carry a reader through the tough spots (including his ridiculous descriptions of sex) and you’ll come out the other side not being able to forget this passionate book.

-Published in 1920