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American Literature Month: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates **** (Classics Club #68)

As is probably evident by now, I very much admire Richard Yates’ work.  Young Hearts Crying, published in 1984, is his penultimate novel, published eight years before his death.  The New Statesman describes his work as follows: ‘Bad couples, sad, sour marriages, young hopes corroded by suburban life’.

Here, Yates presents not just a married couple or a family to us, but a whole community; we are given a feel for how intrinsically individuals fit into a particular place or setting.  The protagonists of the piece, regardless, are a young married couple named Michael and Lucy Davenport.  The pair are very much in love at the beginning of the novel, yet cracks soon begin to appear within their marriage.  When Young Hearts Crying begins, Michael is a new Harvard graduate, who wants desperately to become a poet.  Rather than live upon Lucy’s sizeable trust fund, he is determined to make a living by himself; when he gets a job which he is not entirely satisfied with in New York, his friends and acquaintances begin to syphon off, doing bigger and better things.

As protagonists, Michael and Lucy are both well built.  Whilst Michael is not at all likeable (I would go as far to say that he is actually moderately awful in most of his thoughts and behaviour), Lucy is; the balance struck between the pair, augmented by their small daughter Laura, is pitch perfect.  One of Yates’ definite strengths here is the way in which he encompasses secondary characters from all walks of life, from the privileged to the poverty-stricken.  Young Hearts Crying is not overly heavy in its plot, and whilst one is able to guess what is going to happen as the story moves forward without any great effort, these elements do not make it any less compelling.

I always say this of Yates, but he is an incredibly aware and perceptive author.  Young Hearts Crying is so well written, and whilst it is not his strongest novel, it is a great, striking and relatively easy read nonetheless.

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American Literature Month: One From the Archive – ‘Tigers in Red Weather’ by Liza Klaussmann ****

Tigers in Red Weather begins on the east coast of America in September 1945, just after the end of the Second World War.  Cousins Nick and Helena have grown up spending a long spring of summers at Tiger House, the family’s estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a place which both women hold fondly in their memories.  

At the outset of the novel, we meet Nick and Helena, ‘wearing their slips and drinking gin neat out of old jelly jars’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Helena is about to get married for the second time and is on the cusp of moving to Hollywood, a decision which she views with some optimism: ‘At least this way I won’t turn into an old maid, mad as a hatter and warts on my nose’.  Simultaneously, Nick is travelling to meet her husband Hughes in St. Augustine, Florida.  The couple make their home here in a rented pre-fab, ‘just like all the others surrounding it’.  From the start, several small fissures reveal themselves in the relationship between the couple, and it is clear that calling them ‘happily married’ would be rather far from the truth.  Despite the cousins growing up together, their adult lives veer off in entirely different directions, living at opposite ends of the country and losing the regular contact with each other which they both heavily rely upon.

The second part of the novel begins in 1959 and lays focus upon Nick’s daughter Daisy, who believes her mother to be a ‘bit crazy’.  She and Nick are travelling to Tiger House to spend the summer with Helena and her son Ed.  Here, dawning understandings are realised by many of the characters.  When Daisy sees her mother and aunt on the porch of Tiger House, for example, she becomes ‘mesmerized.  It was as if her mother and aunt had been snatched away by goblins and replaced with fairies of some sort.  They looked so beautiful to her, and so different…  They could have said anything, and she would have loved them’.

We as readers learn a lot about the characters as the narrative progresses, from details about their pasts to their thoughts and feelings regarding a whole host of varied subjects.  Each character is given a plausible past and their relationships with one another have been crafted both sympathetically and skilfully.  The novel is strong in social history, and the inclusion of music and films throughout really historically grounds the novel.  A clever touch is the way in which we are able to see the technological progressions of such things as both time and the book go on.

Ed and Daisy’s discovery of a dead body in a seemingly abandoned shack in the woods soon shrouds the entire family, whose lives are already fraught with troubles and secrets.  Tigers in Red Weather becomes, in part – if rather a small part – a murder mystery story, but it is so much more than that.  It is an elaborate study of several characters, a rich social history which spans rather a wide chronological scale.

The novel is split into five separate sections, each of which follows a different character.  The majority of the novel uses the third person omniscient perspective and only the final section is told from the point of view of one of the characters.  The book is not a chronological one and some of these narratives do jump around a little in time, a technique which becomes a little confusing at times, but this is really the only drawback of the novel.  The conversations which Klaussmann has crafted between her characters work wonderfully.

Throughout, Klaussmann’s descriptions are often original: a train which ‘smelled like bleach and excitement’ – and sometimes rather lovely: ‘The oak tree in the backyard cut pieces from the moon’.  The entire novel is incredibly well written.

Tigers in Red Weather is rather an absorbing and incredibly intriguing read from the outset, and it is certainly a masterful debut.  It is an exceedingly well planned and well thought out novel, and Klaussmann has really done justice both to her characters and to the story which she has constructed.

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American Literature Month: ‘Songs of Willow Frost’ by Jamie Ford ****

Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost is the most contemporary novel which I decided to read as part of my American Literature Month.  I had originally intended to begin my reading of Ford’s work with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but after finding this as part of a ‘3 for £5′ deal in The Works just after Christmas, I thought I would give it a go instead.  The novel has been incredibly well reviewed; Helen Simonson, author of the marvellously entertaining Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, very much enjoyed it, and other critics have deemed it ‘dazzling’, ‘spellbinding’, ‘enchanting’ and ‘unforgettable’.

Published in 2013 and beginning in 1934, Songs of Willow Frost tells the story of William Eng, a young Chinese boy who resides at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle.  Whilst on an annual jaunt to the cinema to celebrate the given birthday of all of the boys who reside there, William is confronted by an image of an actress named Willow Frost, and is immediately convinced that she is his mother.  ‘The story of Willow Frost’, Ford tells us, ‘is far more complicated than any Hollywood fantasy’.  His mother, contrary to what he believes, is not dead; rather, she was placed into a ‘funny farm’ when he was small: ‘The lonely years had been easier to endure when he’d imagined his mother dead.  He hurt and he grieved, but that sorrow was less heartbreaking than the thought of his ah-ma alive and well, leaving him behind like a stray dog’.

The day on which we are introduced to our young protagonist is his twelfth birthday.  This is ‘a marvellous age’, he is told by Mother Angelini, ‘the precipice of adult responsibility’.  The room which William, the only Chinese boy in the orphanage, has to call home is perfectly evoked at the outset: ‘He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor.  He heard the popping and billowing of sheets pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail.  And so he ducked, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else – anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed-wetters’.

Throughout, William’s own naivety and innocent ignorance of certain things is very touching indeed.  When the orphans are taken to the cinema, for example, he is made to sit in the ‘colored’ balcony, to which he has the following reaction: ‘Am I colored? William wondered.  And if so, what color am I?’  The social history of the period has been well evoked, and Ford encompasses such issues as the Great Depression and consequent spread of poverty; the state benefits in existence for orphans and the disabled; prohibition and its effects; and widespread racial prejudices.  Tired of the boundaries – both within the orphanage and society as a whole – which so tightly constrain him, William breaks free, setting out with his friend, a conscientious and caring blind girl named Charlotte, to find Willow Frost.

Songs of Willow Frost is both captivating and compelling, and holds a lot of interest from the very beginning.  Along with William’s story, we learn about Willow Frost’s past, and the mistakes which she is so determined not to repeat.  The writing within is sensual, and the third person perspective which Ford has chosen to use works wonderfully; it is not at all detached, as it can so often be, and the characters are followed in a manner which seems almost sensitive.  Songs of Willow Frost is at once literary in its style, and very easy to read.  The Chinese culture, along with all of its complexities, has been well exemplified.  The novel is reminiscent of Amy Tan’s work, in terms of the characterisation and the bridges both built and burnt between two such vastly different cultures.  There is much of interest within Songs of Willow Frost, and it is certainly a novel which I will be recommending.

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Saturday Poem: ‘Life Story’ by Tennessee Williams

After you’ve been to bed together for the first time,
without the advantage or disadvantage of any prior acquaintance,
the other party very often says to you,
Tell me about yourself, I want to know all about you,
what’s your story? And you think maybe they really and truly do
sincerely want to know your life story, and so you light up
a cigarette and begin to tell it to them, the two of you
lying together in completely relaxed positions
like a pair of rag dolls a bored child dropped on a bed.
You tell them your story, or as much of your story
as time or a fair degree of prudence allows, and they say,
       Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, until the oh
is just an audible breath, and then of course
there’s some interruption. Slow room service comes up
with a bowl of melting ice cubes, or one of you rises to pee
and gaze at himself with the mild astonishment in the bathroom mirror.
And then, the first thing you know, before you’ve had time
to pick up where you left off with your enthralling life story,
they’re telling you their life story, exactly as they’d intended to all along,
and you’re saying, Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh,
each time a little more faintly, the vowel at last becoming
no more than an audible sigh,
as the elevator, halfway down the corridor and a turn to the left,
draws one last, long, deep breath of exhaustion
and stops breathing forever. Then?
Well, one of you falls asleep
and the other one does likewise with a lighted cigarette in his mouth,
and that’s how people burn to death in hotel rooms.