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‘In Love’ by Alfred Hayes ****

I hadn’t heard of Alfred Hayes before I picked up his 1953 novella, In Love, in the library. I was drawn in by an Elizabeth Bowen quote, in which she calls the story ‘a little masterpiece’, and decided to borrow it.  My interest was piqued further by the Sunday Times, which calls In Love a ‘tour de force’, and the Guardian, who term the book ‘a noirish masterpiece’.

9781590176665In Love, which is seen as Hayes’ greatest work, takes place on ‘one lost afternoon’ in a bar in New York City.  Here, a nameless middle-aged man tells a story involving his relationship with a lonely young woman, also nameless.  Their relationship took quite a turn when a wealthy businessman ‘offered to pay to spend the night with her’, and he discusses how, ultimately, the love which they once had for one another ‘turned to hate’.

I was drawn in by the novella’s opening sentence, which reads as follows: ‘Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.’ What follows is a monologue, in which this protagonist recounts the rest of his story.

I found Hayes’ use of vocabulary rather striking.  He creates such vivid imagery in every scene, writing sentences like ‘… from the curtain rods, her stockings were suspended as limply as hanged men’.  When he describes the woman whom he fell for, he says ‘… but when I think of her, she seems to exist for me in a debris of hats, jewelry, elaborate shoes, an inscribed book, telephone messages, fruit quietly rotting in a bowl, tasseled pillows, love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden away and taken out and read again and sometimes discarded, candy boxes, and of course portraits…’.  Throughout, I really admired Hayes’ sentence structure; they are often long, and constructed with a great deal of complexity, but are still easy to read and interpret.

Hayes really examines the character of this woman.  She is having a crisis of self at their first meeting.  The protagonist voices: ‘Why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably food and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gauge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?’  He is revealing of both this woman, and his protagonist; we learn about both characters through the lenses of one another.  He captures the relationship between the two with honesty: ‘She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; yet, but all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love.’

When the businessman’s quite bizarre offer is made, our protagonist is baffled.  He recollects: ‘We both understood that the money, however tempting, was unthinkable, and that what she was being light and gay about, here, in the restaurant, was simply the fact that what had happened was an unusual experience, to be somewhat amazed at, obscurely flattered by, and a little amused with.’  The woman, however, takes a day or so to think about it, and does not feel as though she can refuse such a large sum of money.  This is the point at which their relationship begins to disintegrate.

In In Love, Hayes presents a simple plot device which has been so well executed, and which sustained my interest throughout.  The author has placed more focus, not upon their relationship, but upon its ending, and considers its effects.  We learn about the characters together, but the retrospective positioning is flooded with lament.  There is a bleak quality to Hayes’ prose, but it is so compelling.  The dark humour which creeps in at points works well with both the tone of the prose, and the events of the plot.  In Love is not the most cheerful book you could read this year, but I am still thinking about it weeks after reading it, and feel that this is a ringing endorsement of a successful story.

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The Book Trail: From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘The Queen of Persia’

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a short novel by one of my favourite authors of all time.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Fair Play by Tove Jansson 8915857
Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.  Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. ‘

 

2. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.  Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.  Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

 

899153. Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley
‘The three books gathered together as Eustace and Hilda explore a brother and sister’s lifelong relationship. Hilda, the older child, is both self-sacrificing and domineering, as puritanical as she is gorgeous; Eustace is a gentle, dreamy, pleasure-loving boy: the two siblings could hardly be more different, but they are also deeply devoted. And yet as Eustace and Hilda grow up and seek to go their separate ways in a world of power and position, money and love, their relationship is marked by increasing pain.  L. P. Hartley’s much-loved novel, the magnum opus of one of twentieth-century England’s best writers, is a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling; a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate. Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind—and break.’

 

4. The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille
‘Élisabeth Gille was only five when the Gestapo arrested her mother, and she grew up remembering next to nothing of her. Her mother was a figure, a name, Irène Némirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian émigré from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.  It was to come to terms with that stranger that Gille wrote, in The Mirador, her mother’s memoirs. The first part of the book, dated 1929, the year David Golder made Némirovsky famous, takes us back to her difficult childhood in Kiev and St. Petersburg. Her father is doting, her mother a beautiful monster, while Irene herself is bookish and self-absorbed. There are pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution, from which the family flees to France, a country of “moderation, freedom, and generosity,” where at last she is happy.  Some thirteen years later Irène picks up her pen again. Everything has changed. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, she lives in the countryside and waits for the knock on the door. Written a decade before the publication of Suite Française made Irène Némirovsky famous once more (something Gille did not live to see), The Mirador is a haunted and a haunting book, an unflinching reckoning with the tragic past, and a triumph not only of the imagination but of love.’

 

5. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy 776609
‘This novel centers around Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most powerfully magnetic philosophers of our time–brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark on all around him.’

 

6. Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
‘One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.  The drama that plays out among these three gifted and well-meaning people against the backdrop of Florence, the brilliance of their repartee, and the accumulating burden of their mutual misunderstandings make for a comedy of errors that is as winning as it is wise.’

 

18508567. Testing the Current by William McPherson
‘Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on The Island, and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. With his curiosity and impatience to grow up, however, Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency: the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.  In this remarkable 1984 debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed, kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.’

 

8. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
‘A story of 20th-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950s.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter’ by Elisabeth Gille ****

Elisabeth Gille’s imagined memoir of her mother, Russian-Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky, has been translated from its original French by Marina Harss.  Of Gille’s curious mixture of fact and fiction, The Nation comments that she is ‘not interested in defending her mother’s reputation.  Instead, she sets out to live in her mother’s head.’

71pytdpctqlGille was only five years old when her mother was arrested by the Gestapo for being Jewish.  Nemirovsky had spent over half of her life in France after moving around Europe a lot with her parents, trying to escape the fallout from the Russian revolution.  Gille, understandably, ‘grew up remembering next to nothing’ about her mother, who was ‘a figure, a name, Irene Nemirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian emigre from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew.  To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.’  Both of Gille’s parents were killed in Auschwitz; she and her sister Denise only survived because they were taken into hiding.

In her acknowledgment at the start of the book, Gille writes that her work ‘was imagined on the basis of other books’ – namely those which her mother wrote.  She goes on to say that all of the letters and citations which have been included throughout The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter are authentic, and have been taken from unpublished notes. Gille has attempted, throughout, to capture her mother’s own writing style, and consequently the entire book is written from the imagined perspective of Nemirovsky.  The volume, published in English by NYRB, also includes an interview with Gille, and an afterword written by Rene de Ceccatty.

The Mirador has been split into two sections – November 1929 and June 1942.  The first part takes place in Kiev and St Petersburg.  Here, during Nemirovsky’s childhood, there were ‘pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution’.  At this point, Gille writes: ‘For me, if Finland is winter and St. Petersburg, with its yellow mists shrouding the shores of the Neva is autumn, then Kiev is summer.  We were not yet rich when we lived there, just well-to-do.’  The family eventually settled in Paris, the place where Nemirovsky felt most content.  In these imaginings, particularly of Nemirovsky’s early life, her own mother appears to be a floating figure, flitting around to give orders, and giving much of her attention to clothes and ‘the season’, rather than to Irene.

The imagined memories of Nemirovsky are interspersed with brief snapshots of the author’s life when she was small.  In May 1920, for example, she ‘pulls at her mother’s sleeve; her mother is standing in the middle of the courtyard, reading.  The young woman shifts the book, pushes back her glasses, and smiles.  Her tender, myopic gaze caresses the child distractedly.  The child wrinkles her brow, releases the sleeve, and moves away.’

Gille’s echoing of her mother’s prose style has been lovingly handled, and feels relatively authentic throughout.  I had to keep reminding myself that I was essentially reading a work of fiction.  Like her mother’s, Gille’s writing is poetic and layered, filled with gorgeous and striking imagery.  Every sentence is in some way evocative, and her sentences are beautifully crafted.  A real sense of place and time have been deftly assembled.  When on a cruise down the River Dnieper, undertaken when Nemirovsky was quite young, for instance, Gille composes the following: ‘In the immensity of the Russian sky, the moon looked green, touched by the dying rays of the setting sun and crisscrossed by spectral clouds that slid over its white surface, leaving behind a trail of dark shadows.  The silver domes of the church of Saint Andrew, which we had just passed, still glimmered faintly among the trees.  The immense branches of the forest, which descended to the very edge of the river, draped the shoreline in darkness, but the middle of the current was dappled with metallic-coloured spots as far as the eye could see.’  The historical and social contexts have been well set out too, and unfolds alongside Nemirovsky’s own life.

The Mirador was not quite what I was expecting, and it is certainly unlike the majority of memoirs and biographies which I have read to date.  It was unusual, and I enjoyed the way in which Gille has approached her work.  There are some problems with the narrative, however.  It tends to jump around in place and time with no warning, and can be a little jarring in consequence.  The Mirador does, however, really come together.  It is both mesmerising and memorable, and I very much admire what Gille set out to do here.  The Mirador is vivid and sometimes quite surprising, and highlights a highly tumultuous period of history, and its effects upon one rather remarkable woman.

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‘Alfred and Guinevere’ by James Schuyler ***

I had not heard of James Schuyler’s debut novel, Alfred and Guinevere, which was out of print for almost fifty years, before I spotted rather a lovely NYRB edition in the Modern Classics section of my local library.  I was immediately entranced by its rather charming blurb, and the strength of the reviews which adorn its back cover.  Kenneth Koch calls the novel ‘witty, truthful, simple, lively, and musical’.  Schuyler, best known for his poetry, is heralded as a ‘remarkable novelist’.

In his introduction to the volume, John Ashbery writes: ‘The reader discovers that beneath the book’s apparently guileless surface lies a sophisticated awareness of the complicated ways in which words work to define the boundaries between fantasy and reality, innocence and knowledge.’  Ashbery believes that Schuyler ‘writes about the past with tenderness and humor’, the result of which is ‘a timelessly idyllic comedy of manners, where English models are inflected by 1930s small-town life in America, as seen through the gauze filters of the movies and children’s literature.’

250405-_uy475_ss475_Alfred and Guinevere are a pair of young siblings, who are sent to spent the summer with their grandmother, Mrs Miller, in the country, after their father travels on a business trip to Europe and their mother is preoccupied with subletting their New York apartment before joining him.  Of the plot of Alfred and Guinevere, Ashbery states that it is ‘insistently ambiguous, lacking in resolution’, with the “grownups” ‘barely characters, barely anything but names.’

There are elements of violence throughout Alfred and Guinevere; Alfred is beaten by his father quite often, and the siblings discover the corpse of a murdered ‘colored’ man in the park.  Regardless, the novel is often filled with childish, but rather lovely conversations, in which the siblings endeavour to make sense of the world in which they live, and their parents’ abandonment of them.  Schuyler pinpoints children’s voices marvellously; in fact, it is the real strength of the book.  When in hospital after having his appendix removed, for instance, Alfred tells another patient: ‘”I have one sister named Guinevere who can draw and do back bends.”‘

The novel is told entirely through ‘snatches of dialogue and passages from Guinevere’s diary’.  The novel proper begins with a series of fanciful stories told by the children, of what they believe their adult lives will be like.  Guinevere fancies herself as ‘one of the leading woman big spenders of her day’, and Alfred see himself becoming a ‘great hunter’ and polar explorer.  Guinevere tends to be quite precocious, but Alfred is endearing from the start.  The relationship depicted between the siblings is surprisingly complex at times; Guinevere says: ‘”It’s so difficult, learning how to behave.  We got along like cats and dogs until he almost died having his appendix out.  It makes him more grown up sometimes.”‘  In a later passage, she writes: ‘Last night Alfred put an egg in my bed.  I almost broke it getting in.  I know he did not think of it all by himself and I will fix both of them.  So far I have been very smart and not said anything.  He kept looking at me at breakfast.  I just smiled and asked him how he felt and if he got a good night’s sleep and so on.  He is getting scared.’

Whilst Alfred and Guinevere is rather a fragmented book, the reader does end up learning a lot about both children, and how they feel about one another.  Alfred provides bursts of amusement, and the differences between the children allow Schuyler to present rather a fascinating character study.  There is some semblance of plot, but those who prefer action-packed novels would probably feel a little disappointed by Schuyler’s debut.  I enjoyed the approach overall, and would have liked a little more substance to pull me in further at times; the novel was not quite as good as I was expecting after reading Ashbery’s introduction, but it is a memorable and well written tome nonetheless.

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‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

I read and very much enjoyed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman earlier this year as part of my now defunct online book group’s reading schedule.  I hoped that Summer Will Show would be just as enjoyable, but alas, I was rather disappointed with it overall.

Claire Harman’s introduction to the lovingly produced NYRB edition of Summer Will Show is wonderful.  I liked the way in which she set out the social context of the story, and of Townsend Warner’s own life in respect to it.  Let us begin with the aforementioned social elements, then.  Sophia Willoughby, Townsend Warner’s protagonist, is a modern woman in many respects, particularly with regard to when this story is set and when it was written.  She has decided to separate from her husband, who quickly moves to Paris, run a household complete with staff, bring her children up almost single-handedly, look after her Uncle Julius’ illegitimate son, and going out on male dominated hunts, for example.

'Summer Will Show' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite her strength and independence, Sophia is difficult to like, or to feel sympathy for.  She is an interesting character on many levels, but her lack of compassion and overriding coldness, particularly at the more pivotal points in the novel, is difficult for a modern reader – at least, this modern reader – to stomach.

I write about descriptions a lot in my reviews, but Townsend Warner’s are truly sublime.  The sense of place she crafts is always so well realised, and this, for me, was the real strength of the novel.  I loved the monologue at the start of Part II as well, due to the beautiful writing and the amount of contrasts and comparisons which Townsend Warner inserted.  The majority of the similes and metaphors in this monologue are lovely and inventive – for example, the similarities she draws between a cluster of dark fir trees and Hebrew lettering.

The first part of Summer Will Show, despite the darkness it included, was wonderful, but it did tail off a little afterwards.  The middle of the novel particularly dragged, and in consequence I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Suggested accompanying playlist:
– ‘Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths
– ‘Lightness’ by Death Cab for Cutie
– ‘Hospital’ by Tellison

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One From the Archive: ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker *****

First published in April 2014.

I received the gorgeous NYRB edition of Cassandra at the Wedding (pictured) for Christmas, and from what I already knew of the book, I was almost certain that I would adore it before I even began it.  This is the first of Baker’s novels which I have read, and as you can see from my five star review, I shall certainly be hunting out more of her work in future.

Cassandra at the Wedding was first published in 1962, and is hailed in its blurb as ‘a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve…  it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind’.  There is also a charming quote on the back of the book from one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  She states that “I… whose usual bed time is ten o’clock – stayed up all night reading that exquisite ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ – dazzled by the pyrotechnics of such an artist.”  High praise indeed!  The novel’s premise is so very intriguing:

‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker (NYRB)

“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racking, miserable.  At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut.  Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.”

Cassandra Edwards is exactly the kind of heroine I like, and I was endeared to her from the very outset.  Her narrative voice is exquisitely crafted, and with passages like the following, it is difficult not to see her as a tangible and brutally honest being:

“As I say, if you move, if you push a little, you can get from Berkeley to our ranch in five hours, and the reason why we [she and Judith] never cared to in the old days was that we had to work up to home life by degrees, steel ourselves somewhat for the three-part welcome we were in from our grandmother and our mother and our father, who loved us fiercely in three different ways.  We loved them too, six different ways, but we mostly took our time about getting home.”

Cassandra reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood, the narrator and protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and a character who is as vivid to me as any.  Esther and Cassandra share the same brand of wit, sarcasm and intelligence.  Although Cassandra was not always the most likeable of characters, I did come to very much enjoy her presence.  The way in which Edwards crafted her voice allowed me to know her inner workings, and she is certainly a protagonist whom, whilst I do not always agree with her actions, I respect.

The second part of the novel is told from Judith’s perspective.  She is a vastly different character to Cassandra, and using her narrative voice is a very simple technique, but it certainly works as an incredibly effective one.  Edwards is so astute; she presents the twins and their relationship – both when it is as its best and at its most strained – so very well.  Her prose is masterful and tight, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Indian Summer’ by William Dean Howells

This is a story of Mr. Colville ,experiencing what we would call a mid-life crisis, and how we view the past upon reaching middle-age. Colville has left the ownership of a small Indiana newspaper after a failed run for Congress. Seventeen years earlier, his life was on path to become an artist in the spirit of Ruskin. He moves to Florence with a young man’s high hopes, and promptly falls in love. It is hinted that the love affair was not reciprocal, but instead a passing fancy for the young woman. This failed relationship wounds him dramatically.

He leaves Florence to return to the States, and takes over the ownership of a paper his brother bought in a land deal. He is ultimately very successful, beloved by the town for his fair and even-handed news reporting. In all these years, he remains a bachelor. It is only when he steps outside of being the ‘Everyman’ and voices his own opinion in his Congressional race that the townspeople rebuff him. He, in essence, is rejected again in voicing his true feelings. As a result, he sells up and decides to give Florence and art another try seventeen years later.

Within the first day of his return to Italy, he runs into a widow, a Mrs. Bowen, her small daughter Effie and her charge for the season, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham. It seems that Mrs. Bowen, seventeen years earlier, was the best friend of the girl who threw over Colville.  As a wealthy widow, she spends the majority of her time in Florence, rarely returning to the States. Colville and she strike up an instant reacquaintance and friendship. Colville is doting upon her small daughter and charming at every party and ball they attend. It looks like Mrs. Bowen would be an ideal wife for Colville after his life of rejection. But as I mentioned, this is a mid-life crisis theme. The young and beautiful Imogene, with her sparkling youth, entrances Colville. He is living his own past. Mrs. Bowen is keenly aware of his path, but what can stop him?

I really enjoyed this, my first William Dean Howells book. His admiration for authors Henry James and George Eliot are seen, as he gives a vibrancy to the exchanges between characters and in the European setting, specific customs and mores. His great friendship with Mark Twain is evident in the clever humor and the retrospectives of an American abroad.

Rating: 4 stars

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‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker *****

I received the gorgeous NYRB edition of Cassandra at the Wedding (pictured) for Christmas, and from what I already knew of the book, I was almost certain that I would adore it before I even began it.  This is the first of Baker’s novels which I have read, and as you can see from my five star review, I shall certainly be hunting out more of her work in future.

Cassandra at the Wedding was first published in 1962, and is hailed in its blurb as ‘a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve…  it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind’.  There is also a charming quote on the back of the book from one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  She states that “I… whose usual bed time is ten o’clock – stayed up all night reading that exquisite ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ – dazzled by the pyrotechnics of such an artist.”  High praise indeed!  The novel’s premise is so very intriguing:

‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker (NYRB)

“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racking, miserable.  At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut.  Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.”

Cassandra Edwards is exactly the kind of heroine I like, and I was endeared to her from the very outset.  Her narrative voice is exquisitely crafted, and with passages like the following, it is difficult not to see her as a tangible and brutally honest being:

“As I say, if you move, if you push a little, you can get from Berkeley to our ranch in five hours, and the reason why we [she and Judith] never cared to in the old days was that we had to work up to home life by degrees, steel ourselves somewhat for the three-part welcome we were in from our grandmother and our mother and our father, who loved us fiercely in three different ways.  We loved them too, six different ways, but we mostly took our time about getting home.”

Cassandra reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood, the narrator and protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and a character who is as vivid to me as any.  Esther and Cassandra share the same brand of wit, sarcasm and intelligence.  Although Cassandra was not always the most likeable of characters, I did come to very much enjoy her presence.  The way in which Edwards crafted her voice allowed me to know her inner workings, and she is certainly a protagonist whom, whilst I do not always agree with her actions, I respect.

The second part of the novel is told from Judith’s perspective.  She is a vastly different character to Cassandra, and using her narrative voice is a very simple technique, but it certainly works as an incredibly effective one.  Edwards is so astute; she presents the twins and their relationship – both when it is as its best and at its most strained – so very well.  Her prose is masterful and tight, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

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