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One From the Archive: ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ by Richard Yates ****

First published in March 2015.

I absolutely love what I have read of Yates’ work so far, and could not wait to begin Cold Spring Harbor, the 54th book on my Classics Club list.  Cold Spring Harbor is one of his much later books, first published in 1986, and dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.

Cold Spring Harbor is the small Long Island village in which much of the novel takes place.  The story’s beginning felt fresh and almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque: ‘All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles.  His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime – none of those things mattered any more, except as bad memories’.  Yates goes on to set out Evan’s character immediately, as well as the ways in which he is perceived by those around him: ‘And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun.  Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity?  Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?’

Yates does not just focus upon Evan (of whom he writes ‘it didn’t seem right for anyone so splendid-looking to have so little going on in his head’); rather, he gives us the history of the Shepard family in a thorough yet succinct manner.  He strikes a wonderful balance between Evan’s parents; his father’s stint in the army and his mother Grace’s nerves giving way prevail.  One gets the impression immediately that Yates knows everything about his characters, and the things which matter to them the most: ‘At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the Officers’ Club dance’.  Charles’ perception of his wife is as follows: ‘Most of the time – this afternoon, for example – he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself’.

A hurried marriage soon ensues for Evan with a girl from school, Mary Donovan, who had ‘the kind of pretty gace that other girls called “saucy”‘.  Yates describes the way in which ‘it was a marriage that might have occurred much later, when they were both a few years older, if Mary hadn’t found she was pregnant in the very early months of their romance’.  Both are unhappy almost from the word go: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for the burden of knowing Evan adored her, that he’d be terribly lost without her – if it weren’t for that, she knew she would now be putting her mind to finding some way out of all this’.

When the Shepard’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar part of New York, they call upon a woman named Gloria Drake, who lives in a nearby house, in order to use her telephone.  It is here that Evan meets her daughter, Rachel, whom he swiftly falls in love with: ‘She was herself: a little thin and soft, but with a wonderful look of having nearly come to life…  this was a girl you could cherish and protect’.

Cold Spring Harbor is incredibly well crafted, and deals, above all, with human emotion and the relationships which we forge with one another.  Yates also demonstrates the way in which circumstances can alter people almost unrecognisably.  He is startlingly perceptive throughout, and one of the main strengths of the novel is the way in which he views the same event from so many different angles.

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One From the Archive: ‘Young Hearts Crying’ by Richard Yates ****

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: ‘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: ‘Disturbing the Peace’ by Richard Yates *** (Classics Club #52)

I absolutely love Richard Yates’ writing, and made the decision to add a couple of his books to my Classics Club list.  The 52nd entry is his fourth novel, Disturbing the Peace, which was published in 1975.

Disturbing the Peace centres upon a salesman named John Wilder, who is in his mid-thirties, and an alcoholic.  We as readers find out a lot about him in the novel’s first passage, in which he refuses to return home to his wife Janice and son Tommy for the following reason: ‘”You really want to know, sweetheart?  Because I’m afraid I might kill you, that’s why.  Both of you.”‘.  Following this revelation, and a further spiral downwards, John spends a short spell in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.  He essentially disturbs the peace of the community in which he lives, and sends shockwaves through his once-perfect family life.

As with a lot of Yates’ other works, a large portion of his cast of characters are beset by a slew of problems.  The whole is very well written, and we really get a feel for the muddle which John’s life has so quickly become.  Yates deftly captures the human psyche and reveals it for us to see.  Disturbing the Peace is very gritty, more so than Yates’ other books.  In places, it feels a lot darker than many of his other plots; or, rather, the darkness within it is more sustained.  Unfortunately, the novel is not as gripping or as well-developed as his other novels.  Whilst it is certainly of interest, it is definitely not a book which I would recommend to begin reading Yates with.

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American Literature Month: ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ by Richard Yates ***

The Times calls Yates ‘the most perceptive author of the twentieth century’; a high accolade indeed, but one which I think he deserves.  I so enjoy his novels, and had high hopes for his short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which I borrowed from the library.

The eleven stories here – all of which first found their homes in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire – were written between 1951 and 1961, and were published together in 1962, just a year after the stunning Revolutionary Road.  Within this collection, ‘Yates creates a haunting mosaic of the 1950s, the era when the American dream was finally coming true – and just beginning to ring a little hollow’.  Kurt Vonnegut, himself a prominent author within the twentieth century’s American literature scene, deems this ‘one of the ten best short-story collections ever written by an American’.

As the title suggests, these stories are all character studies, each of which examine different degrees of loneliness or solitude.  Yates picks up on interesting details from the very start, particularly with regard to his characters’ features.  In ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, ‘the roots of his teeth were green’, and ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ begins: ‘For a little while when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends’.  Some of the moments which he captures are sublime.  For instance, in the tale entitled ‘No Pain Whatsoever’, a young woman named Myra visits her husband, a long-term hospital resident.  In our first glimpse of him, he is ‘sitting up, cross-legged, frowning over something in his lap’.  Yates goes on to describe that ‘sometimes they kissed on the lips, but you weren’t supposed to’; a rebellious act of love to save some semblance of a normal relationship.

As with his novels, Yates sets scenes masterfully.  ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, for example, begins in the following way: ‘All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the grey-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the city of New York.  A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline.  It was enough, in fact, to fill her with a sense of mission that shone from her eyes, as plain as love, from the first morning he joined the fourth grade’.  New York, too, the city in which the majority of the tales take place, is perfectly sculpted.  The same story describes the way in which: ‘Clearly he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central – the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on straight, deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game’.

As I tend to find with single-author short story collections, some of the tales here were far stronger and more compelling than others.  It can certainly be said that each, however, is a perfectly created and easy to visualise slice of life.  Both the first and third person perspectives have been used, and each of the characters are vastly different from one another, both of which serve to create a varied collection.  I am of the opinion though that Yates seems more at home with novel-length works; there were a few instances in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness which felt rushed over, or not written about to the full extent that one already familiar with his work would expect.  Sadly, the collection was not as good as I thought it would be.

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Classics Club #54: ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ by Richard Yates ****

I absolutely love what I have read of Yates’ work so far, and could not wait to begin Cold Spring Harbor, the 54th book on my Classics Club list.  Cold Spring Harbor is one of his much later books, first published in 1986, and dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.

Cold Spring Harbor is the small Long Island village in which much of the novel takes place.  The story’s beginning felt fresh and almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque: ‘All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles.  His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime – none of those things mattered any more, except as bad memories’.  Yates goes on to set out Evan’s character immediately, as well as the ways in which he is perceived by those around him: ‘And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun.  Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity?  Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?’

Yates does not just focus upon Evan (of whom he writes ‘it didn’t seem right for anyone so splendid-looking to have so little going on in his head’); rather, he gives us the history of the Shepard family in a thorough yet succinct manner.  He strikes a wonderful balance between Evan’s parents; his father’s stint in the army and his mother Grace’s nerves giving way prevail.  One gets the impression immediately that Yates knows everything about his characters, and the things which matter to them the most: ‘At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the Officers’ Club dance’.  Charles’ perception of his wife is as follows: ‘Most of the time – this afternoon, for example – he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself’.

A hurried marriage soon ensues for Evan with a girl from school, Mary Donovan, who had ‘the kind of pretty gace that other girls called “saucy”‘.  Yates describes the way in which ‘it was a marriage that might have occurred much later, when they were both a few years older, if Mary hadn’t found she was pregnant in the very early months of their romance’.  Both are unhappy almost from the word go: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for the burden of knowing Evan adored her, that he’d be terribly lost without her – if it weren’t for that, she knew she would now be putting her mind to finding some way out of all this’.

When the Shepard’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar part of New York, they call upon a woman named Gloria Drake, who lives in a nearby house, in order to use her telephone.  It is here that Evan meets her daughter, Rachel, whom he swiftly falls in love with: ‘She was herself: a little thin and soft, but with a wonderful look of having nearly come to life…  this was a girl you could cherish and protect’.

Cold Spring Harbor is incredibly well crafted, and deals, above all, with human emotion and the relationships which we forge with one another.  Yates also demonstrates the way in which circumstances can alter people almost unrecognisably.  He is startlingly perceptive throughout, and one of the main strengths of the novel is the way in which he views the same event from so many different angles.

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Flash Reviews (5th May 2014)

The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag (Flavia de Luce Mystery #2) by Alan Bradley ****
I was a little disappointed by the first Flavia de Luce mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but when I spotted its sequel in my library sale for a ridiculously low price, I couldn’t resist picking it up.  I love the idea of these mysteries; Flavia de Luce, our protagonist, is an eleven-year-old chemistry loving crime solver.  The storyline of this novel, which deals with a travelling puppet show’s arrival in Bishop’s Lacey and a subsequent murder, is appealing.  The first line – ‘I was lying dead in the churchyard’ – acts as a hook to immediately reel the reader in.

The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag begins in 1950, and takes place in the small village in which Flavia lives with her father and siblings, Ophelia and Daphne, whom she does not at all get on with.  The writing style, told from Flavia’s own perspective, is engaging from the start – far more so than I remember the first book in the series being.  Bradley crafts her narrative voice seamlessly, and each word which she utters is believable of a relatively young girl growing up in the early 1950s.  Flavia is rather a complex construct too: she is amusing, sarcastic, witty, a little full of herself, and fills scrapbooks with details of murders and poisonings.  She is also a very perceptive protagonist and reads others well – like a mini Miss Marple, I suppose.  The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag is almost neo-Gothic in its style and plot at times, and I am now very much looking forward to reading the third book in the series.

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The Easter Parade by Richard Yates ****
I so enjoyed Revolutionary Road when I read it last year that I have been scouring shelves for Yates’ work ever since.  As I have been on a book-buying ban more often than not, I have just looked at the lovely Vintage covers longingly, but when I received a £10 voucher from Waterstone’s for filling up my latest stamp card (oh, you wonderful promotion, you!), I chose one of his novels almost immediately.  I must admit that I selected The Easter Parade at random, as I am fully intending to make my way through all of his novels in the near future.

The novel focuses upon the Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce’, Yates tells us in the story’s opening line.  I am struck by how realistic his characters are.  They are all multi-dimensional, and they feel so lifelike at times that they could quite easily step from the page.  Emily is the protagonist of the piece, really.  She is such a complex construction that I found myself respecting her as a distinct being, even if I did find some of her actions a little odd or questionable at times.  The plot of The Easter Parade is rather a quiet one; Yates’ beautiful prose mainly involves itself with showing the changing relationships within the Grimes family.  To anyone who enjoys literary fiction, this novel comes highly recommended.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein ***
I had heard so many great things about this novel that I was half expecting it to be disappointing before I began to read it.  I love World War Two novels and find their every premise fascinating on the whole.  This storyline particularly appealed to me, telling as it does the story of a World War Two ‘enemy agent’, who is captured and is then consequently forced to ‘cough up’ her every recollection of the British War Effort.  Verity – the pseudonym which she goes by, as the novel’s title suggests – has just two weeks to write down everything which she remembers. Much of the plot – and, indeed, the entire second section, which is narrated by her – deals with her friend Maddie, and the things which the girls have done together.

Whilst the history of the period is set out well and details are built up as the story progresses, the novel is a Young Adult one in terms of its genre, and the almost chatty style of the prose does not sit overly well with the story which Wein has crafted.  The writing style also felt far too modern on the whole to fit the period.  I would have personally liked to see more exact and old-fashioned vocabulary, rather than the too-modern constructs which often find their way in.  The prose was a little lagging, and felt plodding in its pace at times.

Code Name Verity is a work of fiction, but it has been split up into separate sections, each with their own headings.  Whilst some of the plot was continuously told, it was forever being broken up in this manner, and this technique stopped it from being a story which the reader can successfully be immersed into.  The whole also felt a little disjointed in consequence.  Verity’s voice was not consistent enough, and everything felt a little flat, really, which was such a shame.  I also found portions of the novel very repetitive and unrealistic.  The style of Code Name Verity was not as I expected it to be, and whilst I have awarded it a rather generous three star rating (merely because it is better than a lot of the two star books which I have read of late), I ultimately found it rather disappointing.

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Flash Reviews (19th August 2013)

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot
My favourite aspect of Eliot’s writing is the way in which she crafts places.  She does so incredibly deftly, and she weaves her settings and scenes into beautiful views which come to life in front of your eyes.  I also love her writing style.  Despite this, I do not feel that novellas really suit her authorship.  She is far better, in my opinion, when she is filling a novel and crafting her beautiful words without any kind of restriction upon them.  It feels as though her creative spirit has been suppressed a little in this form, and it is a real shame.  The Lifted Veil is rather a quite novella – a nice enough story, but not a memorable one, unfortunately.

'The Luckiest Girl in the School' by Angela Brazil

‘The Luckiest Girl in the School’ by Angela Brazil

The Luckiest Girl in the School by Angela BrazilI still can’t resist a good school story, and it’s quite a few years since I left education.  I hadn’t read anything of Brazil’s before, and so I was intrigued to see how The Luckiest Girl in the School would compare to my favourite school stories – the St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton.  The book is incredibly well written, and doesn’t dumb itself down to a child or teenage audience, which I think goes in its favour.  The characters are all rather sweet.  Unlike in Enid Blyton’s school stories, there is nobody who really stands out that much, but in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think it matters particularly here.  I loved the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ atmosphere woven throughout – all the nature rambles and the school spirit, for example.  There was a little too much focus upon games and hockey for my liking, however, so for that reason I don’t feel too bothered about carrying on with the series.  Still, a very enjoyable story, and one which lends itself well to be read in the summer.

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
I have been looking forward to this novel since it came out and I first read its blurb, and despite requesting several review copies, I had to wait until it was given to me as a birthday present back in June. What I found when I opened its pages was a marvellous novel.  I am so interested in vaudeville, and this story is such a great one.  I love the way in which the story is split up into sections pertaining to the theatre – ‘Ouverture’, ‘Act 1/Act 2’, ‘Intermission’, ‘Act 3/Act 4’ and ‘Finale’.  Endicott’s descriptions are sublime, particularly those which relate to the theatre.  Her words weave a vivid picture.  I loved the relationship which she built between the Avery sisters, and their care of one another was very sweet.  The many strands of story which come together and then separate again have been well realised, and make for a very rich and unforgettable plot.  True to its content, The Little Shadows is a novel which sweeps you up and takes you on tour with it, and I for one cannot wait to read more of Endicott’s books.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The atmosphere and setting which Yates builds in Revolutionary Road builds are truly stunning.  He writes with such assertiveness, understanding and power.  The strength of this novel – and there are many strengths, believe you me – describes the fragility of life with such clarity and sadness, and he portrays the damaged elements of his protagonists in the same way.  The intricacies of the relationships which exist between characters here, some of them unexpected, are described with such knowledge that in consequence, everything feels so very realistic.  This is a novel which I have nothing but praise for.