I like it for many of the reasons other reviewers have given, but the voice I hear when I'm reading this is pained, and I need something more upliftin...moreI like it for many of the reasons other reviewers have given, but the voice I hear when I'm reading this is pained, and I need something more uplifting right now.(less)
If you’ve heard of Wharton, you probably recognize Ethan Frome, published in 1911 and still her best-known novel. The companion piece is not nearly as...moreIf you’ve heard of Wharton, you probably recognize Ethan Frome, published in 1911 and still her best-known novel. The companion piece is not nearly as famous, but I can see why they belong together. Although not set in upper-crust New York like most of Wharton’s fiction, both short novels offer just as fascinating an insight into the young lover’s hot-blooded struggle against polite society. Presenting the stories in chronological order, this edition offers an equivalent to a whole House of Mirth or Age of Innocence. Just don’t read Elizabeth Strout’s introduction first, which gives everything away.
Ethan’s story is touching in its simplicity. New England in winter, the biting frost, the colder marriage and crushing despair were all rendered beautifully in the 1993 movie starring Liam Neeson, superbly cast as the tragic hero. Reading Wharton’s crystalline sentences, the cinematic images replayed in my head, and every bit of foreshadowing stood out like black spruces in the snow, adding to the constant pang of knowing it can only end badly for everyone.
By her own admission, though, the author grew tired of the novel’s acclaim – understandable considering she went on to produce a total of some 60 works, including poetry, short stories, essays on writing, and books on war, travel and architecture. Still, Ethan continues to appeal. Could it partly be that, no matter how poetically logical the ending, the hero’s plight feels like the reader can still do something about it? Maybe that’s the ultimate effect of the narrator, whom Wharton thought about a great deal before deciding he would tell Ethan’s story. The framing chapters emphasize how many years have gone by, but, as one critic has said, it also gets in the way of the plot events’ realness. We don’t so much have a visceral reaction as that “formal feeling” Emily Dickinson wrote about.
Maybe it’s why, in 1917, Wharton gave Ethan a fellow sufferer in Charity Royall, the heroine of Summer. Everything Ethan was and did, Charity isn’t and will not – let’s just say her name belies her outlook. Yet she is every bit as trapped as he was, which makes her as compelling a character. Even her situation is as complicated as his was straightforward: she lives with Mr. Royall, the lawyer who “brought her down from the Mountain” when she was a little girl and his wife was still alive. She has his last name but isn’t his daughter; she had a chance to enroll in boarding school but declined because her widowed guardian would be lonely. Now 17, she hates everything, including her lonely widowed guardian.
If Charity is Ethan’s counterpart and Mr. Royall is her Zeena, then the Mattie of Summer is Lucius Harney, a fervent young architect from the city. The novel is as brief, but the plot wends and turns more, like the landscape around its small-town setting. The characters, too, are more substantial, especially the ostensible antagonist. This creates an even more wretched conflict among them, even though the atmosphere is all sun-warmed pastures and autumnal sparkle. Summer gives us seasonal imagery at its best.
Because I didn’t know anything the novel, its ending surprised me and felt abrupt at first. But now that I think about it, Charity’s story not only complements Ethan’s but ultimately completes it. Reading both offers a thrilling study in contrasts and a rare glimpse of how an author continues to grow, sharpening her powers of perception and honing her craft.(less)
This book clearly suffered from my reading it in bed, where the ponderous prose just lulled me to sleep every few pages. I have a long flight coming u...moreThis book clearly suffered from my reading it in bed, where the ponderous prose just lulled me to sleep every few pages. I have a long flight coming up, so maybe I’ll fare better with it then. Or maybe Kate Morton and Ian McEwan just do unreliable narratives and pacing much better. Stay tuned.(less)
Poor Tess, wronged by every man in her life, including the one who created her.
I know we have Hardy to thank for one of literature’s most memorable ch...morePoor Tess, wronged by every man in her life, including the one who created her.
I know we have Hardy to thank for one of literature’s most memorable characters, but the man was merciless. Summing up his heroine after her first ordeal: “Tess thus changed from simple girl to complex woman. Symbols of reflectiveness passed into her face, and a note of tragedy at times into her voice.… Her soul [was] that of a woman whom the turbulent experiences of the last year or two had quite failed to demoralize. But for the world’s opinion those experiences would have been simply a liberal education.”
The trenchancy of that last line! Tess is not stupid; she “had passed the Sixth Standard in the National School under a London-trained mistress.” She rebukes her assailant herself: “‘Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?’” And she learns from her mistake: “There should be no more d’Urberville air-castles in the dreams and deeds of her new life. She would be the dairymaid Tess, and nothing more.”
But that’s only in Chapter 15. There’s 44 more.
“Tess Durbeyfield, then, in good heart, and full of zest for life” buries her sorrows and starts a new life. Enter Angel Clare, 26, minister’s son beloved of Talbothays’ dairymaids. His first thought about Tess? “What a fresh and virginal daughter of Nature that milkmaid is!” Well … that’s his second thought, but it hardly portends true love. Yet Tess has long loved Angel, so by the next phase, ominously titled The Woman Pays, she is so devoted to him that it’s “indeed almost pitiful.” She says things like: “It is you … who ought to strike the blow. I think I should love you more, if that were possible, if you could bring yourself to do it.… I am so utterly worthless!’” A familiar payment exacted of abused women.
Yet Tess is not, in the end, a victim. That’s Hardy’s point – the reason he so cruelly sports with her, challenging her to rescue herself from every distress. Like Hedda and Medea, she was created for tragedy. So, poor Tess … more sinned against by her author than by anyone else – even the girls in English class who don’t understand her and can’t stand her.(less)
Animal is an unforgettable narrator. Foul-mouthed and unapologetic, he is nonetheless capable of lines that make you burst out laughing: “Is it kind t...moreAnimal is an unforgettable narrator. Foul-mouthed and unapologetic, he is nonetheless capable of lines that make you burst out laughing: “Is it kind to remind a blind man that he could once see? The priests who whisper magic in the ears of corpses, they’re not saying, ‘Cheer up, you used to be alive.’ No one leans down and tenderly reassures the turd lying in the dust, ‘You still resemble the kebab you once were … ’”
He might have been “a beautiful little boy” before “that night,” but the Apocalypse literally twisted Animal for life, and his rage is unquenchable. People like Ma Franci, Nisha, “doctress” Elli of the new clinic, and even the jarnalis who asks for his story treat him with compassion, but the angry young man lives alone in the ruined shell of the poisoned factory abandoned by the Kampani. Animal has no more use for humanity.
Or so he wants you to think. Writing in the Guardian after this novel made the 2007 Booker shortlist, author Indra Sinha described a relationship with Animal: “I was appalled by his language, was certain it would lose me readers, but one cannot censor one’s characters.… That is exactly how I heard him speak.” Sinha went on to create a full-fledged website for Khaufpur, though now defunct, which brought the fictional town to life. Book and site also sparked, briefly, renewed interest in the victims of India’s real industrial holocaust, the 1984 Union Carbide toxic-gas leak in Bhopal.
By giving Animal his unfaltering voice, and by paying tribute to the people of Khaufpur in the book’s title, the author treats such victims with dignity. He portrays them without the sentimentality or guilt that we privileged readers could well succumb to – an achievement that calls to mind Masuji Ibuse’s clear-eyed Black Rain. As Sinha wrote, this novel “is about people struggling to lead ordinary lives in the shadow of catastrophe.” That’s what makes it such a profoundly moving human story. For that, it deserved the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, which it won in 2008.(less)
Like Emma Moresco, one of the more important characters, I enjoyed the tour of Cornwall that we get in this novel, the author’s 10th. Even though I’ve...moreLike Emma Moresco, one of the more important characters, I enjoyed the tour of Cornwall that we get in this novel, the author’s 10th. Even though I’ve never been to Truro or Torquay or Pangbourne (and am not likely to visit any of these places), his succinct descriptions strike some sort of universal chord. Here’s one: “Battersea Park was bathed in crystalline sunlight, gilding the yellows and reds of the trees around the boating lake and etching the lines of the power-station chimneys beyond Queenstown Road. Children on their way home from school were playing with their mothers, the high notes of their carefree voices rising above the plaintive wail of the peacocks and the distant growls of the traffic.” Take away the names of the park and the road, and of course the wailing peacocks, and I feel right at home in a paragraph like this.
The setting, in fact, became more interesting than the characters – maybe because there were too many Napiers and Lanyons and minor players to care about by the time we get to know who’s who. Or who says they’re who. By page 2, for instance, we know Gran is going to play a major role, but even by page 200 I felt I still didn’t know her well enough to become upset by the gravity of that role. These characters might have been more sympathetic in a TV-movie adaptation, maybe. (I can see Penelope Wilton as Gran.) As a result, even Chris remained a detached figure, as if I were one of the gossiping neighbors to keep at bay instead of the audience of his story. His own determination to keep his distance from his family seemed to work too well. The deus ex machina in the ending doesn’t help.
Still, this is definitely one for Goddard’s followers. And those who’ve been to Cornwall, maybe. Or you could wait for the movie.(less)
From the only P.D. James I’ve read (Children of Men), I think she’s a first-rate storyteller. And how could someone like me pass on Pemberley, revisit...moreFrom the only P.D. James I’ve read (Children of Men), I think she’s a first-rate storyteller. And how could someone like me pass on Pemberley, revisited? But although this trifle is not a mashed-up mutant, neither did it turn out to be the Christiesque mystery I’d hoped for. It’s gothic-lite melodrama at best. Added to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and all the grotesque penny dreadfuls that has spawned, I think we owe it to Austen to let Lizzy, Darcy et al. live happily ever after already.(less)
If, like Abu (co-owner of the Jewish-Arab restaurant across from the U.N. building in New York), you are enchanted by “the music of the sentence,” you...moreIf, like Abu (co-owner of the Jewish-Arab restaurant across from the U.N. building in New York), you are enchanted by “the music of the sentence,” you’ll love lines like these:
“Dip a slice of bread in batter. That’s September: yellow, gold, soft and sticky. Fry the bread. Now you have October: chewier, drier, streaked with browns. The day in question fell somewhere in the middle of the french toast process.”
If you agree that “the inability to correctly perceive reality is often responsible for humans’ insane behavior,” you might like to join Can o’ Beans in his journey to Jerusalem, home of Salome of the Seven Veils. Your travel companions would be Spoon, Dirty Sock, Conch Shell, and Painted Stick. Be careful when crossing the road.
My favorite Robbins for its wit and humor. Describing the last quarter of the 20th century: “It was a time when women openly resented men, a time when...moreMy favorite Robbins for its wit and humor. Describing the last quarter of the 20th century: “It was a time when women openly resented men, a time when men felt betrayed by women, a time when romantic relationships took on the character of ice in spring, stranding many little children on jagged and inhospitable floes.” In such times, the moon seems pointless, and Prince Charming is a toad.
But girl (Leigh-Cheri of Seattle, former princess) does meet boy: “They snuggled closer, and when they were as close as they could get without being behind one another, they commenced to kiss again.” When girl loses boy: “‘I’ll follow him to the ends of the earth,’ she sobbed. Yes, darling. But the earth doesn’t have any ends. Columbus fixed that.”
So does girl get boy back and live happily ever after? Well, let’s just say, “Yes, this is the book that revealed the purpose of the moon.” Read it to find out how, and to enjoy Robbins at his most fun.(less)