Madeleine's Reviews > Quartet

Quartet by Jean Rhys
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Apr 05, 13

bookshelves: head-in-the-clouds-nose-in-a-book, our-libeary, 2013, blogophilia
Read from April 01 to 04, 2013

Oh, another instance of three stars signifying my failure as a reader (and possibly as a compassionate human being). I haven't felt such regretful pangs of "It's not you, it's me" and been so keenly reminded that my histrionic, womanly emotions prevented me from appreciating the finer points of a novel since A Confederacy of Dunces. At least that had moments of comedy to keep the blackness at bay; Quartet was just all hopelessness all the time. And I just couldn't take it, regardless of all the tragic beauty Rhys veritably stuffed into this inspired-by-true-events tale of woe.

I feel like such a hypocrite for recently praising Woolf's ability to summon inglorious emotions and loving her for it while allowing the same gut-wrenching talent Rhys exhibits to anger me to the point of yelling at these characters because I couldn't relish the physical relief of smacking some sense into them: The difference is that Woolf seemed to give terrible things a bigger-picture significance while Rhys's intent is not the same. There's no point to the bleakness because sometimes life just sucks. Especially if you're a woman in the early 20th century and, therefore, are expected to live as a subservient possession -- and so help you if you're not appropriately and outwardly grateful for the privilege to go through life on your hands and knees, please and thank you, sir. It takes some writing chops to believably portray the ugliness going on here and make it sound so necessarily hopeless yet so poetic, and, ye gods, does Rhys ever have 'em. It is no fault of her own that I read this with a post-women's-lib perspective, often in my office where I get to rule my department with an iron fist (or passive-aggressive guilt -- whatever, same result) and, according my boss, have instilled the fear of God in men older than I am and then go home to a husband who loves me as a person and treats me as an equal partner in our relationship: Mine is not at all the world Rhys is writing about, and I realize not being able to truly understand hers is not a bad problem to have but presents a problem nonetheless in my approach to Quartet.

It is remarkable that, for being written in the late 1920s and so clearly expressing how servile women are supposed to be, there was something so urgently timeless about this book. It's not easy for a piece of literature that's nearing its centennial to shirk the grasp of datedness but this book certainly does. And Rhys? You're fucking AWESOME for pulling that off.

I wanted to feel so badly for Marya, I really did. A husband in jail and a married man whose advances she mistakes for love make for a lousy situation, especially when the weakling she married forces her to fend for herself when that's just not feasible, leaving her to seek refuge with a couple whose interest in her well-being is so transparent a blind man could have realized their motives. It's really not her fault that she had no means of surviving on her own, let alone the knowledge or inner strength to do so even if she had found a path to freedom. What made things all the more awful was that Marya had these achingly poignant moments of hating her circumstances so much and recognizing the futility of her situation that almost -- almost! -- drove her to action if she weren't so damnably susceptible to being torn down by both her husband and the cad to whom she is a reluctant mistress. It was like watching a friend stubbornly spiral down the rabbit hole of bad decision chased by bad decision all because she had no regard for the well-intended interventions that all proved maddeningly futile. Seriously: If I had to hear one more character, even the all-bark-no-bite Lois whose big mouth only took her as far as her dominating husband would let her run, I was going to throw this book at the first guy who had the misfortune of speaking to me at the wrong time.

In the end, I couldn't help but feel like such somberly lovely prose was wasted on such irrevocably rotten characters -- not that the play of the two dueling aesthetics didn't add to the insurmountable misery that was doing a fine job of escalating on its own. But I just couldn't, in good conscience, say that I loved a book where a woman was so ruthlessly victimized by both the era in which she had the misfortune of existing and the men who dominated her without a twinge of conscience. I usually do care more that a story is told well than I do about the plot itself but this one was just too raw and too filled with hurt to ignore: The beauty of the language couldn't save the soul-crushingly appalling tale it told.
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Reading Progress

04/01/2013 page 39
21.0% ""Not that she objected to solitude. Quite the contrary. She had books, thank Heaven, quantities of books. All sorts of books."" 8 comments
04/02/2013 page 93
50.0% ""You simply don't realize that most people take things calmly. Most people don't tear themselves to bits. They have a sense of proportion and so on.""
04/03/2013 page 117
63.0% "Holy train wreck, Batman." 8 comments

Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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Jenn(ifer) They were all awful, weren't they? Ugh. Nobody writes dark characters like Jean. Sorry you didn't like it more, though!


Madeleine Jenn(ifer) wrote: "They were all awful, weren't they? Ugh. Nobody writes dark characters like Jean. Sorry you didn't like it more, though!"

Deplorable, OMG. Every time I started feeling badly for Marya, she did something that made me want to be all GROW A BACKBONE, WOMAN. I couldn't blame her for how she reacted (or, you know, didn't) but it didn't make things any easier to watch.

I loved the writing. LOVED. IT. This is just a wicked case of "Confederacy of Dunces" all over again, what with characters who annoyed and angered me far more than any sane person ought to react. Only this was worse because it was so very, very bleak. Isn't there an autobiographical element here, too, oh Wise-in-the-Ways-of-Rhys One?


Petraschneba From what I know, it is partly autobiographical, seems to me like Rhys was a pretty wicked and self-destructive person and so are her heroines.


Jenn(ifer) Madeleine wrote: "Jenn(ifer) wrote: "They were all awful, weren't they? Ugh. Nobody writes dark characters like Jean. Sorry you didn't like it more, though!"

Deplorable, OMG. Every time I started feeling badly for ..."


Yes! Marya's relationship with the husband was based on Rhys's own relationship with Ford Maddox Ford. A lot of her stuff is autobiographical. I don't know why, but my heart just bleeds for her. She's so self destructive. I just want to give her a big hug & tell her everything is going to be all right.


message 5: by Derek (new)

Derek I had the same problem with Good Morning, Midnight. The writing itself was fine - I really wanted to like it more - but the characters and the settings were so wretched. I think my three-star rating was even a bit generous.


message 6: by El (new)

El That cover... yowza. That's... something.


message 7: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 05, 2013 11:23AM) (new)

There's no point to the bleakness because sometimes life just sucks. Especially if you're a woman in the early 20th century

I can't even imagine how much. Outdated prejudices are so weird to think about.


message 8: by Aubrey (new)

Aubrey You did review it thoroughly, Madeleine, and to me that's worth much more than seeing a higher star rating and little review to show for it.


Jenn(ifer) I definitely understand your reaction to the book. It's a very healthy reaction to have. Personally, I was far too swept away by Jean to have a rational response to her book(s). I just keep imagining this young girl -- no parents -- no family -- unloved & neglected. She has a dream of being a dancer, but she isn't successful. The only things going for her are her looks and her smarts. So she does a bunch of things she isn't proud of, relies on men way too heavily -- she feels ashamed and tries to wash away her shame with alcohol -- doesn't feel she has any choice but to continue doing shameful things to survive. Yet somehow through all of this, she finds the courage to write about her life. God knows I wouldn't have the courage to spell out all of my faults for the world to read. Of course she knew what people would think of her, but she wrote anyway. Not to take anything away from VW, cos I love her, but her darker characters are still... how shall we say socially acceptable. You did a great job of explaining why the book didn't work for you :).


message 10: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Great review, wonderfully rationalized. 5 star review for a 3 star rating, like Aubrey said, that is something. I want to check her out, I'll be sure to do so in good spirits, good to know how soul-crushing she is! Sounds like her and Anna Kavan would have got along well, she's another I often compare with Woolf but I have to read in small doses for how painfully negative she can be.


Jenn(ifer) I should also say I felt similarly about Lolita. Beautiful writing, reprehensible low life pedophile as it's main character, couldn't stomach it!


message 12: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Lolita is another i need to read, but in the right mindset (and time, the one time I tried was right when I did student teaching and I felt too creepy so I stopped).
I can't wait to read Rhys though, I have a feeling her downer tales and I will get along.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

s.penkevich wrote: "Lolita is another i need to read, but in the right mindset (and time, the one time I tried was right when I did student teaching and I felt too creepy so I stopped).
I can't wait to read Rhys thoug..."


I'll admit, the whole pedophile aspect was not something I was looking forward, too. But it was actually one of my female friends who harassed me into reading the book. I am glad she did. Yes, there is a level of ugh factor in the first hundred pages, but, in my opinion, the books suddenly becomes about so much more and it wasn't until later I realized Nabokov had pulled a fast one on me. Tricky Russkie.


Jenn(ifer) This one guy wrote a hilarious and superduper smart Lolita review on this site, and he said, and I have to agree, "There is no denying that the book is phenomenally written, but the repetition of nymphette-this and nymphette-that simply overwhelmed me; I was left with an indelible image of Nabokov sitting there alternately referencing his thesaurus and a collection of kiddie porn for inspiration while hammering this out." *shudders*


message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Jenn(ifer) wrote: "This one guy wrote a hilarious and superduper smart Lolita review on this site, and he said, and I have to agree, "There is no denying that the book is phenomenally written, but the repetition of n..."

Oh, the nymphette idea is certainly a stupid one. But that is kind of the point. In the book you can notice HH has no clear definition of what this word even means. It's just an excuse to justify his wants.


Jenn(ifer) s.penkevich wrote: "Lolita is another i need to read, but in the right mindset (and time, the one time I tried was right when I did student teaching and I felt too creepy so I stopped).
I can't wait to read Rhys thoug..."


Best to wait till Tilly is, I don't know, a grandma? :)


message 17: by Dolors (new)

Dolors Well then, I think it's quite a challenge to read a story like Lolita or Disgrace (awesome book by the way) and be able to "enjoy" it... The way I see it is as if you have enough stomach to "forgive" the pedophile/abuser and atone for his sins for him... hard to digest, but that's what makes it interesting I guess!


Jenn(ifer) I thought Disgrace was a great book.

I can excuse all sorts of character flaws and peccadilloes, but I draw the line a pedophilia.


Madeleine Oh man, there are some awesome comments here. I need to come back to this as soon as I have the brain power to offer appropriately thoughtful responses.


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