Sunday, July 27, 2014

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

A boy can’t find his way back to a mysterious country estate and its beautiful mistress

Augustin Meaulnes, a tall handsome boy, a bit spoiled, joins the small country boarding school run by Francois’s parents. Fran├žois is immediately fascinated by Augustin’s obvious superiority. One day, as a practical joke, Meaulnes borrows a peasant’s horse and cart. Getting lost in the winter landscape, he falls asleep. When he wakes, Meaulnes finds himself near a beautiful villa. Children laugh in the shadows and he realizes the chateau is preparing for a large party. He explores the many rooms and outbuildings of the crumbling estate.  In one room, a pretty girl plays the piano for the children's entertainment. Later, boats take the partygoers to an island so the children can play. Meaulnes engages the girl in conversation. After some meaningful looks, they part. The party gets ruined, Meaulnes gets a lift home, but once again falls asleep. Returning to the school and real life, he spends a lot of energy trying to figure out the location of the villa and the girl. Meaulnes is near despair, but methodical loyal Francois is the one who eventually tracks down the beautiful girl. For his own reasons, however, Meaulnes is torn and cannot commit to happiness.

The mysterious party scene is wonderfully done.  It reads like a fairy tale and it wasn't until Francois actually tracks down the real live girl that I realized the party wasn’t a dream, but an actual party. Also, I loved the opening section and its descriptions of French rural life at the turn of the last century. I really got a sensual sense of a vanished world. However, my enjoyment of the book was permanently marred when Le Grand Meaulnes turns out to be despicable. There is NO excuse for what he does near the end of the book. None.

I’m not sure if I understand what the big deal with this book is. It seems kind of slight. Is it because World War I wiped this fairy tale world and its hierarchies away? So far I’ve read three French novels, Mme. Bovary, Nana and this one and they all end with a beautiful young female body in extremis. What’s going on? 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Life In Men by Gina Frangello

A girl makes the most of her life

Two college girls, Mary and Nix, travel round the Greek islands. Nix is protective of Mary, who recently discovered she has cystic fibrosis and will likely live only a year or two more. Nix is determined that on this adventure Mary will experience life and lose her virginity to a handsome suave European. In scattered scenes over the course of the book, the reader learns more and more about what actually happened on that island. The remainder of the book concerns Mary’s travels in various picturesque locales and with different men as she tries to come to grips with her illness.

This story could also be called, A Life in Vacations. And although Mary does seem to order her life by the men she’s been with, it’s clear that the title is ironic. The characters felt fully three dimensional and the exotic settings, while hammy, worked well. The pace, however, was plodding and it wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through that I really started to care about what would happen to Mary. I kept weighing whether to put the book down for good, but like Beautiful Ruins, this novel revealed itself to be more complex than it seemed at first blush. The injection of the fatal illness imparted some much needed stakes to the essentially dull plot (check out this cool beach), and there was a skillful use of flash forwards to startle the reader, otherwise this story would be just another white girl’s reminiscences about junior year abroad. Once I got into the story, I admired (the way I did with Middlemarch) the semi-painful trudge through the pages which turned into something deeply moving, about how in any life certain things must be renounced. Maybe I just find it harder to be enthralled when I know the main character has a fatal illness. It makes me wonder how much stock I put in a happy ending. (Apparently a lot.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

A landlady gets more involved with her tenants than she prefers

Celia, an emotionally crushed young widow, owns a four unit Brooklyn brownstone. Hope, a hot 40 something emotionally crushed divorcee, sublets one of the apartments but Hope’s noisy and brutalizing trysts are too much for Celia to overhear.  Celia has always been careful to maintain a safe distance between herself and her tenants. Or has she? The reader learns that she is actually ministering to Mr. Coughlan, the elderly sea captain on the top floor as well as carefully observing the tension between the married couple, the Braunsteins.  Once Celia gets more involved, first with Hope, then the others, she disturbs submerged feelings she can no longer control.

At first this book transported me, then the character motivations and at times the prose (check out the last sentence) got too difficult to easily follow. So grieving women develop a dangerous taste for rough sex? Well, maybe. Also, Celia had zero sense of humor which tended to make her first person narration claustrophobic. Nonetheless, these questions didn’t derail the book for me, and the rhythms of the prose were often beautiful. The Celia/Hope story comes to a fulfilling conclusion, although the other tenants’ stories are given short shrift. Unfortunately, this novel was ultimately disappointing.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

A hanger-on develops murderous habits

The book opens with Tom Ripley, sensitive down-on-his-luck orphan, skittish of the law, being chased down a Manhattan street by wealthy Mr. Greenleaf, who can’t understand why his son Dickie won’t leave the beautiful Italian coast and return to New York to work in Dad’s boating business. Mr. Greenleaf has a proposition for Tom – he’ll pay Tom’s way to Europe if Tom tries to persuade Dickie to come home. Tom can’t believe his luck. He arrives in Italy, encountering the initially annoyed Dickie, along with Dickie’s bosom friend Marge. Dickie seems to have the perfect lifestyle of beachy luxury and creativity. Quickly Tom charms his way into Dickie's digs but when Dickie’s friendliness cools, Tom isn’t quite ready to say goodbye.

The unique thing about this book was the way Highsmith made you feel sympathetic towards Tom Ripley, who is a cold utterly unsympathetic character. Everyone who meets him (except for the somewhat dense Mr. Greenleaf) chalks him up as a loser, an outsider, a potential “sissy.” His insecurity makes you feel sorry for him. You start to root for him. The character study entwines itself with the murder mystery. I admired the way the homosexual undercurrent is a key part of the plotting and of the character development of both Dickie and Tom, yet homosexuality is never addressed or referred to head on. I guess that was part of the cultural constraints of the time.

And really what is the difference between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf – they’re both parasites. Only Dickie is comfortable being Dickie and Tom is definitely not comfortable being Tom. Tom wants things. His improvised fabrications are helped along by the dopey cops. The story got more boring for me when it turned into a cat and mouse game.  Skillful but cold.