Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Light of Evening by Edna O'Brien

Separated by miles and differing moral outlooks, a mother and daughter will never break their bond

Dilly, an old woman from rural Ireland, falls ill and reluctantly allows herself to be admitted to the hospital in Dublin. Between flashbacks of Dilly’s long ago stay in Brooklyn working as a housemaid, and snippets of her daughter’s Eleanora’s doomed marriage to an old crab, we see Dilly anxiously awaiting a visit from the beloved Eleanora, a famous writer. However, the visit is ultimately disappointing as Eleanora soon rushes away to be with her unfeeling lover, mistakenly leaving behind her journal in which she beautifully describes her conflicted feelings about her mother.

This novel is, like some others I have been reading lately, all about the voice. And what a voice it is. The actual warp and woof of the writing, the description of landscapes and sexual encounters, is absolutely stupendous. Long sensual sentences with lots of commas alternate with homey country talk. The passionate people and their dialogue. No one is buttoned down here. Character is built through dialogue. The Brooklyn sections contain a big Irish Christmas dinner scene reminiscent (deliberately no doubt) of Portrait of the Artist. This is also a very credible historical novel, depicting the Irish immigrant experience.  I learned a lot.

But I wonder, despite the sensual beauty of the senses and rush of emotion, can Edna O’Brien do plots? I have read several Edna O’Brien books and they all have the same plot. (Which I understand to be the plot of Edna O’Brien’s life.) And in this one, a key plot twist (the mother reading the honest journal) comes about pretty hokily. But I enjoyed this so much I am going to seek out some of O'Brien's books that are about something other than O’Brien's life.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Prosperous Friends by Christine Schutt

The breakup of a young marriage

Ned and Isabel have recently graduated from MFA programs and are intent upon beginning their writing career. Ned is further along than Isabel, being more diligent. Sensitive Isabel just seems like she can’t get comfortable. Ned is also intent upon bringing Isabel to orgasm, but she seems uninterested in going there (although she does indulge in the occasional extramarital dalliance). This story unfolds over two years, in London, New York and Maine.  In Maine, Isabel is invited to be a model for noted painter Clive Harris. The two of them are also engaging in a little affair (characteristically she is unperturbed that Clive has no interest bringing her to orgasm). Clive, along with his easygoing wife Dinah, offers his guest house for the young couple to live. It’s in Maine that Isabel and Ned decide to part.

The strength of this was not the plot, but the exquisitely beautiful writing.  The beautiful writing doesn’t, as you might suppose, support description, but rather character development. Some of the paragraphs are amazing little micro stories/character studies. Also the dialogue is wonderful. Indirect and funny. The dialogue, as well, builds character. The stakes of the novel, obviously, are low. I cared about the two main characters, but let’s face it; every single person in this book was rich, with no real problems. Unless you consider not having a super strong work ethic or being uninterested in have your husband give you an orgasm counts as a real problem. At times I returned to reread certain paragraphs, they were so lovely and insightful. But in the back of my mind a voice was muttering about the coming revolution.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Love triumphs in a time of chaos

For years, Dr. Manette was unjustly imprisoned in the Bastille, his sanity broken and happy life with his wife and child irretrievably destroyed. His malefactors are evil French noblemen twins, whose impunity from their many violent crimes is embedded in the unfair social structure of France. Once the doctor has been released to the care of loyal manservant Defarge, Manette’s lovely daughter Lucy nurses him back to mental health in democratic England. There Lucy entertains two suitors, the mysterious Charles Darnay, emigrant teacher of French, and hard drinking wisecracking tip top lawyer Sydney Carton. Strangely enough, both men bear a remarkable resemblance to each other. Meanwhile, Carton doesn’t have a chance with Lucy, though after her wedding to Darnay he takes his place as trusted family friend. Finally, the intolerably repressed peasants of France revolt and seek a terrible revenge against their well-bred oppressors. The Manette family is soon trapped by the competing claims of justice and mercy. Who will restore their simple happy life?

I have never really taken Dickens seriously, because I thought, despite those amazing sentences, his books lack real people and are populated by oversize variably colored papier-mâché heads. And the women—really! But A Tale of Two Cities left me entranced, touched by these frankly sentimental characters. The sweep of the story was cinematic, as was to be expected in the days before cinema. Also, I loved the excitement at the end when the narration slipped into intense second person to describe the coach carrying the escaping Manette family to freedom. Finally, I blubbered at the climax.

The technical storytelling skills are excellent, and the minor characters take on a life of their own. Mr. Lorry, the businessman, is the most sentimental of the bunch, and Lucy Manette, who I always thought of as a vapid blonde, is actually a pretty tough customer. Sydney Carton is a jolt of iconoclastic energy. The ultimate end of revolutionary psychology is depicted and the symptoms of the doctor’s post traumatic stress are carefully detailed. Even Madame Defarge gets sympathy during her murderous final walk, when her past as a little girl walking on the sand of the beach is evoked.

The symbolism and imagery was deep and resonant. One character obsessively makes shoes to forget, and one character obsessively drinks to forget, and one character obsessively knits in order to remember. There are two set of twins. And what is the meaning of the phrase, Recalled to Life? The story makes good use of the powerful emotional release ignited by the second chance. The resurrection.

Mr. Dickens, I stand corrected. This was a wonderful book.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Kiss From Maddalena by Christopher Castellani

During World War II, a poor Italian village boy falls in love with a rich beautiful village girl

The village of Santa Cecilia must evacuate as the war comes perilously near. The only people to remain behind are bright shy Vito Leone and his insane bedridden mother. Vito is in love with Maddalena Piccinelli, the beautiful daughter of the town grocer. After the town is deserted, Vito guards the Piccinelli house, carefully repairing the damage inflicted by German soldiers. But when the Piccinellis return, will he be granted Maddalena’s hand in marriage?

After plowing through 250 pages, I had to bail on this novel. The pace was too sluggish and there didn’t seem to be any forward momentum. Everything had to be explained and nothing seems to happen and I didn’t care about any of these people. Luckily the story picked up a little after the first fifty pages but that’s only because World War II was going on in the main street of the little village. But somehow there was a disconnect between the massive upheaval caused by the war and the hopes and desire and emotional state of the characters. The war seemed like just another minor inconvenience.

The strength of the book was the careful depiction of the many characters. They are all distinguished from each other, with dark and light portions to their personalities. Unfortunately, I didn’t care about Vito and I didn’t care about Maddalena. Nobody in this village was compelling.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy

A Montreal family deals with hopeless poverty at the outset of World War II

The LaCasse family, neer-do-well dad, Azarius, perpetually pregnant maman Rose-Anna, shallow pretty daughter Florentine, and sickly Daniel, as well as a host of other children, are forced to change lodgings every year because of their constant poverty. They live in Saint Henri, a slum of Montreal, at a time when Canada is emerging from the Depression, and sending boys overseas to fight for England and now defeated France.  Soon it becomes apparent to everyone that a soldier’s job has pay.  Florentine, the main financial support of her family, longs for pretty clothes and to be the boyfriend of handsome curt Jean Levesque. Rose-Anna wants her children to be happy, and also for a neat spacious house of her own. The plot of the story is just one awful thing happening after another.

It’s like a Quebecois Grapes of Wrath. The characters are the point here, carefully described, their modest longings. The novel consists of one character study after another, like beads on a necklace. (Or Rosary maybe?) I loved the mother Rose-Anna, she just trudges on through one appalling situation after the next. There's a wonderful scene where the whole hapless family takes a trip back to the farm where Rose-Anna grew up, for maple sugaring time. The descriptions are wonderful. Even the minor characters are well drawn, like the English nurse, Jenny, in Danny’s hospital. The ending definitely feels like there will be a sequel. However, this is not a heartwarming piece. The reader understands that there really is  not any hope.  All the characters are forever mired in poverty and bad judgment.