First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen–Charlie Lovett

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With a subtitle like that, would could go wrong?  Add an author who was an antiquarian book dealer and this reader is sold.

Lovett’s novel is lovely because it is a mystery, it is set in England, and it involves Jane Austen.  Sometimes the writing is a little clunky, particularly in the first and last chapters.  Love comes very quickly in the last chapter without much build-up.  The lovers meet in the first chapter with a stilted argument that could have taken place in any American sitcom.  The premise drew me in, however.  Sophie Collingwood has recently graduated from Oxford and, with the luxury allowed to those from affluent families (her family inherited a fairly large estate), she is trying to decide what to do with her life post-graduation and hanging around in Oxford until she decides.  She meets Eric Hall after overhearing an obnoxious remark about women and Jane Austen that he uttered in a pub and events move quickly from there, with Eric pursuing her across the countryside to her parent’s country home and provoking her father over dinner in a way no friend or family member would have dared, all capped by a midnight kiss in the garden that curls Sophie’s toes before he dashes off to France.

Between chapters about Sophie, Lovett interweaves chapters about Jane Austen and her relationship with the much, much older Mr. Mansfield, a clergyman who is staying in the gatehouse of the local earl’s estate.  Mr. Mansfield becomes Jane’s literary confidante and even hears her confession of a childhood sin that still haunts her and that ultimately becomes the motivation for writing Pride and Prejudice.

As Jane’s relationship with Mansfield and her confidence in her own writing grows, Sophie learns of the death of her beloved uncle, who taught her to love books, and moves into his London flat and begins working for one of his book dealer friends.  Intrigue begins when two customers ask her to find a second edition of an obscure volume of morality tales by a Reverend Mansfield.  One of the customers woos her in person while the other threatens her by phone and knows too many of her daily routine details for comfort.

The novel was a fun read and, for a P & P fan, a great excuse to read more about Darcy and Lizzie and to envision the countryside Austen saw.  The mystery kept the plot moving.  Overall, a nice weekend read.

Finished 11/23/15

Hausfrau: A Novel–Jill Alexander Nausbaum (Audible)

When I was in high school, I wanted to impress my lit teacher and my classmates and so, when we were assigned book reports (don’t you hate that phrase?), I chose a thick volume, Anna Karenina.  My classmates groaned and wondered why anyone would choose a book like that.  My teacher, a wonderful teacher, but not the most nurturing woman in the classroom, just looked at me like the snot-nosed smartypants I was.  I was horrified when I finished the thick tome the weekend before the book report was due and read “End Volume I” on the last page.  What?  What?  There had not been two volumes on our shelf (I attended a small rural high school).  There was no volume I indicated on the spine or cover.  What trickery was this?  Shamefaced, I had to confess that I had only read half of this great novel when I returned to class on Monday without my book report.  Because our library, indeed, did not own volume II, I had to ask my mother to take me to the library “in town” to check out the full novel so I could complete my assignment.  And I had a lot of reading to do.  After all of this, I was so pissed when she threw herself in front of the train.  I was fifteen.  How could I begin to understand Anna Karenina.  Looking back, this is most likely the root cause of my teacher’s look when I showed her my choice.

So why, when I chose Hausfrau, which is set in modern Switzerland, and began hearing Anna relate her irritatingly unhappy existence, why, then, did I not see where this novel was going?

This novel by turns irritated and intrigued me.  I could understand and yet not understand Anna, whose husband seemed cold, whose mother-in-law was disapproving if helpful, and who felt like an outsider in her own life.  She lived inside her head too much, so much that only when she was having sex with near strangers did she step out of her head and into her body.

I wanted to slap Anna.  I wanted to slap her psychoanalyst.  And as I finally saw where this was going, I pleaded with Jill Nausbaum to take this story somewhere else, to not write a modern version of Anna Karenina.  And then the end.

I need to re-read Anna Karenina.  It is now on my list.  I wish I could talk someone in my circle into reading this so we could discuss Anna and her actions–commiserate in our frustrations or convince one another of her deserving redemption.

Finished 9/15

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August–Claire North

What would be the meaning of life if every time you died, you woke up to experience your life again from birth on?  If your body suffered the same flaws and history swirled on around you, over and over again?  Would you use the knowledge you had to your advantage–and to what advantage?  To grow wealthy?  To live longer?  To exact revenge?  To cure disease?  End wars?  What would you do?

Harry August belongs to a group of people for whom this is the case, as he learns when he is rescued by a member of the Cronus Club.  The Cronus Club has rules, of course.  Because they have rules, someone must break them.

Harry narrates the novel, but not in chronological order.  He moves back and forth through his lives.  He introduces us to characters who repeat, but play slightly different roles in his lives.  He confesses his sins and lets us watch him learn his lessons.  The World Wars become anecdotes rather than central, life-shaping events.  Childhood becomes something to be waited out rather than all-important formative years.  Death, cancer, strokes, HIV, become just another life event rather than THE life event.

Harry meets few people with whom he can be close and, when he does, the relationships nearly always end badly.  His mother dies when he is young.  His wife commits him to a mental institution.  His best friend tries to end the world and kills him.  Repeatedly.

I do not usually like reader’s guides included in books, but the questions in this pushed me because I found myself disagreeing with the premise of a question.  I actually found myself wondering how my friends would answer these questions.  I wanted to form a book club.

1.  Do you envy Harry August in any way?  If you were destined to live your life over and over again, would you see it as a blessing or a curse?

3.  “There is no loss, if you cannot remember what you have lost.”  Discuss.

13.  Ultimately The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August serves to tell us that the search for meaning in life is hopeless.  Discuss.

This one raised my hackles and sent me back into the book to a scene with a Russian prostitute.  Sophia (hmm, should have noticed that earlier) says, “You talk about decent people living decent lives as if that doesn’t mean anything, like it’s not a big deal.  But you listen–this ‘decent,’ it is the only thing that matters.  I don’t care if you theorise, Mr. Scientist, a machine that makes all men kind and all women beautiful if, while making your machine, you don’t stop to help the old mother cross the street, you know?  I don’t care if you cure ageing, or stop starvation and end nuclear wars, if you forget this–” she rapped her knuckles against my forehead “–or this–” pressed her palm against my chest “–because even then if you save everyone else, you’ll be dead inside.  Men must be decent first and brilliant later, otherwise you’re not helping people, just servicing the machine.”  Later she says, “For progress, we have eaten our souls up, and nothing matters any more.”

“Men must be decent first and brilliant later.”  Decent is the only thing that matters.  That, to a small person in this big world on this big timeline, is wonderful.

Claire North has a clear message about progress and some less clear messages about many other philosophical issues.  Which is why I want to discuss this book with my friends, my family.  Strangers.  The only person I do not want to discuss it with is Claire North, because pondering the answers is what makes it so interesting.

Finished 11/7/15

Elizabeth is Missing–Emma Healey

Debut novels often err in revealing the skeleton that supports the skin.  Emma Healey’s debut novel offers us a debut novel that turns our entire idea of the organism on its head.

Maud, an older woman of unnamed age (although later facts suggest she’s in her nineties), narrates the story, which takes its title from her overriding concern about the disappearance of her friend, Elizabeth.  Maud’s memory is slipping and she uses little notes, which she sticks in her pockets and around her house, as memory aids.  Many of these pertain to Elizabeth, who used to work at the charity shop with her, whose house is fronted by a stone wall with colored rocks along the top.  Elizabeth’s house is one of the “new” houses built after the war.  Elizabeth collects majolica pottery and specializes in pieces that features reptiles and bugs.  This fascination suits Maud, who collects odd bits, including the occasional bug exoskeleton.  Maud has a carer in the mornings and her daughter, Helen, checks on her in the afternoons/evenings.

Healey quickly leaves us clues, like Maud’s slips of paper, to let us know that Maud’s memory is going more quickly than Maud realizes.  Soon we are questioning whether she should be left alone.  The anxiety over Maud’s welfare is just one emotion that Healey ratchets up over the course of the novel.  She manipulates our concern about Elizabeth like the conductor of an orchestra, first leading it one way, then another.  Just when we think we have a handle on what is happening, we discover that Maud’s sister, Sukey, disappeared when she was young and was never found.  Maud’s concern about Elizabeth’s disappearance seems to evoke memories of Sukey’s disappearance and soon the two become a bit confused.  As we learn more of the facts behind the two cases, as we become more clear, Maud becomes less clear and is moved out of her home and in with her daughter and granddaughter, whom she does not always recognize.

This novel grabbed my heart from the first page and did not let go even when I closed the covers.  I ached for Maud and her slow descent into dementia.  I ached for the long-standing wound left by the loss of her sister, ripped open anew by the loss of her best friend.  I ached for her daughter, who by turns mourned the loss of her mother and felt embittered by the responsibility left to her by her distant brother.  Healey made me ache from so many directions there was no relief no matter which way I looked in the plot.

The structure of this novel also grabbed me as I first sensed and then, when I had to close the pages because reading was just too intense at times, analyzed that the emotional wreckage was not all that was disturbing.  Healey creates a narrator who was lovable but untrustworthy, although to what degree was unclear.  Maud’s dementia made her a destabilizing narrator and Healey never gives us a second or third voice with which to right ourselves.

Elizabeth is Missing is going on my shelf, but I will not need to reopen its covers to remember why it earned its place there.  I cannot wait to see where Emma Healey takes us next.

Finished 11/10/15

God Help the Child–Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a terrifying eye-opener for me on several levels–race, gender, class to start.   That wood shed still haunts me.

I was excited to read that she would be publishing a new novel and I opened her pages ready for the rich characters I had come to expect from her.  She did not disappoint.

Bride is born too dark to light-skinned parents.  Unable to believe she is his, her father abandons his family and her mother punishes Bride for the darkness her genes gave her. Bride is not horribly physically abused, but the emotional abuse she reveals throughout the brief novel is terrible.  Bride turns all of the negative feelings about her skin into an asset when she leaves home, hires a consultant, becomes a makeup mogul and dresses in whites to offset her blue-black skin.  The darkness that caused her mother to shun her becomes her brand and the element that draws men to her.  She is the image of confidence until her current lover, Booker, walks out saying she is not the woman he wants.  Her confidence is shattered and her body begins regressing to girlhood–her pubic and armpit hair disappear, then her hips and breasts.  She tries to make good on a mistake she had made as a child and discovers sometimes there is no forgiveness.  She is adrift, on leave from work, uncertain about her future, until she takes a road trip to find Booker and ends up in a cabin more likely found in a Stephen King novel, where she meets an enigmatic young girl whose attention brings her back to herself.

Bride is the character I expected from Morrison, but the novel’s ending left me wondering about the title.  There is no forgiveness for Bride’s mother and Bride’s future at novel’s close is still uncertain.  Bride’s mother warns us to be careful of how we treat children, but her words are hardly necessary.  Bride has shaped her entire life to deny what her mother’s parenting drilled into her.  Parents beware.  God help the child–and grant parents forgiveness for the wrong that they do.

Finished 10/30/15