In a Dark Wood–Amanda Craig

I enjoyed Craig’s Life of Idleness, but this novel, which precedes it, was leaps and bounds beyond it in terms of dragging me into its dark wood and making me more interested in what was in the dark than what was lit.

Benedick Hunter is newly divorced from his author-wife and is in such a deep depression that he cannot even face seeing their two children, Cosmo and Flora.  The novel begins as Benedick is packing up their London home and he finds a book of fairy tales written by his mother.   It falls open and he begins to read and so begins his odyssey to discover who his mother was and why she killed herself when he was six years old, the same age as his son, Cosmo.

No one wants to give him straight answers about his mother, even her friends and certainly not his father, whom he resents and dislikes with the passion usually only a teenager can muster.  Benedick blames his father for his mother’s death, as they had divorced that year when Nell, Benedick’s stepmother, entered the picture.

Benedick’s mother-figure is Ruth, with whom he goes to live after leaving the home he had shared with his wife.  Ruth is a psychotherapist by trade, but does not push Benedick and allows him to sulk in squalor and only pushes gently when he asks questions.

Ruth, like Benedick’s mother, is an American ex-patriot and she pushes Benedick to go to America to meet his maternal relatives.  He avoids this action until he has talked to everyone he can think of in England who knew his mother and only when he reads one more fairy tale does he realize all of his answers are across the ocean.

Benedick and Cosmo engage in a great adventure that seems out of whack from the start as Benedick bounces on the hotel bed for so long each day that even young Cosmo becomes bored with it, but Benedick is still enchanted.  They do New York to see his mother’s publisher, then hit the South to meet his aunt, who lives in a old Southern estate that she now runs as a guest house, along with her daughter, Rose, with whom Benedick falls in love instantly.  She is the woman from his mother’s illustrations and he creates a world around her that mixes desperation for belonging and love that Freud would have much to say about.  It’s only after they sleep together that they discover yet another of Benedick’s mother’s dark secrets, one which causes  Benedick to try to kill himself and which leads him to the answers he had sought so hard for most of the novel.

Craig weaves Benedick’s descent into serious mental illness with the palimpsest of his mother’s mental illness in the fairy tales into an engaging tapestry (much like the cover) that draws the reader deeper and deeper into the dark wood of their minds and the dark wood of the fairy tales.  She is so successful that one almost needs a prescription to recover their equilibrium after closing its covers.

Since Craig returned to Benedick’s ex-wife’s character, if only indirectly, in Life of Idleness, I have high hopes that we might see more of Benedick, hear an update on his condition, and that of young Cosmo and Flora, in her future work.

Finished 4/29/12

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Love in Idleness–Amanda Craig

Smart chick lit.  Love it.

Theo and his British wife, Polly, have rented an Italian farmhouse near Cortona for a two-week summer holiday.  They’ve invited Polly’s friends, Hemani and her son Bron, and Ellen, a shoe and handbag designer, to join them.  Theo’s brother, Daniel, and his friend, critic Ivo, along with Theo’s and Daniel’s mother, Betty, round out the adults.  Guy, a gardener made famous on Channel 4, joins later.  Polly’s and Theo’s children, Tania and Robbie, provide impish/ill-bred undertones to the vacation.

Theo has made partner in his firm and is a workaholic who has stopped having sex with Polly.  Polly has let herself go and has lost herself in being the stay-at-home mom she desired in the face of her academic-feminist mother’s own benign neglect.  Daniel is an American academic who stayed in Britain after graduate school and now feels pressure from Betty to marry, preferably Ellen.  Hemani is a recently divorced eye surgeon who has cut herself off from her sexuality in order to be the perfect single mother.  Ivo plays the inveterate playboy.

Craig creates her story along the lines of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with firefly fairies and love potions.  Daniel needs to realize he is really in love with Hemeni and Ellen that she really needs Ivo.  Theo and Guy have secrets to reveal, also.  Poor Polly’s story is left to be told in another volume, which is possible as Craig has interwoven one large cast of characters through at least three novels, as she relates in her acknowledgements.

The story is genius, really.  It combines the Anglophile’s fantasy of living in Britain and the American’s romance of vacationing in Italy.  Curvy women find love, paunchy men get goddesses.  Vile children become sprites and the drudgery of caring for home and children becomes a life phase.  And Shakespeare fans get to live a good story all over again.  What’s not to like?

I’m starting Craig’s In a Dark Wood and approach it like a bag of Lay’s.  You can’t eat just one.

Finished 4/26/12