Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain

In 1954, two quite remarkable things, that may or may not be connected, happened at the Saint Antoine vineyards, in the Beaujolais wine region:

  • The vintage was of exceptional quality; a wine that in the years before and the years after would be considered as no more that a decent table wine was lauded for a single year.
  • A man saw an unidentified flying object. He reported it to the authorities and they filed away his report, another to add to the exceptionally high number of similar reports that year.

Twenty-four years later, in 1978, that same man recognised the same unidentified flying object that he had seen in a very famous film. When he said just that, he wasn’t taken seriously, and so he went home. He decided that it was time to drink his last bottle of that wonderful 1954 vintage; he added a splash to his dog’s bowl, as he always did; and then they went out for a walk. Neither of them were seen again, and it seemed that they has disappeared into thin air.

That is simply the introduction; and it will all be explained in the main story, which begins in 2017 and is full of the charm, the warmth, the lightness, the humanity, for which its author is renowned – and, of course, a dash of the fantastical.

That story begins with a man named Hubert ,who lives in a building in Paris that has been in his family for generations; though their stake has diminished over the years, and Hubert only owns the apartment where he lives. After a sparsely attended residents meeting he goes down to his cellar to look for something; he spots a dusty bottle of 1954 Vintage Beaujolais; but then he realised that he had locked himself in.

Hubert’s cries for help are heard by an American who has just arrived in Paris for the very first time, and who has rented an apartment for the duration of his trip. Bob is startled, but he is delighted to meet one of his temporary neighbours, and to be invited to share the bottle of wine. Two more residents arrive home –  Julien, a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar, and Magalie, a restorer of antique ceramics – and they are invited along too.

Next morning, the quartet who had drunk the vintage wine woke up in 1954.

It took them some time to realise what had happened. Hubert, who had the strongest ties to the place where he lived and his history, was first.

Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.

Bob, who was a stranger to the city, took was last to realise what had happened; but having someone with them who was unfamiliar with the country was a blessing for the group, because he had accepted Francs in exchange for his US Dollars and when he knew what had happened he was happy to share them with his new-found friends.

It was lovely watching the four of them out in the Paris of 1954 – which was beautifully evoked – and their adventures brought lovely and diverse qualities to the story.

  • Hubert met a long-lost relative, he discovered that his story was rather different to the one he had been told, and he learned something that could be very useful to him in 2017.
  • Julien went to the bar where he worked met its founder – Harry MacElhone – and impressed him and his customers by creating a wonderful new cocktail.
  • Bob did the things he had always intended to do on his holiday, and he did something that he hoped might change his future.
  • Magalie went to the haberdashery where she thought she might run into the grandmother who had brought her up and who she missed terribly.

It was lovely to move through the city with them, and to spot many notable figures who were in Paris in 1954. I won’t name them all, but I must share one encounter.

Still thinking out how his new cocktail would turn out, Julien paid little attention to the couple who had come in and sat down at the bar. They were discussing the dress the woman would have to wear for the preview of a film in New York. Her elegant companion smiles, ‘Just two more fittings, Audrey, I promise.’

‘I’m counting on you, Hubert. This film is important to me and it’s also important to do justice to your creations,’ replied the young girl in delightfully accented French.

Julien turned to look, and froze. The young girl with the short hair and dark eyes smiled at him and asked, ‘What is that pretty purple drink?’

‘It’s something I’m trying,’ stammered Julien, ‘with violet syrup. But no one has tasted it yet.’

‘I love that no one had lasted it yet,’ enthused Audrey.

‘I’ll have one too,’ said the elegant young man.

As he prepared their cocktails, Julien listened discreetly and deduced that she had made a film, ‘Sabrina’, which took place in Paris and was about to be released.

‘What do you think?’ asked Julien anxiously when she had taken two little sips

‘What do I think?’ she repeated, looking doubtfully up at the ceiling before looking at Julien. ‘It’s very, very good!’ she declared, with a disarming smile.

All of this was lovely, but it wasn’t something that could go on for ever.

Julien had been able to put together a plan of action to take the four friends back to 2017, because he was  the great-grandson of the man who went missing in 1978, he knew what had happened in 1954 …. but would it work?

The resolution of the story was not as strong as what had gone before, because there was an awful lot to sort out. It was all sorted out, but the plot mechanics and contrivances overwhelmed the charm of the characters and their experiences for a while.

I can’t think of a way it could have been handled better though, there’s nothing I would have wanted taken out to make things simpler, and so I am thinking if it as the small price that I had to pay for all the lovely things in this book.

I might have used the would lovely too many times, but I think it’s the right word for this book.

It’s not perfect, but it is a lovely confection.

China Court by Rumer Godden (1961)

This book tells the story of the days immediately before and after the death of a Cornish matriarch, who knows that, given the chance, her children would sell her beloved home.

That alone would have made me pick up the book, because I love the author, and because I love that this story is set in china clay country; a part of Cornwall that I have rarely read about in fiction, though it is an important part of the county’s history and heritage.

The narrative moves back in time to tell stories of previous generations who lived there, not in the way of most novels that have stories set in different points in time, but in a way that feels completely natural and right. Sometimes a thought, a sound, a sight can spark a memory can stir a memory; sometimes of just a moment of time and sometimes of a whole story of people, places and incidents long past.

That is exactly the way this book works. Rumer Godden did this same thing in an earlier work, A Fugue in Time, and in this book she works with more characters, more history, and – I think – rather more refinement.

I was captivated with the story of the elderly matriarch, who was cared for by a lady not a great deal younger who had been her companion; by the story of a granddaughter she called to her side, who had loved the house as a child but had not been there for many years, as when her mother was widowed she had decided to return to her native America, and pick up the threads of her career as an actress; and by the story that played out when daughters returned, with husbands in tow, to look over what they thought was their rightful inheritance.

China CourtThat story became so real to me, and so did many stories from the past. I’m thinking of Eustace and Adza, who bought the house and established the dynasty. I’m thinking of Lady Patrick, the daughter of a wealthy and aristocratic family who eloped with the son of the house and struggled with her changed circumstances, her faithless husband and two young sons. At first I couldn’t warm to her, but as I learned more of her story I came to empathise with her. And I am thinking of the wonderful Eliza, who seemed to be cast as the spinster daughter, and who overcame her anger about her situation to set the course of her own life, by insisting that her brother formalised her position as housekeeper and by pursuing her own interests – especially the books that she loved dearly – when her time was her own.

It felt quite natural to move between all of those different stories. When I bought my book I had made sure that I had a family tree to refer to, but I didn’t need it for very long at all’ such was the skill of the author at bringing the house and its occupants to life.

She wrote so beautifully, she picked up exactly the right details, and it really did seem that she had walked through that house, unseen, among all of those different generations; understanding the pull of – the importance of – China Court, as a home and for its own sake.

There was such skill in construction of the story and in the telling of the tale. The present was written in the past tense and the past was written in the present tense, which might sound odd but it was wonderfully effective; and I loved the way the two could switch, sometimes even in the same sentence, feeling completely natural and right.

One character had a story in the present and the past. Ripsie was a child from the village and she became the constant companion of Lady Patrick’s two sons, Borowis and John Henry, while they played outside but as they grew up she found that she was often excluded from their world. Because she had fallen in loved with Borowis, who was brave and spirited, she clung on. When she finally realised that he didn’t love her and that he didn’t even see her as someone who had a place in his world, the steady and sensible John Henry was there to catch her before she fell. They married, and when Ripsie became the lady of the manor she slipped into the role so easily that she could have been born to it.

I’m reluctant to pick a favourite from so many wonderful characters and stories, but I think I have to say that I loved Ripsie and her story the best of all; both for her own sake and for what it said about the best and worst of society and of human nature.

The antique Book of Hours that she treasured and kept with her always provided headings for each chapter; a lovely reminder of the spirituality that is threaded through so many of Rumer Godden’s books, a lovely thing in its own right, and as I came to the end of the book I realised that it was also an integral part of the story.

I also realised that the author had chosen the pieces of the history of the family and the history of the house that she would share carefully and cleverly; to illuminate the past, and to show how the past can shape the present and the future.

I did miss the other pieces of history that weren’t shared; and though I understand that not everything could be told, the characters I met and the stories that I learned are so alive in my mind that want to know and understand more.

My only other disappointment was the ending. The reading of the will, the fallout from that, the discoveries that were made, were all wonderful; but there was just one thing that I couldn’t quite believe, the resolution of that was rushed, and the very final scene was unsettling and has not dated well.

There were so many more things that I loved, and those are the things that have stayed with me since I put the book down.

Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold (1930)

I started reading this  purely by chance, after spotting it when I was looking for another book. Once I had started I had to keep going and  it wasn’t long before I was kicking myself for keeping it waiting for a very long time. Ianthe Jerrold wrote beautifully and she told an intriguing tale.

That tale opens on the last day of a cycling holiday on the Welsh borders. The cyclists were Dr. Browning; his daughter  daughter Nora and her friend Isabel; his young son Lion; his nephew Charles, who had returned from exile  in Canada after inheriting his father’s title and estate; and his cousin Felix, who was adored by Nora and adoring of Isabel.

When the group arrived at the top of hill  and saw a long descent ahead of them, they agreed that they would free-wheel down, setting off at regular intervals to reduce the chance. Reassembling at the bottom of the valley, they found that two of the group were missing. Isabel, who had set off first, soon reappeared; but there was no sign at all of Charles, who should have set off last.

He was found the next morning, face down at the bottom of a local quarry, shot in the back of the head, with his signet ring missing and somebody else’s bicycle lying next to him.

Felix’s father, Morris Price, the prime suspect. He would inherit the title after managing the estate for many years; he had been in the area when Charles was last seen; he refused to give an account of what he had been doing on the day in question; and his revolver which was used to fire the fatal shot.

He was belligerent and uncooperative at the inquest; an inquest that ended with a guilty verdict being brought against him.

Luckily, there was one man outside his family circle who believed him to be innocent. John Christmas, was holidaying in the area with his cousin Sydenham Rampson; and he saw the weight of the evidence but he also observed the reactions of the accused man, and that was what made him quite certain that he was not the guilty party.

He found many lines of enquiry. The dead man had not made himself popular, firing a long serving member of staff and shooting his sister’s dog without a hint of remorse; and maybe someone had followed him back from Canada. The mystery of what the accused man had been doing on the day of the murder had to be resolved. There were also questions to be asked about the changed bicycle and the whereabouts of the murder weapon.

Those enquiries drew in family and friends, the staff of the house and the estate, local people, and a mysterious visitor to the area.

They also threw up some wonderfully disparate clues. I could fit some of them together, I had some idea how the story might play out, but I couldn’t work out everything and I was by no means certain. John Christmas had to think long and hard, but in the end he explained everything and solved the mystery.

I liked the detective and his somewhat reluctant sidekick. It was clear that they were good friends as well as cousins, and I loved their dialogues and that each of them could be both witty and cynical. All of the characters and relationships were well drawn, and I was always interested to find out more about the people in this story. They came from right across the class spectrum, so I could see just how life was in the big house and in the nearby village.

I could have happily spent more time in this part of the world and with many of the people who lived there.

This is a mystery that works because the human story is so good, and because Ianthe Jerrold wrote very well, created a distinctive plot and paced her story perfectly, so that I was always asking different questions and concerned about different characters and incidents and possibilities.  She picked out exactly the right details, there were some lovely touches, and I particularly liked the way she left some subtle clues that I could spot before they were picked up on by her characters.

The ending doesn’t quite live up to what came before – it was a little too contrived and a little too melodramatic.

As  a whole though, the book works.

Ianthe Jerrold was invited to join the Detection Club based on the success of her first two mysteries – this is the second – but though she continued to write for many more years this is the last recorded case of John Christmas and her last work of detective fiction.

I’m interested to see what else she wrote, but I can’t help being a little sorry that she changed course and that I only have one more of her mysteries to read.

John Caldigate by Anthony Trollope (1879)

After reading all of the Palliser and Barchester books, I felt a little lost among the many other stand-alone books by Anthony Trollope that I have yet to read. There was more than one book that I put up and picked down, but when I picked up John Caldigate and started to read I realised that I had found the right book. There was exactly the right balance of things that I know that Trollope does well and things that I hadn’t encountered in his books before.

John Caldigate was the only son of a widowed father, Daniel Caldigate. He was a bright and sociable young man, and while he was at Cambridge he fell into debt. His father, a serious-minded man, who had worked hard to establish himself and only married when he was well enough established to support a family, was bitterly disappointed, but he made the necessary arrangements for his son to sell his future interest in the family estate in exchange for a mortgage on said estate, to clear his debts.

Appreciating what his father had done, wanting to repay him but not wanting to wait around for an estate that he might or might not inherit, he resolved to travel to New South Wales in the hope of making a fortune in the goldfields.

C is for Caldigate

He also resolved that, if he succeeded, he would return and marry Harriet Bolton, the daughter of his father’s banker friend who had arranged the mortgage.

John Caldigate did come home, older, wiser and a great deal richer. His father was delighted to welcome the son he had thought he might never see again. The Boltons were less happy when he presented himself as a suitor, but Harriet was charmed and in time her father and her step-brothers were won over.

The couple were married, a son was born, and they could so easily have lived happily ever after; but a past indiscretion came back to haunt John Caldigate.

He and his friend, Dick Shand, had travelled to Australia third class, so that they could begin to adjust to a new life in which they would no longer be ‘gentlemen’. John met a young widow, Mrs Euphemia Smith, he was smitten with her and promised that he would find her as soon as he established himself. His attraction he her soon faded, but he remembered his promise and he travelled to find her. She was performing on the stage, as Madame Cettini.

That lady and two of his former business partners travelled to England, alleging that the mine he had sold them was worked out; that he had married Mrs. Smith in New South Wales; and that his marriage to Hester Bolton was bigamous.

John Caldigate denied the charge of bigamy, but he recognised that there was a moral, though not a legal claim for the return of part of the purchase price of the mine. He wanted to do ‘the right thing’ but he was strongly advised against ‘buying them off’.

He found himself on trial, and the case against him looked very bad.

There was much drama, inside and outside the courtroom.

The Bolton family turned against John Caldigate and, as Harriet stood firmly by her husband, they took extreme measures to bring her back to the family home and keep her there!

Dick Shand had failed as a miner and turned to drink. He came home knowing nothing about the bigamy case, he wanted to speak in his friend’s defence, but was told that his word was worthless in the light of his past!

Mr Bagwax of the Post Office travelled to Australia to test a key point of the prosecution’s case – an envelope with a stamp and a postmark – that he was sure was forged!

I have never found Trollope to be good at handling suspense, but he managed it quite well in this book. Though I had a fair idea how the story would play out I was by no means certain that it would, and I did question whether or not there had been a marriage in Australia.

There was – of necessity – a gap in the part of the story set in Australia; but what Trollope could tell of the story there I loved. I could have happily spent more time there and rather less on the voyage and the run-up to the trial. His pacing of this story didn’t quite work for me.

The central question of the story was intriguing: how should John Caldigate, who had made youthful mistakes, whose success came from good luck as much as hard work, be judged?

John Caldigate was a wonderfully nuanced character, he was a fundamentally decent man but he was horribly fallible; as was his father. I loved the way that they both changed and the way that their relationship evolved over the course of the story.

The women on this book were not so well done – I loved Harriet’s devotion to her husband, I loved that she loved her mother despite her trenchant opposition to her son-in law, but her character needed more and it simply wasn’t there.

So, my final verdict is a little mixed.

The story never failed to entertain, I loved the human drama – the gold mining scenes and the trial scenes were particularly good – but Trollope has written better books.

The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray (1926)

Only the very hardest of hearts could fail to be moved by this beautifully wrought and utterly poignant account of a life damaged by war and by circumstance.

It is the story of Helen, who looks back at her earlier life when she is in her forties.

Her childhood was, in many ways, idyllic; with her time divided between the London home of her grandmother and Yearsley, the beautiful Georgian manor house in the country that was home to her cousin Delia, Delia’s husband, John, and their two sons, Guy and Hugo.

The children’s life in the country was happy and secure; they had the freedom to roam through gardens, meadows and woods; and there was one particular tree that they always returned to, naming it ‘The Happy Tree.’

The two boys had much in common, but their natures were quite different – Guy was bright and confident, while Hugh was quiet and sensitive. Helen and Hugh were particularly close; and as they grew up, it became clear that their feelings were much deeper than those of siblings. Neither of then knew quite what they should do, or how to speak of what they knew, and so they just went on with life and found themselves pulled in different directions.

Happy TreeThe boys went away to school and then they went up to Oxford, while Helen was educated at home, with the unspoken assumption that she would remain there until she married and had a home of her own.

She enjoyed visiting  Guy and Hugh, in Oxford at first and then in London. She was drawn onto their sophisticated and intellectual circle of friends; but there was still a distance between her and Hugh. That troubled her, and as neither of them had either the wish or the confidence to speak or act, she drifted into a relationship with a man on the fringes of their circle.

Walter Sebright was an earnest and serious-minded academic, it was clear that he adored Helen, and she accepted his proposal because she knew that and she didn’t quite know how to say no, and could only hope that his love for her would allow her fondness for him to grow into something much deeper.

The match left her family and friends both surprised and disappointed, but because Helen didn’t share her true feeling with anyone, all any of them could do was assume that it was what she wanted and that she saw things in her fiance that they did not.

Helen was to find that Walter’s outlook on life was quite unlike that of her family and friends, and that his less wealthy, middle-class upbringing made him disapproving of the easy path through life her cousins and the lack of thought they gave to their good fortune.

When war broke out, Helen had to watch her  cousins and friends go off to fight, while her husband stayed home, because he was medically unfit and carrying out work that was important to the war effort. She struggled with childcare and with housework, with no help, because even finances allowed there were no domestic servants to be had. Helen was totally unequipped for the life she had to live, she struggled with the consequences of the wrong decisions she had made, and as news of casualties and deaths arrived she grieved for the people she had loved and for the world that she had loved and that she knew could never be the same again.

The writing in this book is so honest and so insightful that Helen’s feelings and experiences were palpable, and though there were times when I felt so sad for her that it was difficult to read I couldn’t look away.

And this is all that has happened. It does not seem very much…I was happy when I was a child, and I married the wrong person, and someone I loved dearly was killed in the war…that is all. And all those things must be true of thousands of people.

Her story speaks profoundly for the generation of women who lived through the Great War, and it does more besides.

It made me think how our family situation can affect us for the whole of our lives. Helen’s father dies when she was very young and her mother left her in her grandmother’s care while she moved to America to pursue her career. Had Helen’s mother been close at hand maybe she would have questioned her engagement in a way that Cousin Delia didn’t feel she could. And had she been raised to think that she might have higher education, that she might have a career or a purpose of her own, that being a wife and a mother need not be everything, what a difference that made have made.

It made me realise that no matter what our circumstance our, lives can be thrown off course by things that we can’t control, leaving hopes and dreams shattered, and leaving lives adrift.

It made me realise that it is so important to speak and communicate honestly.

All this is the story of one life, told in a voice that always rings true.

The Clock Strikes Twelve by Patricia Wentworth (1944)

This story opens on New Year’s Eve early in the war. James Paradine, successful business man and family patriarch, has summoned all of his relations to dine at his country home. They all came, as they always did, but this night did not play out as such nights had in years gone by. When dinner was over, just before that time when the ladies would retire, leaving the gentlemen to their cigars and their port, the host rose to speak. He announced that a crime had been committed, that he knew who was responsible, and that he would wait in his study until midnight, so that the guilty party could come to him and they could put things right.

Most of the assembled company were lost for words and the party soon broke up, with some returning to their own homes nearby and others retiring to different parts of the house.

The next morning, James Paradine’s body was found just below the terrace outside his study where he habitually took the air each night before retiring to bed.

It might have been an accident. The night was dark, the weather was wet, the balastade was low; and so he could so easily have slipped. But of course it wasn’t. The physical evidence clearly showed that James Paradine had been pushed.

One of the things that I have come to appreciate about Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver books, is that her police characters are capable professionals and decent people. That was the case here. The police surgeon quickly advised why it was clear that the dead man had been pushed, and the police inspector who was called out quickly realised that something unusual must have happened that evening and averted the plans of certain members of the family to not mention what had been said at dinner.

The police did everything that anyone might expect of them, but it wasn’t quite enough to confirm any one individual as the perpetrator of the crime that James Paradine spoke about, or as his murderer.

Miss Silver’s involvement came about because she happened to be staying with friends in the area and a young member of the family who was a good friend of someone Miss Silver had assisted in the past and recognised her.

(This isn’t the first time that Miss Silver has gained a new case by word of mouth, and I love the idea that when ladies met socially they talked about the governess-turned- private-detective who had quietly and competently come to the aid of certain ladies they knew or knew about. I believed it too!)

That young lady’s cousin – the young man who would inherit the house, the business, and the position of head of the family – was reluctant to allow a private detective into the family family circle; but he came around when it was put to him that, if the mystery wasn’t seen to be solved, suspicion would blight the lives of everyone who had been in the house on New Year’s Eve.

The mystery story was very well plotted, I came to suspect different characters as the story progressed, and there were many interesting twists and turns before the truth was revealed, and though I noticed that Miss Silver had a number of particular concerns I couldn’t work out how they would fit together and could only sit back and applaud her.

The family story was also strong, and I particularly appreciated the drawing of the character of the two oldest characters. One was a widower who felt the absence of his wife keenly, who could be firm but was always fair, and who would always shoulder his responsibilities. The other was his sister, a woman who felt that life had treated her harshly and who clung to the position in the household that she felt was her due and to the person she loved the most.

There was also much to hold the attention in the stories of the younger characters, including the romance that is present in every Miss Silver story. This one was distinctive in the series, though it reminded me a little of a romance in another Golden Age mystery I read a while ago; in its set-up though not in its resolution. That romance wasn’t as central to the story as it had been in previous books, because this book focused on the house in the country and not a young heroine, but it is significant to the playing out of the mystery story.

I’ve come to realise that while there are common threads running though the Miss Silver stories there is also much that changes and evolves. In this book I noticed a significant change of tone from the last book, and I suspect that was because the reality of the war had become clearer to the author. That is reflected in the story too, very effectively.

All of that makes this one of the strongest books in this series so far

It also makes me glad I set out to read them in order, and very interested to find out more about Miss Silver’s next investigation.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy Dunnett (1971)

It took me a little while to settle into this 5th volume of the Lymond Chronicles, after the story arc that had done most to drive the last two volumes had come to a devastating conclusion. I  knew that there was a story behind that story that must play out, that the big questions that underpin this whole sequence of novels had to be answered and that those two things were in all probability linked; but I needed time to adjust to such a dramatic shift, and to new directions that were intriguing but didn’t move that story forward with the same momentum that I had come to expect.

Lymond had travelled to Russia in the company of  Kiaya Khátún,  sometimes known as  Güzel,  mistress of the Harem of Dragut Rais.  They took up residence in Moscow where he set about creating and training a new military force to serve the Tsar. How this came about was far from clear. I saw more than enough reasons for him: he knew that he had the ability to create a fighting force in a country that had no army to speak of; that doing that could establish something lasting of his own, with no ties to his troubled past; and that staying away from his homeland was probably the best thing to do in the light of the prophecy that him. I was less sure of her: establishing a residence and a presence in a new country, however strategically places, was surely not enough.

I have learned though, from the books that brought me to this place, that everything happens for a reason and that it usually takes times for those reasons to become clear, and so I stored that question away with others and continued to read.

3aeff3f46e1be82597362666751444341587343It didn’t take long for me to be captivated by the story that played out in Russia.

The intrigue, and the balancing of a fictional story was real history, was as fine as anything in this series. The descriptions, the evocation of the world that Lymond entered, was as glorious as anything that had come before. And – in time – there would be enough to suggest that Lymond could not – would not – escape his past.

I loved that the world of this book was completely historical, and that every person and every thing in that world was completely and utterly of its time; so that reading really is looking through a window into the past without ever thinking that there is distance, that there is a frame …. The use of perspective is part of this with Lymond always seen through the eyes of others who have knowledge of him but not complete understanding; so that even as knowledge is gained there is always a feeling that there is more to come. That was wonderfully effective is this book, with Lymond first seen through the eyes of the men he had summoned from St Mary’s, his elite mercenary company, to train and form a new force to serve the Tsar; and then, even more effectively, through the eyes of a real historical figure, an Englishman who had come to Russia, who was both a fascinating character in this own right and maybe the man Lymond could have been had his history been less troubled.

Back in England, Phillipa was trying to uncover and untangle that history. Her scenes were a lovely reminder of the unresolved story arc that began at the very start of the first book in this series and that was a little lacking in the Russian story; a new view of familiar history to balance the less familiar Russian history; and enjoyable for their own sake because Phillipa has grown into a remarkable young woman, and while it is clear that she has learned much it is equally clear that she has many more lessons still to be learned.

Lymond had no wish to set foot on the British Isles again, but when the Tsar wishes him to accompany his first ambassador to England, and to help the English merchants who want to form a trading company in Russia, he recognised that he must do just that. There was much drama, on the journey and at the destination; certain characters who had not been seen for some time reappeared; and there were signs that some questions might be answered as I expected, but the answers to the most important questions continued to tantalise.

This was the part of the book that I enjoyed the least; and, much as I want to know what happens next, I think I need to take a break from the richness, the intensity and the elusiveness of these books before I pick up the very last one.

The ending though was fascinating. Lymond set out on a course that his friends and allies believed was fundamentally flawed. They pulled against him, he resisted; and I couldn’t help thinking that there had been a time when they wouldn’t have dared and that he would have reacted far more harshly.

That told me he has matured over the course of five books, how much everything that that happened had affected him and the people around him,  and how deeply involved I have become.

When reflected on the first book on the series my overriding thought was that it was was lovely to hear the words of someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had a wonderfully rich tale to tell, talking at very great length; and that feeling has grown stronger as I have read more and more.

I don’t want this to be over, but I do want to be ready to pick up the next book ….

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019)

I loved the last novel that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote more than enough to rush to read any more that she might send out into the world, and when I read two things she said about this book I was quite sure that it would be very different and very wonderful.

 “I’ve longed to write a novel about promiscuous girls whose lives are not destroyed by their sexual desires”

“My goal was to write a book that would go down like a champagne cocktail- light and bright, crisp and fun.”

I’d say that she succeeded in those aims in this story of Vivian Morris, a nineteen year-old college drop-out with a talent for sewing sent to stay with an aunt in New York by her wealthy parents.

The choice of time and place was wonderful – a big city in the summer of 1940,  when Europe was at war but the USA hadn’t become involved, though a great many people thought that it was just a matter of time before it was. There was definitely something in the air that summer.

Vivian’s Aunt Peg was the  proprietor of a theatre company, and a wonderfully unconventional woman. The Lily Playhouse a very small company in a run down neighbourhood that just about made ends meet, by knowing what the local audience wanted and could afford and delivering just that.

I don’t think I’ve known – or read – anything like that, but Elizabeth Gilbert brought that world, and everything and everyone in it, to life and she pulled me right in to the story.

9781408867075A wonderful set-up like that needed exactly the right heroine, and that’s exactly what Elizabeth Gilbert provided. Had I not done enough in my first year at Vassar to pass into my second year I would have been heartbroken. Vivian was a little abashed, but she was philosophical, and she accepted her parents’ plans for her with good grace.

She arrived in New York armed with a suitcase and a sewing machine; and she quickly found a niche, as her aunt’s company had never had a seamstress before, and she had a good eye for what would and wouldn’t suit people as well as a gift for making the most glamorous outfits out of the humblest materials.

The showgirls of the company were delighted with that and they drew Vivian into their circle. They were out every night after the show, joyfully taking part in everything that their city had to offer after dark.

When the legendary English actress Edna Watson was stranded in New York, old ties of friendship brought her to the Lily Theatre. Peg’s husband, a successful Hollywood screenwriter came home to create exactly the right show for her the company’s most ambitious show ever. Vivian is entranced by the magic of that show, and intoxicated by her romance with the young leading man.

I found just as much magic in the story and the colourful cast of characters as Vivian found in her life; but I saw pitfalls that she didn’t. Her fall from grace was sudden. I saw it coming and I wanted to pull her back from it, but of course I couldn’t. She made one terrible mistake and her life in New York fell to pieces.

Vivian learned some very hard lessons. She hated how badly people thought of her, and in time she learned that while she might be forgiven for youthful mistakes the consequences of her actions would continue to reverberate. She made some more mistakes as she tried to find her way, but eventually realised that she had to accept that she couldn’t change the past and take responsibility for her own future,

At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

The second act of her life – and of this book – drew on the best bits of the first to make something that was quite different but just as wonderful. It covered a great many years, they flew by, and I only wish that a little more time could have been spent exploring different things that happened over those years.

I loved Vivian. She was a real, fallible woman, slightly out of step with the age she lived in, but live she certainly did; and as she told her own story her voice rang true. It was clear that she was telling that story to someone in particular, but the identity of that person didn’t become clear until the end of the book. It was a lovely surprise, but it made me think again about the balance of the book, because I didn’t think that Vivian would have gone into quite so much detail about events in the first part of the book and that she would have said more about events later on to that person.

That balance was the only thing that disappointed me about this book.

I loved the story, I loved the cast of characters, and I loved the author’s insight and what she had to say in this book.

If I had been told that this novel was a true story I would not have been surprised, because the characters and the world about them lived and breathed, and there were so many moments and so many things that happened – both likely and unlikely – that felt just like real life.

Vivian’s life was colourful, and it was very well lived.

Her story was distinctive and memorable; and I think that her telling did exactly what it was intended to do.