The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan (2019)

When I saw Elizabeth Buchan’s name on the programme of my local literary festival last summer, I recalled reading her books back in the day. It was before I moved home to Cornwall and I read most of them from the library, but I remember buying a copy of one of them for my mother and her enjoying it.

Those books were stories set in the recent past, and I stopped reading when the stories became more contemporary and more domestic.

When I read the programme I saw that there was a new novel that looked more akin to the novels I had read years ago, and that looked rather interesting, so I invested in a ticket to the event.

I was captivated by the extracts from the book that the author read, and what she said about the arc of her career was instructive. It echoed the arc of her life: and so the books had different settings and time periods when she had the freedom to travel and to research, but stayed in the present and in domestic settings when she did not.

I loved the settings and the recent times that she explored in this novel.

The story opens in Paris in the present day, with Laure, who is the curator of a small museum that she founded. The Museum of Broken Promises displays artefacts that speak of love, loss and betrayal. You might question the viability of such a museum, but the account of the exhibits themselves, and of how they were selected from the many submissions, was absolutely fascinating.

Little was known of Laure herself. She was happy living alone, she was reluctant to speak of herself, and she only really socialised when it was necessary for her museum. On those occasions she spoke so articulately that you could understand why The Museum of Broken Promises had succeeded and what made it so important.

It was natural though that potential investors and other friends were eager to know more about the woman who had created it. An eager young journalist wanted to write about the creation of the museum, Laure was persuaded to allow the girl to shadow her for a while, and she was taken aback at how much she had found out about her past

All that she had allowed to be seen was an anonymous exhibit in her museum: a framed ticket for a train from Czechoslovakia to Austria.

Laure first came to Paris in 1985, to work as an au pair. Not long after her arrival, her employers moved to Prague. The father of the family, who was a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company had been posted there. It was a time of unrest and change in what was still a communist city, and nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she would experience there.

She visited a marionette theatre with her two young charges. They were captivated by what happened there – (as was I – it was from this part of the story that I head the author read) – and it was there that Laure met a number of performers, and that she began to fell in love with Tomas, a musician and political activist.

The love affair that grew from that drew her into dissident circles, She would become aware that they were watched by shadowy figures, and that the. Her employers were concerned, and she came to realise that there were more reasons that a job in the pharmaceutical  industry for their move into the communist bloc.

Elizabeth Buchan wrote about young love quite beautifully, she told of Laure’s experiences with empathy and understanding, and the time and place were so well drawn. I could see that this novel was underpinned by reseach but that never intruded on the human story and it helped to make that story feel both distinctive and utterly real.

I understood how what happened to Laure in Prague shaped her, and how she became the woman who would create The Museum of Broken Promises.

The story moved quite naturally between the present and the past, and I found the writing in both time periods elegant, evocative and engaging.

There were some scenes set in Berlin not long after the wall fell, and I felt that they was less successful. I understood why they were necessary to the plot, I appreciated that they helped to illuminate the changes that happened in Europe between the two main time periods, but they were less engaging and less interesting than the scenes set earlier and later.

That was disappointing, but the book as a whole worked for me.

It held a distinctive story and it gave me much to think about.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

I loved Ann Patchett’s last novel and that caught me by surprise, because I had liked some of her earlier books but she had never been one of those authors I felt I must read and must look out for a new book.

Not until that book made me look out for this book.

When I first caught a glimpse I saw that it was a beautiful object,  when I read the premise of the story I was intrigued, and when I started reading I was captivated.

I thought of it for some time after I had finished reading, and I realised that it was a book that I had loved on a number of different levels.

It’s a book about people. Many books are, but this is one of those books that make you feel that that you are reading about real people, that you might have mutual friends, and that a friend might have told you some of this story, because there are a great many people in the world who have stories that are more than worthy of retelling.

I believed in the people in this book. I believed they lived and breathed and that their stories were true.

This is also a book about a house

Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.

The Dutch House was named not for its architecture but for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks, who had built it when they prospered in the twenties. Their home boasted Delft mantels, marble floors, ornate fireplaces and gilt ceilings;  it was adorned with silk chairs, tapestry ottomans and oil paintings; and it was a house like no other.

By the late forties the Van Hoebeeks had lost everything, and so they sold the Dutch House to Cyril Conroy, an ambitious property developer who had risen from humble beginnings. He acquired everything – the house, the grounds, the furnishings, the staff – and only when he brought his family to see the house for the first time did he tell them that he owned it and it was their new home. His wife, Elna, and their children, Maeve and Danny, were transplanted from a small apartment to a grand, ready-made new home and lifestyle with no warning at all.

Cyril saw the  Dutch House as a the ultimate symbol of his success, but Elna saw it rather differently. She saw it as a work of art but she knew that she could not be happy there, that it would never be her home; and her spirit faded, she began to spend more and more time away from the house, until that day came when she didn’t come ‘home’ again.

It wasn’t long until an attractive young widow with two daughters found her way into Cyril’s life, and into the Dutch House. She would become his second wife, she would take possession, and when the children of the first marriage would be pushed out. They would return to look at the Dutch House, but they would keep their distance and they would have to make their own way in the world.

All of that had lovely echoes of fairy tales. These echoes were strong and yet that story felt utterly real and natural.

The story unfolded beautifully. It had a clear path, and there were many interesting developments along that path. Some of those developments I expected, but some I did not. There were times when I thought that the story was going to go one way but it went another, and so I was always interested, and though I had an idea of where things might be going I was never entirely sure.

Those stories had the untidiness of real lives. Mistakes of the past were repeated, but maybe that is inevitable.

“We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The evolution of the characters and their relationships was fascinating. As the younger characters grew up and the adult characters aged some things changed and some things remained the same; and though some of their actions seemed improbable their lives all felt utterly real. My perceptions of characters didn’t change too much but as I spent more time with them I came to understand them much better.

They weren’t characters to love, I didn’t want them to be more that friends of friends, but I did want to learn their stories.

This stories had much to say, they were written with intelligence and insight, and they were a joy to read.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (2019)

I love a ghost story, but I am very picky when it comes to picking up new ones, because I was spoiled at a very young age when I read the work of a wonderful array of authors in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and two more collections that followed that one.

This is a rare case of a new ghost story catching and holding my attention.

I was intrigued by the setting and by the central character.

The story is set in England, towards the end of the Great War; a time when so many people were haunted by the deaths of young men far from home. Stella Marcham was one of those people. She had been a VAD nurse, she had worked hard and well, but she had been sent home after she was stricken by grief over the death of her fiancé Gerald.

Stella’s parents were sympathetic, but as time passed they found it hard to deal with and they failed to understand why she couldn’t come to terms with what had happened and start to live again. They began to wonder if their daughter was mentally ill.

They thought that a change of scene might help her, and an interesting opportunity presented itself. Stella’s sister Madeleine was pregnant, and her husband had insisted that she left London for the the safety of the countryside. He had left her in the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell,  st his family’s country home, Greyswick while he continued his war work in the city. Stella would be a companion for Madeleine, and Madeleine would be a distraction for Stella.

The two sisters were delighted to be reunited; but Stella was concerned about her sister. Madeleine was unsettled, unhappy, and inexplicably fearful. Lady Brightwell said that she was foolish, that nothing could be wrong, but Stella knew her sister too well to believe that and she tried to work out what the problem might be.

It wasn’t long before she saw the first signs.

And then there was a noise in the night: Stella and Madeleine – and no one else – heard the clear and inexplicable sound of a child crying ….

The story is captivating, the prose is lovely and nicely understated – I loved that it left space for me to think and to ponder. The description of the house and its grounds brought the setting to life; and the period, the place and the mood were wonderfully evoked.

The ghost story works well; there are times when it is genuinely frightening, and there are times when it is clear that there is a desperately sad story behind the haunting of Greyswick.

The human story wrapped around this ghost story had much to say.

It spoke of the position of women in a world where men govern society and determine how they should live; and of how that could make women victims, and of how women might use the little power that had for good or for bad.

It spoke of that society’s treatment of grief and of mental disturbance; and of how those things could make a person terribly vulnerable.

Most of all it spoke about love and loss, through Stella’s story and through other plot strands. As Stella strove to help her sister and to uncover the secrets of the house, she knew that she had to be strong; and though she would always grieve for Gerald she began to find a little comfort in the memory of him and of the time they had spent together. That was beautifully and sensitively done,

Of course, all of this only works if there is a cast of characters who are real and believable. This book has that. I was particularly taken with Stella, with her maid, Annie, who came from a family said to have psychic powers, and with the way their relationship moved from the traditional one mistress and servant to a very different one where the servant was superior to her mistress. Annie brought something different and distinctive to this tale, as did the three women who had lived in the house for many years – its mistress, her companion and her housekeeper. A wonderfully diverse cast of women!

I worked out how the story would play out a little earlier that I feel I should have, I found it predictable and a little contrived in places, and I think that this would have been a better book if certain of the story-lines had been pruned a little; but I was captivated from start to finish.

I could easily believe that the author had read and loved and learned from the work in those collections of ghost stories that I love and remember so well.

This book isn’t that good, but it is very good; beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and holding a story that has much to say and much to haunt its readers.

 

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow (2019)

There are times when you love a book, and rather than explain you just want to put copies into the hands of the right readers and insist that they stop whatever they might have been doing and read.

I say the right reader because this isn’t a book that will be universally adored, and it isn’t quite perfect, but I know that those right readers will love it dearly.

It isn’t the kind of book that I read often, but I picked it up at exactly the right moment, when I needed an escape from the turbulence of the world that I live in.

The story opens in America, early in the 20th century.

January Scaller has grown up in the mansion of her guardian, Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of rare and rare and beautiful objects. This had come about because her mother – a white woman – had been missing for so long that it could only be presumed she was dead; and her father – a black man – was employed to travel as far and as wide as he could in search of new treasures for Mr Locke’s collection.

JanuaryShe knows that she has had a privileged upbringing, that she has been lucky in many ways, but she can’t help feeling that she is just another piece in the collection, prized by her guardian and the members of his scientific society for her cedar-wood coloured skin and her usual and exotic heritage.

As she grows up things that will change January’s worlds begin to happen.

She makes friends with a boy named Samuel, a delivery boy who often comes to the mansion.

He gives her a dog who she names Sinbad, and he becomes her devoted friend and protector.

Her father sends her a formidable black woman named Jane Irimu, who he hopes will be her companion and her guide.

And then two quite extraordinary things happen.

She finds a door, out in the country where no door should be,  she finds that stepping through that door takes her into a different, and her head fills with questions about what that might mean, and about her own family history and situation.

Not long after that, she finds an old book. She had always loved books, and she knew straight away that the book she held in her hands was special.

This one smelled unlike any book I’d ever held. Cinnamon and coal smoke, catacombs and loam. Damp seaside evenings and sweat-slick noon times beneath palm fronds. It smelled as if it had been in the mail for longer than any one parcel could be, circling the world for years and accumulating layers of smells like a tramp wearing too many clothes. It smelled like adventure itself had been harvested in the wild, distilled to a fine wine, and splashed across each page …

The faded gold letters on the book’s spine read The Ten Thousand Doors,  its opening pages presented it as a monograph on  portals between worlds, but as January turned more pages she found that she herself reading a compelling story of the life and adventures of a young woman who had found doors just like the one she had found.

That was just the beginning of January’s own extraordinary adventure. I was enchanted by her voice from the very start, and it was lovely to follow her as she learned so much and discovered that though there were many who were eager to open doors and to learn and explore, there were others who wanted to exploit those things and to close and control doors.

Her story was written in lovely prose, that could be rich and evocative, that could move the story along at times of high drama, and that could build worlds wonderfully, wonderfully well. And that prose was threaded though with wonderful ideas, about words and books, about discovering the past and stepping into the future, about the big things and the small things that make a life.

Once we have agreed that true love exists, we may consider its nature. it is not, as many misguided poets would have you believe, an event in and of itself; it is not something that happens, but simply something that simply is and always has been. One does not fall in love; one discovers it …

January’s own story was every bit as special as the one in the book that she found,  and the the two stories worked together beautifully.

The plot became a little predictable as the book went on, and I think the setting up of the story was stronger that the playing out; but my care and concern for January and her friends and the themes and ideas that enriched the story were more than enough to hold me.

There is a timeless quality to this story, and it sits well in its era while speaking about things that are very significant today.

I appreciated that it acknowledged its influences.

Worlds were never meant to be prisons, locked suffocating and safe. Worlds were supposed to be great rambling houses with all the windows thrown open and the wind and summer rain rushing through them, with magic passages in their closets and secret treasure chests in their attics …

And I found that this book was wonderfully readable, that it gave me much to think about, that it pulled me right out of my world  ….

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

This account of the uncovering of the past that was hidden to the author’s mother for much of her life has been much lauded, and I can only add to the chorus of praise. I loved the writing, the delicate unraveling of the mystery, the importance given to images, and the illumination of love between mothers and daughters.

On an autumn evening in 1929, three year-old Betty Elston was taken from a Lincolnshire beach. Her mother, Veda, was close at hand as her daughter played happily on Chapel Sands, but her attention wandered, she looked away, and when she looked back the child had vanished.

Her father, George, a travelling salesman, was called home; the police were summoned; but a few days later, the little girl was found safe and well in a nearby village, completely unharmed but dressed in a brand new set of clothes. She was restored to her parents, her memory of what had happened would fade away, and her life would go on.

It was a strange, and often unhappy, life for young Betty. Her parents kept her close, barely letting her mix with other children, and they held themselves apart from their neighbours, only keeping in touch with a few old friends.

You might think that they were being over- protective after what had happened; but if that was the case why did there daughter feel no warmth from them, and why did she hear no words of love and care, not even one single word of reassurance after a strange encounter led her her father to tell her that she had been adopted?

Betty eventually escapes from the confines of her life, to art college in the distant city of Edinburgh; where she will build a new life, as an artist, as a wife, and as mother.

Laura Cumming is Betty Elson’s daughter, and as she grew up she came to realise that her mother never spoke about her own childhood. When Elizabeth (who modified her name, as she had always hated being called Betty) asked what she would most like for her 21st birthday, Laura answered the tale of her mother’s early life.

The mother wrote:

Because you have asked me, dear daughter, here are my earliest recollections. It is an English domestic genre canvas of the 1920s and 1930s, layered over with decades of fading and darkening, but your curiosity has begun to make all glow a little. And perhaps a few figures and events may turn out to be restored through the telling.

And the daughter noted:

This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did.

I was captivated by her voice, which was intelligent, warm and compassionate.

I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

The arc of the story is relatively simple, but this is not a book to read just to learn the story, it is a book to read to appreciate all of the things that are threaded through that story.

There is very real social history; there is a willingness to learn and to understand; and there is exactly the right amount of restraint – lives and families and communities are illuminated but there is no intrusion and no assumption about things that could not be known.

There is a wonderful appreciation of the depth and complexity of family love; and it the loveliest of tributes from a daughter to a mother.

I’m trying not to say too much, because I was told more that I wanted to know about this book before I started to read.

And so I will simply finish by saying that this book is beautiful, moving and profound.

The Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders (2019)

Three years ago I read a book with the words A Laetitia Rodd Mystery on the cover, and I wrote:

I was sorry when the story was over; but I’m very glad that this is the first book of a series, and I’m looking forward to meeting Laetitia and her family and friends again.

I looked out for a second book but it didn’t appear and I had pretty much given up hope when I saw this book bearing those same words.

It was lovely to step back into a world and feel completely at home, even though it had been a long time since my last visit.

Laetitia Rodd was the widow of an archdeacon and, as she had limited means, she had taken lodgings with Mrs Mary Bentley, and they had become good friends.

Her younger brother, Frederick Tyson, was one of London’s most celebrated criminal barristers, and he had come up with a plan that would help both of them. He sometimes employed her to carry out ‘special investigations’, knowing that ladies could move in circles that gentlemen could not, and that they could find out things that no gentleman could ever find out for himself.

In 1851, a wealthy businessman made a request that would draw Mrs Rodd into a most unusual investigation. Jacob Welland was dying of consumption and he wanted somebody to find the brother he had not seen for fifteen years and to put a letter into his hands, in the hope that he could speak to him once more, to put things right between them after a long estrangement that he had come to realise was his fault.

The circumstances were unusual.

Joshua Welland was an Oxford scholar; quite brilliant, but terribly eccentric. After the schism with his brother, he had gradually withdrawn from his college. He had spent more and more time out in the countryside, until the day came when he failed to return. There had been a number if sightings over that years;  and a friend had once spotted him in a gypsy camp, where it was said that he was doing great work, and that when he made it public the world would marvel.

Mrs Rodd knew a young clergyman with a living in the area, his wife was a dear friend – and she had introduced them – so she made arrangements to pay them a visit.

That made me think of Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, who always seemed to have a connection of some kind anywhere she might go; and, though the two ladies are generations apart and had very different characters, they had much in common. They were both able to apply skills they had gained in previous occupations to their investigations, to handle people well and find things out, to make logical deductions and then to act calmly and sensibly ….

Mrs Rodd investigated and searched carefully and, though she wasn’t able to put the letter into the missing man’s hands, she was able to return to London secure in the knowledge that it would reach him; and Jacob Welland, who was very frail and near the end of his life, was very happy with the results she achieved for him.

That wasn’t the end though; and when news of a suspicious death reached her, Mrs Rodd knew that she had to travel to Oxford and investigate again.

I won’t say too much about the story, but I will say that the plot had many interesting strands and that it was very well constructed. It was of its time, but it told a story that the great writers of the age could never have told.

I caught echoes of some of those authors, and I was particularly pleased when I spotted what I suspected were references to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, and even more pleased when my expectations were subverted. I must mention the bishop’s wife, who was viewed with trepidation by many in the diocese. I thought of Mrs Proudie, but when Mrs Rodd asked this lady for assistance she was concerned and she was very helpful. As a friendship developed between the pair, she explained that she didn’t enjoy the role she was expected to play, but she loved her husband and played her part to the very best of her ability for his sake.

The story drew in a wonderfully rich range of characters and settings; and there was always something to hold my interest and something to make me think.

I identified the murderer just a little before the end of the book, but I didn’t work out everything, and I was very pleased to realise that this was the kind of book that had much more to its resolution than catching the criminal and explaining everything.

This second Laetitia Rodd mystery was a lovely progression from the first; and I hope that there will be many more.

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 has 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.

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.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (2019)

I have seen this much written about, much praised slice of dark Victoriana compared with books like The CollectorThe Crimson Petal and the White, and Fingersmith. Though I don’t think this book is in that class,  I can see why the comparisons have been drawn, and it holds a dark and compelling story that has much to say.

At the centre of the story is Iris Whittle, who spends her days working at a Regent Street doll shop, painting features onto china faces, and her nights in the cellar where she secretly works on her own art. She wants more from life, but she has ties and she doesn’t know how she can move foward.

Iris fall into the line of sight of two men, and each of them in attracted by her appearance and sees a way to use her to achieve an ambition of their own.

Silas, Reed is a taxidermist and the proprietor of a shop of curiosities. When he sees Iris he is reminded of a long lost childhood friend, and he comes to believe that she was put in his path for a reason and that she was made for him.

Louis Frost, a fictional member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is out in London with Dante Gabriel Rosetti and John Everett Millais, and when they visit Silas’s shop in search of props, he is complaining that he cannot find the right model for a new work.

Silas, eager to make an impression on his customers, tells them about Iris. They visit Regent Street, and they gaze at her through the window.

When Louis approaches Iris to be his model, she knows that she has a chance to work towards her own ambition as he works towards his. Her agreement is subject to Louis teaching her to paint.

He agrees, thinking that the request is just a girlish fancy, or maybe a way to see how much he really wants her; but in time he realises that she has talent and ambition. Louis begins to see Iris in a different way; and to value her for much, much more than her appearance.

But when the painting of her is exhibited Iris feels that she has become nothing more than an object to be gazed upon by men, and that she has been trapped in a golden frame.

Meanwhile, Silas’ obsession with her has been growing. He has been watching her, and creating an idealised picture of a woman who will adore him and fit perfectly into his life.

When they meet for the second time Iris doesn’t remember Silas, but she learns that he remembers her very well and that he has been making plans …..

The story that Elizabeth Macneal tells is cleverly contructed, evocatively written, richly detailed, and it has much to say.

I could see the depth of research, I could feel her love of her subject matter; and she brought her fiction and real history together in a way that felt completely natural and right.

The use of three narrators was a very clever choice. It shines a light on those three, and each of them has a distinctive point of view, and brings something different to the story and the things it has to say.

(Equally importantly, it allows their to be uncertainly about other characters who are seen only through the eyes of others.

I loved that Iris had her own distinct, original artistic vision, and that the story explored how a woman might develop that vision and find a place of her own in a world that would offer few opportunities and impose many restrictions.

I warmed to Albie, a young man who had to live on his wits, and who saw much of what was happening as he dealt with both the taxidermist and the doll shop. He could so easily have been a stereotype  but he wasn’t, he was a real boy and whose story explored life at the very bottom of Victorian society.

And I was convinced by the portrayal of Silas, whose obsession was clearly rooted in disappointment, bitterness and entitlement. Again, a character who could have been a stereotype but was real man whose words and whose actions could be understood.

My reservations about this book have nothing to do with the characters. They are that there was much that was predictable, that my expectations, and that the final act – though it was compelling, though it felt right – stretched credulity a little too far.

But the book as a whole works.

it’s a wonderful mixture of historical fiction, art history,  love story and psychological drama; and it speaks profoundly as it entertains its readers.