Archive for the ‘Margery Sharp’ Category

After years of looking for a copy of Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (and not being able to stomach the $300+ price tag attached to used copies), I finally employed my interlibrary loan system to help me track it down.  For the eminently reasonable price of $15 dollars they found it for me in the wilds of Utah and now, after almost ten years of waiting, I have finally had a chance to read it.

First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of the Laventie family.  The country-dwelling Laventies take great pleasure in their cultured and sophisticated tastes when compared to their pitiful rural neighbours and this is, we learn on the first page, a tradition that the family has carried on for many generations:

…deep-rooted in Sussex history, they had nevertheless a fantastic strain in their blood which served to alienate them almost entirely from their worthy neighbours.  Generation after generation of eldest sons set off on the Grand Tour and had to be sought out, years after, in Paris and Vienna and St Petersburg when the death of their sires left Whitenights masterless.  They came home middle-aged men, urbane, travelled, generally impoverished, occasionally debauched: and the good Sussex squires asked them to dine.  It was usually about six months before all invitation ceased.

In the current era, this family trait is exhibited by Mr Laventie, a louche aesthete who goes travelling (and philandering) every so often and returns with a gift for his invalid wife and even more distain for his rural neighbours, eldest daughter Elizabeth, a sharp-tongued and observant essayist, and son Dick, an artist.  Mrs Laventie, disabled for many years, stays quietly in the background for the most part while daughter Ann struggles to find where she fits in.  Not unnaturally, she shares the tastes and prejudices of her opinionated family members, as we all absorb the world view of those we grew up with.  But even early in life there are signs that a more conventional soul lurks beneath: it is Ann, alone among the Laventie children, who quietly loathes the family birthday tradition of pies filled with artistic but inedible flowers.  Rather than beautiful mounds of rhododendron flowers, Ann longs for juicy apples to fill her birthday pie.

Ann is our heroine but, as in the way of so many Margery Sharp novels, heroine may be too strong a word.  It implies perhaps more fondness than Sharp cares to elicit from us.  What I love about many of Sharp’s other novels is how pointed they are and how callously she treats many of her protagonists.  Here in her first novel she hasn’t quite achieved that style but the early glimmerings are there.  She gives us enough in Ann to care about but not so much that we don’t still find her frustrating in her moments of meekness and uncertainty.

And there are many such moments.  Ann, young and isolated from the glamorous world of artists and liberal thinkers that she has been brought up to view as her rightful sphere, is infatuated when Gilbert Croy arrives at Whitenights.  A daring film producer, Croy is handsome and flatteringly attentive to Ann.  It is only when the action moves to London that Ann, who has decided she is in love with Croy and willing to marry him, realises how little her values align with those of her father, her siblings and Croy.  For in the country the family’s affectations were relatively harmless – at least to themselves.  They may have made cutting remarks about the stolid neighbours (particularly the sprawling Gaylord family) and discussed their beliefs in personal expression and free love but in Sussex the neighbours found them too odd (and perhaps too amusing) to take much offense and there was little chance of a belief in free love causing problems when there was no one intellectual enough around to love.  London, where all three children find themselves, is another matter.

Following Elizabeth and Dick to town, Ann finds herself part of their social circles and not at all sure of her surroundings.  Everyone she meets seems somewhat lost in their pursuit of individual pleasures and free love seems to be causing more pain than anything.

When she retreats home to Sussex, Ann’s London experiences help her see her old surroundings and old country friends in a new way.  And when she falls in love with one of those neighbours whom her family so despise – a young man who is so gauche as to work in a bank, epitomizing the type of conventional thinking that so outrages Mr Laventie – the family is aghast.

It’s an entertaining story but, for me, a forgettable one.  Sharp was very young when she wrote it – only twenty four or twenty five – and everything is a bit simplistic.  The elements that would make her excellent later are there but it’s a bit of wasted potential when she wasn’t yet confident enough to truly make fun of her eminently laughable creations.

What it worth $15?  Absolutely.  Is it worth $300?  Certainly not.  Spend your money instead on one of her later, better works (my favourites are The Flowering Thorn and Something Light).  But if you can track this down, there is still plenty to enjoy.

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I shall be rather sad to see 2018 go.  While the world had its problems, for me 2018 was a wonderful year.  I spent lots of time with loved ones, travelled to some beautiful places, and started a new job that makes me happy every day to go to work.  Everyone I love is well and content and I am being supplied with almost daily photos of my one-year old niece – life is good.

My busy year cut into my reading time but I still managed to read (if not always review) some wonderful books this year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Green Money (1939) – D.E. Stevenson
After reading more than three dozen books by Stevenson, I thought I’d read everything worth reading.  Happily, I was wrong.  I loved this Heyer-esque comedy about a young man suddenly saddled with a beautiful and dangerously ignorant ward.  This is Stevenson at her most sparkling and confident, full of humour and warmth.

9. Anne of Green Gables (1908) – L.M. Montgomery
Is it fair to put a book I’ve read twenty or more times on this list?  Possibly not (and sorry to Sword of Bone by Anthony Rhodes, which almost made my top ten but was bumped in order to include this) but I’ll do it regardless.  Anne of Green Gables is perfect.

8. A Positively Final Appearance (1999) – Alec Guinness
Who knew an actor could write so well?  This was Guinness’ third book but it is the first I have read (though certainly not that last).  Covering the period from 1996 to 1998, his diaries are marvellously free of celebrity gossip and are filled instead with sharp observations about the world around him, a fond portrait of his family, and, best of all, insightful comments on the books he is reading.

7. Lands of Lost Borders (2018) – Kate Harris
After overdosing on travel memoirs last year, I restricted my intake in 2018 but thankfully still made room to enjoy this beautifully-told tale of a great adventure.  Harris’s memoir of cycling along the Silk Road, from Istanbul to India, was a wonderful reminder of the joy of exploration.

6. Bookworm (2018) – Lucy Mangan
Mangan’s memoir of childhood reading was warm, funny, and stirred up wonderful memories of my own early reading.  Intriguingly, there was very little overlap between the books Mangan loved and the ones I read as a child but that made no difference to my enjoyment.  Mangan captures how it feels to be a child who makes sense of the world through what she can find in the pages of books and that is definitely something I can understand (as I suspect can most of you).

5. When I Was a Little Boy (1957) – Erich Kästner
A beautifully written – and illustrated – memoir of growing up in Dresden before the First World War, I adored this Slightly Foxed reissue.

4. The Fear and the Freedom (2017) – Keith Lowe
A superb look at how the legacies of the Second World War shaped the second half of the twentieth century.  Lowe looks at so many things, including the inventions and institutions that were created as a result of the war, but I was most fascinated by the less tangible changes it wrought, the mythological, philosophical, and psychological shifts across the countries impacted.  I found the chapter on Israel especially memorable, where the Holocaust survivors were initially treated harshly since their victim-status did not fit with the young country’s view of itself as a nation of heroes and fighters.  The way the nation’s identity changed as survivors began telling their stories in the 1960s, from a nation of heroes to “a nation of martyrs”, is fascinating.

3. The Flowering Thorn (1933) – Margery Sharp
After a few hit-or-miss encounters with Sharp, this was the year she became one of my favourite authors.  And that all started with this tale of a sharp young society woman whose life changes when she adopts a small boy and goes to live in the country.  In another author’s hands, this could have turned into something unbearably twee.  Instead, it is sharp and marvellously unsentimental yet still full of warmth.  I adored it and am already looking forward to rereading it.

2. The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (1996) – edited by Charlotte Mosley
Great wits and writers, Mitford and Waugh’s letters cover decades of occasionally hostile friendship, stretching from World War Two until Waugh’s death in 1966.  Both rather competitive by nature, they saved some of their best material for this correspondence – sloppiness (like bad spelling) was called out.  Full of fascinating tidbits about their own books as well as their famous friends, I was utterly absorbed by this book (and by Waugh’s awfulness).

1. The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) – Svetlana Alexievich
Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.

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Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I have a new book on my list of favourites and, much to my surprise, it’s by an author whose writing I had previously described as “a long-winded mess” and “a chore to work through to the finish”.  What is this delightful, joyful, life-changing (at least in my attitude towards its author) book you may ask?  The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp.

Published in 1933 (but recently reissued), the book begins several years earlier as twenty-nine-year old Lesley comes to a startling realisation after a dud of a date: she is not a woman that men fall in love with.  Yes, they flirt with her and try to get her into bed but when she meets a man she’d actually like to fall in love with – nothing.  No sparks whatsoever.  And if that is the case, she begins to wonder, what is the point of the whirlwind social life among artists and other bright young things, and the obsession with powdering, plucking, and painting herself into a modern beauty?

And so, in search of a purpose, she decides to adopt an orphaned four-year old boy (Pat) whom her aunt has unexpectedly been left in charge with.  In doing so, she realises she will have to leave her beloved London flat (no children allowed) and, at least for the next four years until he can be sent to boarding school, completely upend her well-ordered life.  It begins with a move to the country after having discovered she can’t afford anything suitable in town.  The suburbs, when suggested to her by estate agents, are completely out of the question:

Lesley listened incredulously: it was as though they advised her to try Australia.  There were the suburbs, of course, through which one occasionally passed in a car, and where people out of Punch borrowed each other’s mowers; but as for living there –

In the country, not surprisingly, everyone immediately assumes Pat is Lesley’s child.  She after all has all the markings of a frivolous, moral-less young thing likely to get herself into such a situation and then brazen it out.  It’s important to clarify the truth to a few people – the vicar and his wife, for instance, not because Lesley has taken up religion in any way but because they have four young children for Pat to play with which nicely occupies the bulk of his day – but after that Lesley couldn’t care less.  She is a practical young woman: what does it matter what the villagers think as she is only going to be there for four years?

But, inevitably as the years pass, Lesley finds herself being absorbed by country life.  She is on friendly terms with the neighbours but, most importantly, she makes a dear friend of Sir Philip, her landlord and an old school friend of her uncle’s.  Despite an awkward beginning (at their first meeting Sir Philip, a racy late Victorian at heart, was encouraged by her backless dress and painted beauty into a rather unwelcome advance) they become good friends able to speak very frankly to one another:

‘You are enjoying yourself,’ said Lesley.

Sir Philip grunted.

‘The modern woman,’ he said.  ‘Your grandmother, my dear, or even your mother, would at once have flown to my pillows.  Take some sherry.’

‘But your pillows are beautiful,’ protested Lesley, doing as she was told.  ‘Why should I come and disarrange them?’

‘Because I should like you to.  Because every man, when feeling a trifle uneasy, likes to believe that his women are feeling even more so.  It panders to our sense of superiority.’

Socially, that’s all Lesley requires.  Part of the joy of the book is that young Pat is relegated firmly to the background.  Lesley grows to care about him but, as other characters wonderingly remark, she doesn’t really love him or try to mother him.  She is simply there providing a modicum of adult supervision and, increasingly, fondness.  Lesley is much more interested in spending time with Sir Philip or making improvements to her awkward little cottage.  It is a life completely removed from the social whirlwind in which she used to exist and she blossoms.

But her London life does intrude every so often. Old friends descend on her cottage for a weekend, bringing with them noise, rudeness, and plenty of alcohol and cigarettes.  Her greatest London friend, Elissa, who “when given time to arrange her thighs, looked as thin as a toothpick”, soon forgets all about Lesley mouldering in the country and it is up to Lesley to keep up the friendship.  But encounters with her old crowd only serve to remind her how far she has drifted from them – and how happy she is to have done so.  She retains her love for London – for theatres and galleries and intellectual discussion – but is done with all the artifice of her former life.  She has figured out what matters to her and, as the book ends with Pat going off to school and Lesley regaining much of her freedom, she knows exactly how she plans to live.  And it seems her new life has room for that thing she had given up on only a few years before – love.

I adored this book.  Yes, the central message tends a little towards “reject modern womanhood and you will be healthier, happier, and more loveable” but it is so funny and so extraordinarily well written.  The completely lack of sentimentality is what really did it for me.  The premise – beautiful spinster adopts small boy – could be terrifyingly twee in another author’s hands but Sharp, who lives up to her name, wisely doesn’t try to turn Lesley into anything maternal.  In fact, Lesley almost immediately after taking charge of Pat wants to give him back.  They do not bond or say winsome things to one another, they merely get on in a spirit of peaceable companionship, each concerned with their own interests.  How wise!  I finished it completely delighted by its wit and heart and determined to read much, much more by Sharp.  Many thanks to Jane for organizing Margery Sharp Day (as part of her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors), which gave me the impetus to read this.

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The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

The Window of the Poet by Pyotr Konchalovsky

It is Margery Sharp day today, hosted by Jane in honour of the 110th anniversary of Sharp’s birth, and though I haven’t read anything recently by Sharp, I thought it would be a good time to share my thoughts on the two of her books that I have read before: Cluny Brown and The Eye of Love.  Neither book turned me into in a great fan, but I nonetheless look forward to reading everyone else’s reviews today.

Since I haven’t been reading Sharp this weekend, I’ve kept busy with other authors.  My plans for a hermit-like Saturday devoted to reading didn’t quite work out, but I picked up my inter-library hold on Katherine’s Marriage by D.E. Stevenson yesterday and am half-heartedly slogging my way through it.  It’s been a while since I read anything by DES and I’d forgotten how mind-numbingly dull her bad books are.  There is a reason I didn’t pick this up back in 2012, when I read the bulk of her other books.  It is a sequel to Katherine Wentworth and, if anything, might be even worse than that book.  I’ll keep reading for a bit to see if it improves at all but hopes are not high.

Here's Looking at YouI did finish Here’s Looking at You by Mhairi McFarlane on Saturday.  It’s a funny, light novel and I love McFarlane’s style but, most importantly, it is one of those books which had surprising overlaps with a number of my current interests.  I love this kind of serendipity.  The main female character, Anna, is a history lecturer at UCL (yay!  a heroine with a real job!), who specialises in the Byzantine Empire.  She and James, the male lead, are brought together when they work together on a exhibit for the British Museum about Empress Theodora.  Since I started reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium (which I didn’t finish back in the autumn but have now picked up again), I have been fascinated with all things Byzantine so this was a delightful coincidence.  But it did not end there: when Anna’s sister decides to get married in Italy, they go to their father’s home town of Barga.  I’m in the midst of planning a trip to Italy for this October and Barga, which I’d never heard of until a few months ago, is firmly on the list of places I want to visit on a day trip from nearby Lucca, where we will be staying.  I would have still enjoyed this book without these references but I enjoyed it so much more with them.

LeftoversSpeaking of chick-lit, I also finished Leftovers by Stella Newman this week.  This was one of my NetGalley reads and it was a good light distraction for a very busy work week.  Susie, the heroine, is thirty-six, single, and desperately counting the days until she will get her promotion and – with the accompanying bonus – be able to quit.  She’s still trying to get over her ex-boyfriend but there seem to be no end of men willing to replace him – if Susie were interested.  But this is not really a book about finding love.  It is about getting your life together, going after the things you want, and being happy.  Oh, and it is also about food.  Loving descriptions of numerous pasta dishes had me whipping up spaghetti carbonara (Nigella Lawson’s excellent recipe from How to Eat) the night I finished this.  The thing that irked me a bit (other than the seemingly endless supply of men who are interested in Susie) – and I wasn’t able to articulate this until I read Here’s Looking at You and felt the contrast – is Susie’s attitude towards her career.  I have more sympathy for books about women whose romantic lives are chaotic or lacklustre than for ones where the heroine is underemployed or just plain unhappy at work.  Susie works for an advertising company, with people she dislikes and clients that she absolutely hates.  But rather than try to find a role at another firm, she slogs on miserably (despite the urgings of her friends and family).  She even talks about how much she loves advertising – and then goes out and does something completely different at the book’s end.  Not an entirely satisfying read but still enjoyable in its way.  Enough so that I’ve now got Newman’s earlier novel, Pear Shaped, on my Kobo.

Now, off to make the most of my Sunday!

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wives-and-daughters-oxford-world-s-classics-14684306I am reading Wives and Daughters again.  I am just easing my way into it, still in the midst of the preparations for young Molly’s visit to the Towers.  It is such a familiar book that I am always torn between savouring each line and rushing ahead to greet my favourite characters, relive my favourite scenes.  As much as I enjoy the Miss Brownings, their flutterings remind me how long I have to wait to see the magnificent Cynthia in action.  As much as I revel in that first glimpse of Clare’s self-centeredness, I love her so much more a few years later when she becomes Hyacinth Gibson and her true character is exposed to her new family.  I missed my annual rereading of this book last year (having been caught up in the Twentieth Century with A Century of Books) and it is a delight to return to it.

To me, Wives and Daughters is the ideal summer book.  I always feel the urge to turn to it when the weather turns hot and there is nothing more satisfying than sitting in a cool place on a hot summer afternoon, getting caught up in Molly’s story.  The first time I read it was in summer, probably a decade ago now, but I did not have the privilege of reading it in such leisurely conditions as I now enjoy.  Or perhaps I merely lacked the patience to wait until I could arrange myself in such comfort.  Instead, I read it hungrily, gulping down a few pages anytime I had a few free minutes.  I remember finishing it on the bus coming home from my summer job, missing my stop because I was so caught up in the ending.  Or, more importantly, the lack of an ending.

Last week, Hayley described her perfect summer reading as “something Victorian suitable for use as a doorstop when it’s not being read.”  I feel the same way and Wives and Daughters fits the bill exactly.  Trollope might be the only author more suitable for summer reading and, based on reviews that have been popping up recently, I know I am not the only blogger who has turned to him in recent weeks.  I read his The Three Clerks last week and really enjoyed it (and will hopefully manage to review it in the next few days).  Once I’m done Wives and Daughters, I am already planning my return to Trollope’s Barsetshire with The Small House at Allington.

The Eye of LoveWe had a long weekend here and before starting Wives and Daughters I made the most of it in terms of reading.  I’ve picked up a bit of a head cold – a most unpleasant thing to have at any time but especially when it is warm and lovely outside – but that does mean that I’ve had more time for reading.  I’ve begun my acquaintance with Margery Sharp, reading first Cluny Brown and then The Eye of Love.  Sharp lives up to her name in both but I found myself rather underwhelmed by The Eye of Love.  The story focuses on a pair of plain, middle-aged lovers whose ten year affair is disrupted when he – Harry – is forced to engage himself to the daughter of a business associate in order to keep his own business afloat.  Harry and Dolores are a touching and absurdly romantic pair, desperately in love and ignorant of how ridiculous their adoration appears to the outside world, but still their story failed to touch me.  Martha, Dolores’ stolid and self-sufficient nine year old niece is the star of the book but even so it felt a bit of a chore to work through to the finish.  I had checked the sequel – Martha in Paris – out from the library already but I am not sure if I shall read it.  Sharp is quite funny in Cluny Brown, less so in The Eye of Love, but in both books she simply takes far too long to tell the story and ties in characters and storylines that are of no interest.  I can understand why she appeals to others but she wears my patience.

The Best ManMore satisfyingly, I also reread The Best Man by Kristan Higgins this weekend.  It came out this past February and I read it for the first time on the day of release; it was in fact the novel that, after almost a year of Kobo ownership, made me break down and buy my first ebook, having until then relied on library ebooks.  And now I’ve read it again and I haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility of reading it at least once more before 2013 is done.  I love Higgins’ contemporary romances (she has written ten to date) and this one, the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown after having been jilted in the most embarrassing fashion at the altar several years before, is one of my favourites (Just One of the Guys and All I Ever Wanted being my other favs).  I love the quirky and outspoken families and communities that are so central to Higgins’ characters’ lives and just the general sense of humour and warmth that sustains all of her books.  She has a new book coming out at the end of October (The Perfect Match) and you just know I am going to be reading that the day it’s released.

But for now, back to Molly.

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Cluny BrownAt the age of twenty, Cluny Brown, the eponymous heroine of Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp, is tall, unattractive, and, as far as her uncle is concerned, trouble.  Mr Porritt and his wife raised Cluny following the early deaths of her parents but following his own wife’s death, Mr Porritt is at a bit of a loss for what to do with his niece.  A plumber by trade, Mr Porritt is all things respectable and conventional.  Cluny, strictly speaking, is respectable but definitely not conventional:

“The trouble with young Cluny,” said Mr Porritt, “is she don’t seem to know her place.”

At last it was out, Cluny Brown’s crime; and her uncle could never have put into words – not even to a stranger, not even in a park – the uneasiness it caused him.  To know one’s place was to Arnold Porritt the basis of all civilized, all rational life: keep to your class, and you couldn’t go wrong.  A good plumber, backed by his Union, could look a Duke in the eye; and a good dustman, backed by his Union, could look Mr Porritt in the eye.  Dukes of course had no Union, and it was Mr Porritt’s impression that they were lying pretty low.

In an attempt to teach Cluny exactly where her place is, Mr Porritt decides that the best thing would be for her to go into service:

Nothing could be easier, in that year 1938, than for a girl to go into service.  The stately homes of England gaped for her.  Cluny Brown, moreover, possessed special advantages: height, plainness (but combined with a clear skin) and a perfectly blank expression.  This last attribute was not permanent, but the lady at the registry office did not know, and she saw in Cluny the very type of that prized, that fast-disappearing genus, the Tall Parlour-maid. 

It is clearly an endeavour that is doomed to fail but, nonetheless, Cluny is sent off to Devon to work at Friars Carmel, the home of Sir Henry and Lady Carmel.  Cluny is not the only new arrival at Friars Carmel that year.  The only son of the house, twenty-three year old Andrew, has recently returned from travelling on the continent with a highly politicized conscience.  When he meets Adam Belinksi, a distinguished but self-centered Polish intellectual now in exile after giving a contentious lecture in Bonn that offended his German hosts, he is certain he must do something to help the stranded genius.  After all, Andrew thinks, the Nazis are probably, even as they speak, trying to track him down.  Belinksi does not seem as convinced of this but he is more than happy to be offered a home in a quiet country house where he can work without distractions.  Sir Henry and Lady Carmel are gracious hosts, though they find their son’s conviction that the world is yet again on the brink of war worrying, or at least momentarily worrying:

Lady Carmel looked troubled.  It was the thing to do, just then, at any mention of Europe, and indeed there had been moments, with Andrew still abroad, when she felt very troubled indeed.  But now the expression was purely automatic, like looking reverent in church.

One of the surprises, for me, of the book is how little Cluny’s life overlaps with the lives of Carmels.  She tries to settle down to her work and even proves quite good at some tasks but her heart is never in it.  In some ways, she strives for respectability: she delights in taking a neighbour’s dog for walks on her afternoon off – what could be less objectionable?  If only the dog belonged to a less august neighbour than the Colonel…– and is intrigued when the village chemist, an exceedingly respectable man, begins to court (and attempt to educate) her.  But it is no use.  Cluny is still an extraordinary girl, given to extraordinary urges.  She is intelligent and excitable with a curiosity that would be considered winsome in a young woman of means and leisure but is wildly inappropriate in a housemaid.  The Carmels are mostly spared these outbursts, but Mr Belinski, equally in thrall to his emotions, gets to witness and even provoke a few of Cluny’s entirely natural, but entirely inappropriate to her station, lapses.

As entertaining as I found the forthright Cluny, I have to admit that for the bulk of the novel I enjoyed the affairs of the Carmel family and its guests much more.  I think Sharp is at her cleverest and funniest when describing the beliefs and behaviours of all three Carmels: Lady Carmel, so gracious and so smoothly practical in the running of her house and men folk; Sir Henry, the prototypical 19th Century squire suffering through the 20th Century; and young Andrew, wanting so much to be a cosmopolitan young man but really, underneath it all, ruled by his “Lord-of-the-Manorishness”.  I could not help but feel tenderly towards them, which, enjoy her as I did, is more than I can say of my feelings toward Cluny.  Cluny entertains but she does not invite tenderness.

While I really enjoyed Sharp’s writing style – she has a wonderful, surprising sense of humour – the structure of the novel left much to be desired.  The opening section, introducing Cluny and describing how Mr Belinski was brought to Friars Carmel, was excellent and the closing was fast and funny and just right.  In between, it was a bit of a long-winded mess following two almost entirely separate storylines: Cluny’s attempts to conform as a housemaid (including her infatuation with the chemist) and the Carmels’ experiences with their houseguests, both Mr Belinski and then the lovely young Betty Cream.

Though I loved the ending of this book, as a whole it did not leave me in raptures.  It was still interesting to read; it was just too uneven and wandered too much to hold my attention entirely.  But, as regards Margery Sharp, I know this much: I am intrigued.  She can be funny and original and surprise me when I am convinced I have no interest in being surprised.  And how could I not want to read more from an author like that?

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