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Archive for the ‘Natasha Solomons’ Category

I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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The Song CollectorThere is something so satisfying about following an author as they mature.  Reading their early, promising but not-quite-sufficiently-polished efforts can be both exciting and frustrating – exciting when you think the author is going to carry it all off beautifully, frustrating when she doesn’t.  Until finally, after two books or twelve, the author finally does it.  She comes forth with a book that is everything you knew she was capable of.  Reading it brings not just the joy of a wonderful book but the delight of seeing a promising author mature.

That was how I felt about Natasha Solomons‘ newest novel, The Song Collector.  It is her fourth novel (I read the first two – Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola – with some enthusiasm but could not make it through her third) and it is everything I had hoped she might be capable of.

Following the death of his wife, the English composer Harry Fox-Talbot has no interest in working – or in anything else.  He floats through his days, unable to listen to music or compose.  Music, the force that had sustained him for so many years, the mutual passion which had bound him and his wife, a renowned singer, together, is something he cannot yet face.  Instead, he waits.  For the return of the wife who he rationally knows is gone.  Or perhaps for his own death, even though the doctors assure him he is in perfect health:

‘You’re not ill, Mr Fox-Talbot.  You’re sad.’

I’d inhaled sharply, affronted.  Sad was the wrong word.  Sad was watching an old weepie when it was raining outside or taking down the Christmas tree on the first day of January or listening to the last concert of the season knowing that afterwards all the musicians would depart and the house would be much too quiet.  I’d wanted to rise to my feet and inform the young doctor that I took offence at his most inappropriate use of language but for some reason my legs wouldn’t move, and my tongue was dry and fat, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth.

All I’d managed was, ‘This wasn’t the plan.  Women live longer than men.  Everyone knows that.  This wasn’t the plan at all.’

Then there is a revelation: his grandson, a troublesome four year old, is a musical prodigy.  As he carefully nurtures his grandson’s talents, Fox slowly reignites his own musical passion and reengages with his life-long friends in the musical world, also facing the daily griefs – large and small – that come with aging.

Juxtaposed to this is the story of Fox’s early adulthood, starting in 1946 as he returns to his family home (requisitioned during the war) with his father and two elder brothers.  At both ages, we see him discovering and growing his love of music and dealing with his love for the beautiful, reserved singer Edie Rose, first as an admirer and later as her widower.  It’s a beautiful structure that Solomons handles with delicacy and thoughtfulness.

At any age, Harry Fox-Talbot is an intensely appealing character.  All of his insecurities, his dreams, and his fears are exposed to us.  Perhaps because of that, he seems almost fragile.  The other characters are merely background, but that is perfectly alright.  Who would want to leave Fox, even for a second?  Not I.

I was deeply touched by this book.  With its quiet steady pace and lyrical writing it had the power to sweep me out of my daily life and into Fox’s world.  His friends, his family, and his music were are the forefront of my mind whenever I had to put the book down (work just keeps getting in the way of reading) and it felt like returning to a friend each time I picked the book up to read a few more chapters.  That feeling is so rare and I cherish it.

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I have somewhat mixed feelings about The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons.   On the one hand, it was an entertaining book to spend a rainy afternoon with.  On the other hand, it reminded me strongly of other books I have read – if you’re familiar with Eva Ibbotson’s books, particularly A Countess Below Stairs, this will feel very familiar – and that lack of originality did bother me somewhat.  There was never a moment when you didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.  Still, predictability is not necessarily a bad thing in a comfort read.

Elise Landau comes from a Viennese Jewish family, daughter of an exquisite opera singer and a renowned experimental novelist.  As the novel begins in 1938, Elise, at the age of 19, finds herself on her way to England.  While Margot, Elise’s sister, and her husband have obtained visas for America and Elise’s parents hope to do the same, they know they will not be able to get one for Elise.  But England will accept Jewish refugees willing to take up positions as domestic servants, so off Elise goes.  For the middle-class Elise, accustomed to having household staff, the shift from pampered youngest daughter to working maid is jarring.  But she quickly settles into her new role, falling in love with her new home, Tyneford House.  And it is also not long before she is falling in love with Kit Rivers, the university-aged son of the house, and the line between servant and master begins to blur.  But there is always the prospect of war on the horizon and Elise’s happiness in her new life cannot ease her worries about the family she’s left behind in Austria. 

Elise is one big bundle of confused emotions, from start to finish.  At times this was understandable, at others not.  I liked her and yet I never felt I knew or understood her, which is a frustrating feeling when it’s a novel written from the first person point of view.  I think much of my confusion came from her relationship with Kit.  None of the descriptions of her time with him conveyed much emotion.  Many confused thoughts, absolutely, but not a lot of emotions.  I couldn’t for the life of me understand why she found Kit remotely appealing.  Kit and Elise never really talk – well, they must at their English lessons but the reader doesn’t see those – and their relationship seems based on simply being of about the same age and in the same place at the same time.  Kit has a brash, careless energy to him that is incredibly off-putting to me but is apparently his most attractive trait for others.  Happily, it’s clear all along what his fate is going to be so I didn’t really worry too much when I was feeling troubled by his suitability. 

The much more interesting relationship at Tyneford is between Elise and Mr Rivers, Kit’s father.  Throughout the novel, they seem to understand one another.  While we rarely see Kit and Elise connect on an intellectual or emotional level, Elise and Mr Rivers’ interactions are well documented and the friendship and affection that develops between them seems much more natural.  Also, clearly inevitable and highly telegraphed, but I can only be so picky when I know it is leading somewhere I’ll like. 

This isn’t a particularly original or memorable novel but it is an entertaining one.  I doubt I’m likely ever to reread but I did enjoy reading it this once since I’ll never turn down any novel that combines so many of my favourite topics (English country houses, the Second World War, and Austrians).  Still, if I want to read about privileged refugees taking up positions as servants I’ll always turn to Ibbotson’s A Countess Below Stairs and if I want to be very specific and read about an Austrian refugee making her home in England during the war while falling in love with the man responsible for bringing her to safety (and, really, when wouldn’t I want to read such a story?), again I’ll turn to Ibbotson, this time The Morning GiftThe Novel in the Viola has its charms and I do think on the whole that it is stronger than Solomons’ first novel but I still feel like she’s a writer who is not quite there yet.  Very, very close but not quite.  Both her books so far have been entertaining with just the kind of cozy, gentle plots I like best and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

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I love a good cozy, nostalgic novel.  Something set in the countryside, of course, ideally in a cottage with a large garden and a good kitchen, peopled with quite, pleasant folk and perhaps a few local characters to add a bit of colour and excitement.  Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English by Natasha Solomons certainly follows that formula but for all its ticking off of the requisite boxes, it never quite clicked for me.  I was entertained by the story of Jewish émigré Jack Rosenblum, who, having been rejected by all the golf clubs he applied to, moves to the country and sets out to build his own, but never impressed by it.  It lacks both charm and a strong emotional connection to the characters.  Everything was just a little too simple – the embarrassingly earnest Jack, his sad, isolated wife Sadie, and, most frustratingly, the simple Dorset country folk whose society the Rosenblums slowly infiltrate.  The aged, illiterate country sage is a particularly grating stock character and unfortunately played a large role here.

Though the bulk of the novel is concerned with Jack Rosenblum’s quest to build England’s finest golf course – despite the fact that he has never played the game before – it was the opening chapters of the novel, describing the Rosenblums first years in England after arriving from Germany, that entertained me the most.  Jack refers to his “Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance for Every Refugee” pamphlet constantly, depending on it to help him comprehend the strange customs of his new homeland, convinced that by doing so he can become that most desire thing, the English Gentleman.  Experience, of course, teaches him that it is not so easy and he quickly finds that brief pamphlet excludes many important lessons.  And so he amends it, writing his own list, his own guide for how to be English.  The result is delightful, amusing but also a bit sad, each new note the result of all his struggles, all of his embarrassments.

Sadie Rosenblum, unlike her husband, has little desire to blend in with her English neighbours.  In London, she happily gossips and visits with other German Jewish women, women with whom she shares a language and a history.  Sadie is haunted by the loss of her parents and her beloved brother, all of whom died during the war.  In the city, surrounded by friends and with always somewhere to go or someone to see, it was not such a problem.  Once the Rosenblums move to the country, Jack begins to build his golf course and Sadie, left alone all day, lives with her ghosts.  Her baking is on a truly epic scale (though I’m troubled by the logistics of her baumtortes, which generally seem to stand several feet high) as she recaptures the happy memories of her youth with her mother’s recipes.

While Sadie spends most of the book being rather tragic, Jack just seemed reckless and rather mad, particularly as he neglected his profitable business in favour of pouring his money into the golf course.  To be eccentric is one thing but to be irresponsible when others depend on your for their livelihood is quite another.  Happily, things do get sorted out in the end but I was never able to warm to Jack because of this recklessness.

For all its minor faults, there was definitely promise here.  It is easy to see how with a little more spark and a lighter touch this could have been quite charming.  Indeed, it did have its magical moments and those made me hopeful for Solomons’ future books.  I’m quite excited to read her second book, The Novel in the Viola.

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