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thelemongrove

I am always just a little suspicious of a book with a lot of hype, although I find it easy to be swept up by it too. The Lemon Grove is a book I had seen an awful lot of talk about on book blogs and Twitter, mainly very positive talk too. So therefore I was quite pleased to win a copy of the hardback from Birmingham Waterstone’s, again via Twitter. Thinking it would make a great summer, pre-holiday read I settled down with it a couple of days before I headed off to South Devon. In the end I was very glad that I hadn’t spent longer than a day on it, I should really have learned by now – I know what I like, and this kind of book isn’t it.

A novel of sun, sea, illicit sex, and unpleasant people behaving quite dreadfully, The Lemon Grove while not badly written, does not have the kind of prose which excites me and the sense of place really should have been better. However I am sure it will hit the right note for a lot of readers looking for a summer sultry read.

For years Jenn and Greg have holidayed in the same villa in Mallorca, usually during the quieter periods of the year. This year they are spending two weeks in their beloved Villa Ana on the outskirts of Deia at the height of the season. The first week they spend on their own, their special time together, relaxing, exploring the places they love, eating at their favourite restaurants. However the second week they are due to be joined by Greg’s fifteen year old daughter Emma, Jenn’s stepdaughter, and her seventeen year old boyfriend Nathan. Jenn is not particularly thrilled at the idea of Emma and Nathan crashing in on their summer retreat, but she has no idea just how the equilibrium will be shattered by their arrival.

As soon as Nathan arrives Jenn finds herself attracted to the good looking boy who her step-daughter is so smitten with. The attraction proves mutual, and the two embark on an obsessional and dangerous liaison. Nathan is an overly confident, sexually assured young man, and is quick to recognise the attraction Jenn has and capitalise on it, while Jenn’s behaviour – as the older adult and Emma’s step-mother – is totally reprehensible and for me a little unbelievable. Here we have Jenn and her apparently happy marriage (ok so we see some small cracks as the novel progresses) who has brought up her husband’s daughter since she was a very young child, suddenly deciding to jump on some cocky seventeen year old as soon as she sees him with his top off. Really? Personally I have always found seventeen year olds to be a fairly unattractive species – I didn’t much fancy seventeen year old boys even when I was seventeen finding them rather spotty and dull. Jenn’s attraction quickly becomes obsessional, her behaviour stupid and reckless. Nathan does not come across like a seventeen year old, a twenty two year old perhaps but not like any seventeen year old boy I have ever met.

This of course does throw up some interesting discussion points that I am sure book groups all over the place will enjoy grappling with. The first question is one of power, who is it that holds the power here? Jenn is the adult – and a parent of one of the teenagers concerned, she could wreck everything for Nathan with one word, and yet she doesn’t, and Nathan seems to know she won’t. Nathan is very assured as I have said, and quite predatory for one so young, but Jenn is no preyed upon innocent, far from it. Although Nathan could be seen as just a boy by many of us, it is hard to think of him in terms of a victim. It’s an interesting point that a relationship between an older woman and a teenage boy is viewed rather differently to that of an older man and a young girl. Had Jenn, been a man and Nathan a seventeen year old girl, our attitude would almost certainly have been that the teenager was the victim of an abuse of trust at the very least.

The relationship between Emma and Jenn is interesting and quite well explored by Helen Walsh, one of the key points is the names they use for one another. There are times when Jenn thinks of Emma as her daughter, and other times she thinks or refers to her as her step-daughter, while the spiky, sulky rather spoiled Emma will sometimes call Jenn Mum, at other times she calls her Jenn. Jenn remembers happier times with Emma, times when she told her stories and played a counting game with her freckles, and yet the next moment she reeling in jealously as she sees her daughter with her arms around Nathan. Walsh paints a portrait of a family where things really are not as perfect as it might at first seem. Jenn and Greg’s relationship appears solid as the novel opens – but as the reader soon sees there are cracks in their relationship, Greg having trouble at work has not confided his problems to his wife but has spoken to his fifteen year old daughter. I thought Walsh’s depiction of Jenn’s changing attitude to her husband was quite good – although maybe a little obvious and unsubtle. The novel’s viewpoint is Jenn’s and before the arrival of Nathan, her husband is always Greg, after Nathan’s arrival he is frequently Gregory, a dull, staid sound name reflecting Jenn’s sudden embarrassment in him and irritation of what she previously found endearing. Still those are all discussion points for the book groups out there, I’m afraid I got to the point where I didn’t care anymore, mainly because I didn’t completely believe it. I have no problem involving myself with unlikeable characters, in fact I often love doing just that, but this lot I just wanted to shove off a cliff. The ending – don’t worry no spoilers – was quite clever, a nice little twist, which I was rather expecting, I just hadn’t worked out what direction it would take.

Overall, for me the writing was fairly mediocre and the unbelievable nature of the story stopped me caring very much, and all those interesting questions that it raises could have been done better with greater subtlety and more class. I do see why The Lemon Grove has done so well, but it feels like a book that will divide people, and since finishing it I have found one or two other readers who didn’t like it either.

helenWALSH

a capote readerBreakfast at Tiffany’s is Truman Capote’s famous novella, about a young country teenager, turned New York café society girl, Holly Golightly and her upstairs neighbour. The novella is actually set during the 1940’s – not the 1960’s that the iconic and wonderful film starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard was set. Our unnamed narrator is a fledgling writer, living in a brownstone apartment in New York’s upper East side. Holly Golightly lives beneath him, he hears her call up to Mr Yunioshi: to let her in, she never has a key, Yunioshi a photographer, who lives in the top floor studio is desperate to photograph Holly.

As wonderful as Audrey Hepburn was in the film, you need to get her right out of your head – beautiful, graceful and fragile, a wonderful actress, but not the Holly Golightly that Capote created (he actually lobbied for Marilyn Monroe –but she would have been too old surely?) Anyway back to the book; Holly is a nineteen year old girl living off the wealthy men she meets in New York society, she’s mysterious, irrepressible often endearing, sexy and rather shocking. Her Tiffany bought business cards say simply; Holiday Golightly, Travelling.ahbreakfasrtiffanys

“She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.”

breakfast at tiffany'sHolly and our narrator meet properly when Holly perching on the fire escape outside raps on the window, pleading for entry, as she escapes an awkward man in her apartment downstairs. She calls her neighbour “Fred” after her brother whom she talks about with affection and nostalgia, and “Fred” reads one of his stories to her. Holly loves to shock and surprise just a little, and she speaks quite nonchalantly about the gangster she visits in Sing Sing each week, and the money she is paid to do so and the men she knows. “Fred” and Holly become friends, with “Fred” obviously nursing rather fonder feelings for his enigmatic friend than he admits, to her at least, for Holly is a wild thing and she warns against falling in love with a wild thing, but Fred can’t help himself, and neither can the reader. Over the course of the next few months “Fred” begins to learn a bit more about Holly and her vulnerabilities, where she came from and what her hopes and fears are, meets her friends and even buys her a cheap little gift from her beloved Tiffany’s the place that Holly associates with happiness. Holly famously lives with a cat with no name; a cat Holly claims does not belong to her that she has no right to name. Holly is looking for a place where she will belong; hence the caveat travelling on her business cards, she has no idea where she is going.

“What I found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”

Capote was very insistent apparently, that Holly was not a prostitute, she was a café society girl, living off the money and gifts her male friends and lovers shower her with, and she one day hopes to marry one of them. I don’t want to say too much about the ending, just in case there is someone who has never read the book or seen the film, but bear in mind it’s hard to keep a wild thing in one place.

I thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of the compelling little novella, Capote’s writing is naturally superb, I have come to love his sense of place and Holly Golightly must surely be one of his best character creations.

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bricks and mortar

In a sense Bricks and Mortar is a pretty typical Persephone novel, a largely domestic novel which follow the fortunes of a family across more than three decades. What sets this lovely novel a little apart from the other wonderful domestic set novels which Persephone publish, is that the main point of view in the novel is that of a man and that his career as an architect lies at the centre of the whole story.

“Martin fell in love with Letty quite simply and immediately, without any suspicion that the matter was being arranged for him. He mooned about after her, watched her across the dinner-table with unconcealed adoration, and manoeuvred constantly for a chance to go with her and her domineering, efficient little mother to visit some church or gallery or ruin.”

In 1892 Martin Lovell an awkward, young architect travels to Rome, here he meets Letty Stapleford his future wife. Wanting only to revel in the architecture, ambitious and endearingly passionate about his work, he’s a stuttering nervous young man and no match for Lady Stapleford. Recently returned from India, a widow, Lady Stapleford is almost penniless, her pretty daughter soon to be launched into London society, something Lady Stapleford can little afford. Recognising Martin Lovell to be at least a gentleman – Lady Stapleford sets out to secure the marriage of her daughter to Martin as quickly as possible. Martin Lovell returns to England to begin his career a newly married man, taking a small flat in Gray’s Inn Square. Letty doesn’t share Martin’s love of bricks and mortar, and although the young couple love each other, this is a small irreparable fissure in their relationship.bricksandmortar

Martin starts working for Nicholas Barford, they don’t always agree on architectural matters but rub along fairly well, and in time Martin becomes Barford’s partner and later, following Barford’s retirement takes over the business completely. For lovers of architecture, there is plenty to love in this novel, Martin’s own enthusiasm really very infectious, and Helen Ashton’s descriptions really lovely and seemingly very knowledgeable, and if, like me, you don’t know much about architecture; it really doesn’t matter at all. Martin’s development as an architect is explored brilliantly; with his youthful dreams of cathedral building and his early overly ornate projects later coming to embarrass him.

“standing under the light Renaissance arcade in the vine-wreathed courtyard of the Plantin-Moretius house, he decided, finally and obstinately, that he did not care for Flemish Gothic. There was something sinister, high-shouldered and constricted about the steeply-pitched roofs with their peering suspicious rows of dormer windows, the crowded, intricate tracery of the canopied windows and niches, the florid, soaring multiplicity of pierced belfries and arrowy slender spires. It all seemed as angular and ascetic as the tortured, lean-ribbed saints and prudish, shrinking virgin martyrs in the jewel coloured primitives of the museums. He took much greater delight in this warm sixteenth-century brickwork, these light round arches and tall mullioned windows; they satisfied his domestic and balanced mind.”

Letty and Martin have two children, Anatastasia (known always as Stacy) and Aubrey. Stacy very much her father’s child, takes a delightful interest in his work, while Aubrey his mother’s son, is spoiled and sickly. Letty frequently clashes with her daughter, far preferring her darling boy to the girl she doesn’t really understand, while Martin is often bored and irritated by his son. As the years pass, the family move several times, allowing Martin to put into practise his never waning fascination for houses. Stacy’s passion for bricks and mortar soon almost equals Martin’s and he is able to take comfort in the relationship that develops between them. When Martin takes on a new young architect, Nicholas Barford’s nephew Oliver, he and Stacy seem attracted to one another, something Letty is quick to make plain she’ll never condone. Stacy and Oliver move off in different directions, marrying other people, but almost inevitably come together again following the First World War. During the upheaval to traditional gender roles that came about following The Great War, Stacy finally begins her own architectural training. Her own career is not followed in any great detail, which is a shame; the focus is more on her disastrous first marriage, and her relationship with Oliver Barford.

Although I loved the character of Martin, Stacy really is the star of the show, and I wouldn’t have minded much more of her. The end of the novel is a little overly dramatic perhaps and certainly wasn’t quite what I had expected, but I am maybe just being picky. Overall Bricks and Mortar is a lovely novel, and if you want a novel which explores the changing nature of architecture in Britain in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, then this is certainly the book for you.

helenashton

a capote readerMy Truman Capote reading continues with six more short stories from A Capote Reader. The themes of these stories vary a little – but largely mirror those of the first six stories of this collection that I reviewed last month. His stories encompass emotional anxiety, small town misfits and sexual exploits, portraying sophisticated New York society and the concerns of small town children with equal astuteness. The writing is simply glorious.

Master Misery is dark little story, about dreaming, anxiety, and ultimately obsession. Sylvia sells her dream to the mysterious Mr Revercomb, he advertises in the newspaper that he buys up dreams. The Setting is a wintery New York, where Sylvia lives with her childhood friend and her husband. Upon her second visit to Mr Revercomb’s house Sylvia meets former clown Mr Oreilly. In time sleep becomes an obsession, Sylvia’s mental state becomes gradually more fragile, and she realises she wants her dreams back.

I loved Children on their birthdays: a story set in a small southern town, where two new arrivals are watched by a troupe of children from the verandah. Miss Bobbit; a precocious 10 yr old arrives in town with her silent mother. They take up residence in a boarding house across the street from the house of the story narrator – one of a number of children who become fascinated and slightly fixated on Miss Bobbit. Miss Bobbit refuses to go to school and surprises everyone with her choice of friend and talks of praying to both Jesus and the Devil. Capote rather gives the game away right at the start of this story, but in a sense that doesn’t matter. The depiction of this society of children is breath-takingly brilliant.

My other favourite of these six stories was A Diamond Guitar set on a prison farm, where Mr Schaeffer is one of the more important prisoners; he makes dolls and is fortunate in having a bunk near the stove. One day an eighteen year old Brazilian named Tico Feo arrives at the prison, with a glass diamond studded guitar. Tic and Schaeffer become friends, and Tico soon suggests an audacious plan that can’t but help but tantalise the imagination of this gentle aging prisoner. I loved the character of Mr Schaeffer, and it shows Capote’s absolute genius that in such a short story the reader becomes so completely swept up by a character like this.

“It could be said of Mr. Schaeffer that in his life he’s done only one really bad thing: he’d killed a man. The circumstances of that deed are unimportant, except to say that the man deserved to die and that for it Mr. Schaeffer was sentenced to ninety-nine years and a day. For a long while—for many years, in fact—he had not thought of how it was before he came to the farm. His memory of those times was like a house where no one lives and here the furniture has rotted away. But tonight it was as if lamps had been lighted through all the gloomy dead rooms. It had begun to happen when he saw Tico Feo coming through the dusk with his splendid guitar. Until that moment he had not been lonesome. Now, recognizing his loneliness, he felt alive. He had not wanted to be alive. To be alive was to remember brown rivers where the fish run, and sunlight on a lady’s hair.”
(From A Diamond Guitar -1950)

House of Flowers an odd little love story, with a hint of magic. Young Ottilie is a prostitute in Port au Prince, Haiti. Believing herself in love because a bee didn’t sting her when she held it in her hand, she marries Royal from the mountains, leaving the brothel and her friends behind her. At Royal’s house in the mountains she must contend with her new husband’s grandmother Old Bonaparte, who sets herself firmly against Ottilie. A surprising ending perhaps, showing that sometimes the people we think we love aren’t the ones we should, or maybe ould have had things been different.

“How do you feel if you’re in love? she asked. Ah, said Rosita with swooning eyes, you feel as though pepper has been sprinkled on your heart, as though tiny fish are swimming in your veins.”
(From House of Flowers – 1952)

In ‘Among the paths to Eden’ – a widower, who rather guiltily doesn’t much regret his wife’s passing buys a bunch of jonquils to take to his wife’s grave. In the cemetery he meets Miss O’Meaghan, a peculiar encounter, which is only fully (and bizarrely) explained as the story concludes.

Mojave: Capote’s 1975 story is about a society which seems to thrive on adultery– a woman; afraid of yet in love with her husband, conducting and later ending an affair with her therapist. Her husband tells her story of an encounter with an old blind man in the Mojave Desert years earlier. I can’t say I entirely “got” this one.
My Capote reading is not finished yet – I finished my re-read of Breakfast at Tiffanys this afternoon, and it too will be reviewed in due course, and I still have Capote’s posthumously published short novel Summer Crossing to read too.

capote

sunshine

I love reading books suited to the season, Christmas books at Christmas, gothic spine chillers during those dark October evenings, and summery books during summer. This summer I haven’t managed to match my books to the season really at all, expect for some of my Truman Capote reading. I read Helen Walsh’s The Lemon Grove yesterday just as summer seems to be on the way out, talk about timing! The Lemon Grove is a novel I am sure, would happily take its place on many people’s summer books list, but I didn’t like it at all, I finished it very late last night, glad not to have wasted any more than a day on it.  I had been lucky enough to win a copy of the Lemon Grove  hardback from the Waterstone’s shop in Birmingham. I also have Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave on my kindle. As I’m off to the English seaside myself in a day or two, I had really wanted to read a proper sun drenched book, and from what I had heard, had thought The Lemon Grove might just fit the bill, whether or not I also get around to Instructions on a Heatwave too, remains to be seen. So if you’re looking for a book with a sun drenched feel, where the light and sun practically pour of the pages, here are just a few suggestions.

enchanted aprilThe Enchanted April – Elizabeth Von Arnim 1922 – Ok so April isn’t summer but I’m including this on my list because of the setting, and the feeling of warmth and sunshine which pervades the novel. Four women who are little more than strangers to one another, and who are not, to begin with, entirely comfortable with one another, share a castle on the Italian riviera for the month of April. In sight of the sea and surrounded by flowers, their holiday in San Salvatore begins to work its magic on them all.

 

 

illyrianIllyrian Spring – Ann Bridge 1935 – despite the title – I count this as being a sun drenched summery read. Lady Grace Kilmichael is a well-known painter, she is also a 40 something wife and mother. However she is now running away. Grace heads off to the Dalmatian coast and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young artist called Nicholas.

 

 

talking to the deadTalking to the dead – Helen Dunmore 1996 – Set during a scorching summer, some difficult, sometimes unlikeable characters come together in a Sussex cottage. An illicit affair, lots of food and a wonderful twist make for a wonderful summery read.

 

 

 

loveandsummerLove and Summer – William Trevor 2009 – Set in 1950’s rural Ireland during a summer when a local farmer’s wife begins an affair with a young photographer. A quiet novel, beautifully written.

 

 

 

 

aroomwithaviewA room with a View – E M Forster 1908 – In my memory the sun is almost always shining in this novel. The beautiful Italian setting, English tourists with Forster’s wonderful sense of place make for a perfect sun drenched read. Even after the characters are returned to England we quickly return to summer.

 

 

 

“But either because the sun was shedding a most glorious heat, or because two of the gentlemen were young in years and the third young in the spirit – for some reason or other a change came over them, and they forgot Italy and Botany and Fate. They began to play. Mr Beebe and Freddy splashed each other. A little deferentially, they splashed George. He was quiet; they feared they had offended him. Then all the forces of youth burst out. He smiled, flung himself at them, splashed them, ducked them, kicked them, muddied them, and drove them out of the pool.”

 

the grass harpThe Grass Harp – Truman Capote – 1951- I recently read this novella for the Truman Capote summer readathon. The story of a young orphaned boy, the aunts he lives with, and the time he and one aunt escape to a tree house in a chinaberry tree.

 

 

 

summer seasonIn a Summer Season – Elizabeth Taylor – 1961 – One of Elizabeth Taylor’s particularly likeable central characters Kate is a widow with a grown up son, newly married to Dermot a much younger man. As the summer begins Kate prepares for the return of her best friend’s widower Charles and his daughter Araminta. This wonderfully domestic novel has surprisingly sexual undertones, a real feel of the sixties in an upper middle class provincial home. The ending is fabulously dramatic.

 

 

greengage summerThe Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden 1958 – Set in the Champagne country of the Marne, it’s the story of 5 siblings staying in a small hotel while their mother is in hospital. The children come under the care of a mysterious Englishman, and are soon involved with several other people attached to the hotel. With its constant feeling of summer and a host of memorable characters, this is a perfect holiday read.

 

 

prodigalsummerProdigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver 2000 – A novel which weaves together three stories of human love within a larger tapestry of those inhabiting the forested mountains and struggling small farms of southern Appalachia. It’s probably twelve or thirteen years since I read this novel yet I remember it fondly, so beautifully infused with landscape and the natural world.

 

 

 

 

swimming homeSwimming Home – Deborah Levy -2011 – Swimming Home was a Man Booker shortlisted novel from 2011, another novel set during a holiday. Set in 1994, two very middle class families share a French villa. One day during the hot sultry week, they find a naked woman floating in their pool, who claims to have mixed up her holiday dates. Unbelievably she is invited to stay. A taut, psychologically deft little novel, which I enjoyed a lot – though didn’t love as much as some people.

 

 

 

lastkingsofsarkThe Last Kings of Sark – Rosa Rankin Gee – 2013 – An impressive debut novel, that I read quite recently. Three young adults are thrown together during a summer on Sark, what happens between them is still being felt years later.

“The world was blond, the wind was warm. These were the days that were golden.”

 

 

 

bonjour tristesseBonjour Tristesse- Françoise Sagan – 1954 – Seventeen-year-old Cécile spends her summer in a villa on the French Riviera with her father and his mistress. Later Anne a friend of Cécile‘s dead mother arrives, she soon replaces Elsa (the mistress) in Cécile’s father’s affections, and a jealous Cécile plots to get him back for herself using Elsa to make him jealous. It’s a very long time since I read this novel, but I remember is as being beautiful, sad and evocative.
 

 

I am sure there are a lot of books that I could have added to this list – and I am actually quite prepared to edit this list and add any suggestions I may have missed. So if you know of any really cracking good sun drenched books that are a must please let me know.

I will be reviewing The Lemon Grove in due course – but I have several blog posts scheduled for next week first. I may be in the minority but I think better authors have explored similar stories with more subtlety and more class. The cynic in me might say that sea, sun and sex sells, so Helen Walsh is on to a winner. The novel does contain several interesting discussion points however, but  I’ll save all that for another time.

tea at four o'clock

Tea at Four o’clock is a psychologically astute novel of family tyranny and dominance, the title deliberately misleading with its connotations of cosiness. Set in the author’s native Belfast it is the story of a woman’s cautious attempt to reclaim the life she sacrificed to her exacting family.

Now middle aged, Laura Percival has spent her life at the Percival family mansion Marathon, in thrall to first her father, and later her elder sister Mildred. Laura and Mildred’s brother George, having incurred his father’s wrath and disapproval left the family home twenty years earlier, never to return. Having nursed the exacting, bullying Mildred for the last few years, Laura is left bewildered in her sudden freedom when Mildred dies. Mildred a woman who demanded that tea should be served at precisely four o’clock each day, that the plants should be watered each Thursday, exacted a disabling obedience from Laura. On the day of Mildred’s funeral, Laura takes a small amount of pride in the Rev McClintock’s word of praise – in her “…exemplary devotion (who) did not spare herself in the long months of nursing” Living temporarily at Marathon with Laura is Miss Parks, a strident figure once Mildred’s teacher, who had moved in to help, quickly making herself indispensable and now has little intention of moving back to her bedsitting room on the other side of Belfast. Miss Parks, showing a convenient devotion to the memory of Mildred and her habits sets out to continue the management of Laura, having not reckoned on the reappearance of George Percival on the very day that Mildred is laid to rest.

“George’s memories of his home had been dominated so strongly, and for so long, first by his father and then by Mildred, that he had thought little of Laura during his years of absence. Any picture he had of her was of a quiet child who in her obedience to her father’s or Mildred’s bidding had seemed to accomplish much more than George ever had by his flouting of it.”

George has been living in another part of Belfast, in a smaller kind of house altogether, his wife rather common wife Amy and their daughter Kathie have never met George’s sisters, and have naturally always had an enormous curiosity about Marathon and its inhabitants. Having spotted the announcement of Mildred’s death in the newspaper, Amy persuades him to go to the house and attend the funeral; George arrives just in time to see the funeral cars leave the house, knowing the funeral is over, George decides to reacquaint himself with the sister who is left alone now in the old family house. George’s motives are suspected by both the reader and the family solicitor Mr McAlister, who has his own designs on Laura. George is not easily repulsed, and to the extreme irritation of Miss Parks spends a lot of time over the next few days with Laura.

In trying to reclaim the life she has given to others, Laura must confront and understand the past, the part she and others played in the consequences which resulted from her one aborted bid for independence. McNeill’s masterly at slowly revealing the truth of both the past and the present, and ultimately Laura cannot help but be seen as having been complicit in her own oppression.

“During Mildred’s illness the hour after lunch had always been treasured, an oasis, a withdrawal into herself, a renewal of courage while the invalid rested. Now the necessity of idleness confronted Laura and became a weight, a terror. What was there for her to do? She glanced through the newspaper, reading the words, but understanding little of what she read. At last, in an agony of loneliness she went down the passageway into the kitchen.”

Told in flashback, we see Laura as a young woman, an art student, who meets Tom, a friend of George’s in her art class. Forever after, Laura is haunted by the ambiguity of the words he spoke to her once twenty years earlier, “I never told you I loved you.” Now Tom is dead, having gone to America and married the first woman he met, his son another young artist is visiting Belfast, and Laura hurries along to meet him. George would like to move his family into Marathon, and rather thinks he too can manage Laura, however Laura turns out to be not quite so easily managed. The novel ends spectacularly with McNeill gently twisting the knife just one last time.

The song of the lark

Having promised myself that I would read more Willa Cather novels this year, it was pretty certain that TheSong of the Lark would be one of the novels I would finally get around to. First published in 1915 – it was Cather’s third novel and is considered to be the second novel in her Prairie Trilogy.

“The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing — desire.”

At almost 600 pages it is certainly one of Cather’s longer novels, if not the longest, and it has a scope to match. There is so much to this novel in terms of depth and scope, that I will only try to give a flavour of it, it’s a truly great story, and a quite ambitious work, beautifully written as one would expect, memorable and engaging. The title comes from a painting of the same name, by Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton. songofthelark1

The beginning of the story is set in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado, where Thea Kronberg, one of seven children of the Swedish Methodist minister, at eleven years old is already showing signs of becoming a gifted musician. Thea’s strong, intelligent mother allows Thea space to grow, she knows her daughter is different to the others, Thea’s aunt Tillie, who lives with the family is a bit silly, irritates so many other people, is surprisingly tolerated by the adolescent Thea. Many years later, Tillie’s fierce pride in her niece survives as she remains alone in Moonstone. Even at this young age, one of Thea’s greatest friends, is the young town doctor, Dr Archie, a friendship that will survive decades and Thea’s raise from her humble background to become a great opera singer. The novel is told in six parts, charting Thea’s growth as an artist and a woman, as she progresses from Moonstone to Chicago and New York, studies in Europe and her eventual great success in her debut as Sieglinde at the Metropolitian Opera.

“Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.

A fiercely determined young girl Thea helps to look after her younger brother, born at a time when Thea was gravely ill and attended by her good friend Dr Archie. While learning piano from hard drinking, Professor Wunsch, by fifteen Thea is already teaching pupils herself, using the money she makes to create her very own room under the eaves, this jealously guarded private space becomes a place where Thea can be herself. Often asked to sing at funerals Thea also competes with her singing rival the pretty Lily Fisher. Wunsch lives with the local tailor Kohler and his wife who live within sound of the Mexican community, where Spanish Johnny and Mrs Tellamantez live, sing and dance; and who along with Dr Archie, The Kohlers, Prof. Wunsch, and railwayman Ray Kennedy form Thea’s group of adult friends. Thea only partly understands what desires lie inside her, her striving and ambition, her wish to move beyond Moonstone and her music pupils. Wunsch leaves Moonstone, and Thea leaves school to take on greater numbers of pupils and earn her own money. When Ray Kennedy, whose secret wish it is to marry Thea when she is old enough is killed, his bequest of six hundred dollars gives Thea the opportunity to leave and study in Chicago.

In Chicago Thea studies hard at piano, but her true gift is in her voice so when her voice is revealed to her piano teacher he sends her to work with a great vocal teacher instead. However Thea is sometimes dissatisfied, frustrated in herself and those around her, she begins to show those personality traits we might expect of a great artist. Thea struggles to adjust to her new life, living with two German women, and close to a Swedish reform church where she often sings in the choir. When Thea returns to Moonstone for a holiday she finds herself out of step with her old home, seeing resentment on the faces of her siblings and angered to have herself talked about by the local community. Returning to Chicago to embrace her studies, Thea puts Moonstone firmly behind her, the first of the sacrifices she makes in her determined pursuit of her voice. While studying with her teacher Bowers, Thea must play piano for other singers, something she tires of, resenting the success of less gifted singers and despising the public’s preference for them. Then Thea meets rich young man Fred Ottenberg, with whom she spends some wonderful carefree healing days in Arizona on a holiday arranged by Fred. However like Thea’s great friend Dr Archie, Fred too is trapped in an unhappy marriage. These two men however remain close to Thea as she eventually succeeds to the greatness that is her destiny.

Apparently loosely based on the life of soprano Olive Fremstad, The Song of the Lark is the story of an artist, of determination, ambition and sacrifice. Moving from a small Colorado town in the 1890’s to the New York concert halls in the first decade of the twentieth century Cather captures perfectly the psychology of a truly gifted singer, the almost paralysing ambition and the sacrifices which come with that. Cather’s characterisation of Thea is honest and unsentimental, Thea is sometimes difficult, as she does rather shrug off the people in her life she cannot take with her.

The Song of the Lark, my first read for this year’s All Virago/All August was a  great big, brilliant read, and makes me want to read all the other Willa Cather novels I have.

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