Friday, October 23, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Bonjour, Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

One of the books I wanted to read after Au Revoir, Tristesse, was the main book that inspired Viv Groskop: Bonjour, Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. A novella written by the seventeen-year-old Sagan, it launched the career of the author and the cult of personality surrounding her.

The protagonist, Cécile, is a seventeen-year-old girl living with her widowed father after a stint in a convent school. He is a shallow skirt-chaser trying to hold onto his own youth. He does love his daughter, but is happy to have her follow in his carefree, self-indulgent footsteps. They embark on a two-month summer vacation in a rented villa on the Mediterranean, along with her father’s current mistress, a young woman named Elsa. 

Things are progressing happily and lazily. Cécile meets a young law student named Cyril who is summering in a nearby villa, who teaches her to sail. He’s rather an upright young man, but they have a strong physical attraction that grows as time goes on. They eventually become lovers.

Things change abruptly with the arrival of Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s deceased mother, who is organized, morally strict, and conventional. It surprises Cécile to discover the woman is in love with her footloose father. The woman’s calm, measured, grown-up behavior, along with her mature beauty, catch the father’s attention. Before long, he transfers his affection from Elsa to Anne. This is not out of character for him, since he never sticks with one woman for long. But what is out of character is the sudden announcement that he is going to marry Anne.

Cécile is horrified. She doesn’t want the dull, conventional life that she and her father will be doomed to live as “Anne’s husband” and “Anne’s step-daughter.” Even though she does admire Anne and, at times, appreciates the woman’s goodness and forebearance, Cécile doesn’t want her coming between her and her father. She doesn’t want to live a conventional life, and can’t believe her father would be happy either. So, Cécile sets out to sabotage the relationship. She works to bring Elsa back into the picture, knowing her father will inevitably cheat on Anne. 

While it’s tempting to see Cécile as a horrid, spoiled, jealous child – which she is – she also comes across as pitiable. The story is seen from Cécile’s point of view, which is full of contradictory emotions and confusion. Her actions stem from an emotional stuntedness and an adolescent narrowness of focus. The universe revolves around Cécile. She revels in her power and is terrified by it. She regrets the outcome she engineers even as she continues to press for it. Throw in an element of Fate, and the results are even worse than Cécile plotted. She will move on, but she won’t ever be able to forget what happened, or to return to the unencumbered “happiness” of her previous life.

This is a very quick, straight-forward read with surprising depth.

Monday, October 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

 I can’t have a Regency Romance binge without including a novel by Georgette Heyer. This time, I chose Arabella.

Arabella Tallant is the eldest daughter of The Reverend Henry Tallant, a second son and hard-working vicar in northern England. The vicar and his wife are blessed with eight children. They are gentry and, while not exactly impoverished, eight children is too many to launch into society. Therefore, Mrs. Tallant has pinned her hopes on Arabella. If she marries well, she can help bring out her sisters and support her brothers’ careers. Mrs. Tallant’s old friend, Lady Bridlington, is Arabella’s godmother and has agreed to sponsor her debut in London during the Season.

Arabella is a sensible girl, fully aware that the family’s fortunes are dependent upon her making a good match. She’s excited by the opportunity but a little unnerved by all it entails. 

She is sent off to London with a chaperone. The journey will take several days, but it’s an adventure to Arabella. She’s enjoying herself until her coach breaks down. It’s cold and rainy and her chaperone has taken a chill. Rather than await the arrival of a rental coach from the next town, which will take hours, Arabella insists on seeking succor at a house she sees close by. Her father has taken in travelers in similar positions so she sees nothing untoward in the imposition.

The owner of the house is Mr. Robert Beaumaris, a “Nonpareil,” fabulously wealthy and a favorite of the ton. He is single and thus is constantly under siege by marriageable girls and matchmaking mothers. He assumes Arabella is another girl laying a trap for him and gives voice to the disparaging assumption to his companion, a charming young lord, when he thinks she’s out of earshot. She is not.

Infuriated, Arabella accepts his reluctant dinner invitation, during which she charms the young lord but gently snubs Beaumaris. This intrigues him since he’s never been snubbed. She also pretends to be a wealthy heiress escaping to London because she’s tired of the local fortune-hunters pursuing her. She wants to be in a place where no one knows of her wealth. (This is important for the plot, but for me, it was the weakest part of the story. She didn’t have to lie about an inheritance to make her snub of Beaumaris effective. It was a bit too contrived.)

At any rate, she reaches London. Her godmother sets about introducing her around. One of the men Lady Bridlington hopes will deign to notice Arabella is Mr. Beaumaris. It turns out that the man is so much in fashion that having him accept an invitation will make any party an instant success. If he will but pay a few moments attention to a girl, her position is immediately elevated. Beaumaris does all this AND takes her out driving. Arabella shortly become the most sought-after debutante of the Season. Unfortunately, Arabella learns her popularity also has something to do with rumors of her wealth, a rumor that she inadvertently started. This thwarts any chance of eventual success because any suitor will eventually find out she has no fortune.

Also, Lady Bridlington warns her not to take Beaumaris’ attention seriously. The man is a rake. And he is out of her league. Arabella takes the warning to heart.

Beaumaris is not exactly pursuing her. He is amusing himself with ensuring her success. At least, that’s what he tells himself. But he has guessed that she isn’t wealthy and he’s curious how she’ll extricate herself from the lie. He’s enchanted by her wholesomeness and by the fact that she is not taken in by his charm. She actually brushes him off!

Things take a turn for the serious when Arabella discovers some of the disadvantaged people (and animals) in London and refuses to look the other way. First she rescues a young chimney sweep and second, a mongrel dog, each time relying on Beaumaris to find places for them after her initial altruism runs up against reality. At this point, he falls hard for her. To his dismay, even though he believes she might feel the same, she won’t trust him enough to confess her original lie. Tangled in her own web, she refuses his proposal.

Things eventually sort out. That is, Beaumaris sorts them out. He is one of those superheroes of Regency Romance who is able to fix all problems by virtue of his good sense, steadiness of character, and gobs of money. And Arabella is the innocence and light he has been missing without realizing it until he finds it.

The story is sweet and fun. There is entertaining light banter. It’s all very innocent. Even Arabella’s brother’s descent into vice is easily remedied and works to good purpose. It’s silliness, but Heyer’s novels are like comfort food.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Au Revoir, Tristesse. Lessons on Happiness from French Literature by Viv Groskop

Au Revoir, Tristesse. Lessons on Happiness from French Literature by Viv Groskop grabbed my interest when I saw the title. Surely, I thought, this must be ironic. The last place I would go for happiness lessons would be French literature. 

But the author is in earnest. The book is a guided stroll through some of the best known French novels with an explanation of what each teaches about different facets of happiness.

Viv Groskop is an Englishwoman who yearned, from a young age, to be French. The book is part memoir, as she explains her youthful love affair with the French language, literature, and culture, while looking back at it from a more mature perspective. Along the way, she introduces the reader to a dozen novels (some/many of which are rather depressing or alienating in the main) picking out the silver linings to demonstrate a happy message contained within. It’s a refreshing outlook. Moreover, it made me want to delve into a couple of novels I’ve never read and re-read a couple that I have.

Groskop is a journalist and comedian, so the writing style is light-hearted and comic. It can get to be a bit too much, as the author drives home, in each chapter, how absorbed she was in her project to become French before she realized that was impossible, and, by the way, she can speak French really, really well. But that’s nit-picky on my part, and probably just jealousy because I can’t.

In short, this is a fun book about books.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

 Emma Donoghue writes beautiful novels with unforgettable characters of remarkable depth. But they are depressing books. The Pull of the Stars, the newest release is an immersive look into the life of a nurse in Dublin in 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic, toward the end of World War I. (If you think things are bad now—and they are—these characters are going through worse.)

Julia Power is a single woman, turning thirty, living in a small apartment with her younger brother who returned from the war unable to speak. While he takes care of the home, she goes to work each day in the Maternity/Fever ward of the hospital. This is a tiny closet of a room for the lying-in of pregnant patients with the flu.

There are not enough doctors or nurses to go around, and Julia finds herself placed in charge of the ward when one of her superiors sickens. She has three critical patients to care for over the course of her next twelve-hour shift. When she asks for help, a volunteer is assigned to her, Bridie Sweeney, a twenty-two-ish young woman who was orphaned and brought up by nuns. Remarkably, the girl is good-natured and thrilled with the chance to work in the maternity ward. She learns quickly, doesn’t complain, and is gentle with the patients. Julia finds herself fascinated by and drawn to Bridie. Over the course of the next couple of days, Julia and the reader learn what a horrific upbringing Bridie had.

Obstetricians are also in short supply. A woman doctor has been hired to help out, Dr. Kathleen Lynn. Dr. Lynn is a Rebel who took place in an armed uprising against the government months earlier and spent time in prison. Rumored to be continuing her rebellious activities, Dr. Lynn is being hunted by the police. Julia is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. All she knows is that the uprising was violent and people died. However, after talking with Dr. Lynn, she comes to understand the viewpoint of the Rebels. While she does not condone the violence, she admires Dr. Lynn’s courage and agrees with the goals.

As Julia cares for the changing roster of patients in her care, she calls upon every bit of experience she’s had and knowledge she has gleaned from watching others, to save the few lives that she can. The descriptions of difficult labors and of some subsequent deaths are not for the faint-hearted. Donoghue does not shy away from graphic details. It makes for gripping, heart-wrenching reading.

It’s difficult to read yet another pandemic/plague book, one that is also saturated with economic injustice and political turmoil. There are a couple of bright spots and a hint of hopefulness, but The Pull of the Stars left me thinking, sadly, that we haven’t made much progress in the last one hundred years.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Footman and I by Valerie Bowman

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I’ve been bingeing on historical romance. The latest is The Footman and I by Valerie Bowman (the first book in The Footmen’s Club Trilogy.)

The premise is that four gentlemen friends getting drunk together one evening make a pact to help one of them, Lucas Drake, the Earl of Kendall, find a bride. Lucas had previously been engaged, but the woman threw him over for a man with what she thought would be a greater title.  Then Lucas’s elder brother died and he became an earl. Now he needs a wife but wants someone who loves him for himself, not for his wealth and title.

In order to find such a lady, his three friends decide that one (who is married) will host a house party, invite a number of young debutantes, and let the others attend disguised as footmen. That will give Lucas a chance to observe the ladies to see how they treat servants. (It’s unclear how that will show Lucas that they aren’t interested in his title if they ever do meet him as earl, but at least he’ll see if they are nice people.) His friends make side bets on who can maintain their disguises the longest.

Miss Frances Wharton, the daughter of a baron who has gambled away the family fortune, will be attending the house party against her will. Frances finds members of the ton to be dull and arrogant. Moreover, her mother is determined to see her matched with an old bachelor who is among the dullest and most arrogant of all the gentlemen she has met. However, he’s willing to take her (buy her) because she’s young and pretty.

Frances is not interested in the things most debutantes care about. Her interest is politics, particularly an Employment Bill sponsored by the odious Earl of Kendall, whom she has never met but despises by reputation.

On the first day of the house party, Frances and Lucas (the footman) meet while she is trying to evade her middle-aged suitor. It is love at first sight. They engage in rather more conversation than ladies and servants are likely to do, and then start meeting in secret in the library over the next few days. Conversation focuses on politics, but they engage in more than conversation. 

The premise is a bit silly. The protagonists behave in ways that seem very farfetched from the get-go. Some of the conversations are strained. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining romp and I find myself curious to know what romances are in store for the other two false footmen.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Misleading the Duke by A.S. Fenichel

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Misleading the Duke by A.S. Fenichel has a beautiful, original cover and a fun premise. It’s the second book in the Wallflowers of West Lane Regency Romance series based on four strong women who rebelled against society and authority and who were sent to Wormbattle finishing school by their frustrated parents. There, they bonded, taking on the name of the Wallflowers.

This book works as a standalone, but I do think reading book one first would have helped me get my bearings. Backstory was provided, but it seemed that whatever it was that set the protagonists off on the wrong foot had been presented in the first book even though it belonged more to this story. As it is, they enter this novel behaving badly toward one another and it takes awhile to get to like them as characters.

Nicholas Ellsworth is a duke and a spy. His past is dark and murky, but now he wants to retire and settle into the dukedom he has inherited. He knows he needs to marry and is content with the arrangement made to wed Lady Faith Landon, one of the Wallflowers. She, however, is less content to marry a man she’s never met; apparently, the previous book had to do with the lengths she went to in order to find out what kind of man he was. He was not happy to be spied upon, and decided he didn’t want to marry her. Being a gentleman, he apparently was waiting for her to “cry off.”

As this book opens, he’s still waiting and she still wants to get to know him. He’s grumpy and she’s devious, arranging to capture him alone for a week in a friend’s country home. (This bit of plotting was rather farfetched, but it set the rest in motion.)

Nick’s past comes back to haunt him, threatening not just the budding relationship but also their lives. The book is heavily weighted with graphic violence, more so than sex, which is unusual for a Romance. This allows Faith to show what she’s made of. (Nick, too.) Love comes quickly to the pair, but it takes them a while to believe that the other feels the same way.

The friendship between the four women is one of the strongest parts of the book, and it will be interesting to see how the other three fare in the world of Romance. I suspect this will end up not being my favorite book in the series.