From the time she was old enough to talk, Harriet had been a sightly distressing presence in the Cleve household. Fierce on the playground, rude to company, she argued with Edie, checked out library books about Genghis Khan, and gave her mother headaches. Though she was an A student, her teachers had never known how to handle her. Harriet was not disobedient, exactly, or unruly, but she was haughty, and somehow managed to irritate nearly every adult with whom she came into contact.
After my shattering experience with The Goldfinch, I took refuge in Donna Tartt's first novel, The Secret History and that helped a lot with the withdrawal symptoms. But the cravings hadn't completely gone away so I thought I'd try her only other novel, The Little Friend. Now the thing is, I'd bought this when it first came out, very excited, as I'd loved the first one so much. But I hadn't got very far with it, though after about twenty years I couldn't really remember why. I told myself that maybe I'd got better at reading since then, or my tastes had changed, or that having recently read her other two books I'd get the hang of this one more easily. Unfortunately I have to tell you that I abandoned it before the end.
This is a terribly sad confession to have to make, and I'm a bit ashamed of not persevering, especially as there is so much to like and admire in this novel. And indeed I did like and admire it for quite a long time. As you may know, this is the story of a family destroyed by the death of a child, Robin Cleve, who was found hanging on a tree in the garden. Nobody has ever discovered the truth of what happened. The only possible witness was his younger sister Allison, aged only four, and the baby Harriet, less than a year old. But Allison has always said that she remembers nothing and, when the story proper begins some twelve years later, she has become a strange, dreamy, uncommunicative girl who expresses no interest in the family tragedy. In fact nobody really wants to talk about it -- nobody, that is, apart from Harriet, who has become a highly intelligent, completely humourless member of a totally disfunctional family. Her father has long ago moved out and lives with a sleazy mistress in a nearby town, and her mother has withdrawn into a tranquillized dream world from which she rarely emerges. Harriet's grandmother and her three great-aunts have played the largest, though generally unwilling part in her upbringing, though the person she feels closest to is the outspoken housekeeper Ida Rhew. So Harriet determines to find out the truth behind Robin's death.
It sounds wonderful, doesn't it, and certainly everything to do with Harriet and her family is brilliantly conceived and written. But the novel began to lose me when it got deeper into the lives and doings of the criminal Ratcliff brothers, who Harriet suspects of having killed Robin. Aided by her adoring schoolfriend Hely, Harriet gets drawn more and more into their frightening and deranged world of drugs, snake-handling and general paranoia -- not of course as a particpant, but as a witness, which is bad enough. Now, though (or perhaps because) the depiction of all this is extremely powerful, I found I was increasingly skipping large chunks, a dreadful thing to do. And when I start to skip, I take it as a sign that I'd better just give up and move on somewhere else, and that's what I did.
I've seen this described as a young adult novel for grown-ups, and that sounds about right. Harriet's endless investigations could, as has also been pointed out, have come straight out of a novel like Harriet the Spy. But don't run away with the idea that I'm saying that this is a bad novel -- it certainly isn't that. In fact writing about it now has made me think I'd better get back to it sometime and actually finish it -- I suppose I was about two thirds through when I gave up. Anyway, not my proudest moment, but I suppose you can't win them all. I'd love to hear if anyone else felt the same, or conversely really loved it!
I thought you might like an 18th-century painting for a change, so I found this --'Sigismonda and the Heart of Guiscardo' by the British painter Moses Haughton (1734-1804). Needless to say I had to find out a bit about the subject matter and here is what I found on Sigismonda in the Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature:
In Boccaccio's Decameron (iv. i), daughter of Tancred, prince of Salerno. Her father, having discovered her love for his squire Guiscardo, slew the latter and sent his heart in a golden cup to Sigismonda, who took poison and died. The father, repenting his cruelty, caused the pair to be buried in the same tomb.
So that rather nice little lidded golden vase, we have to assume, contains the poor man's heart. Very sad. But Haughton has made her into such a pretty 18th-century lady that the whole thing seems miles from the original story. William Hogarth painted a much more famous version of the same subject but without the letter, probably a much better and certainly a more tragic painting but we like women to be reading.
So far 2014 seems to be my year of serendipitous reading. First it was The Expats, bought to save me from airport boredom solely on the strength of the title, and now it's The Good Luck of Right Now, which arrived unsolicited and sat around for a while, in danger of joining those books I haven't asked for and don't know when or if I'll ever get around to reading. I had just about heard of The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick's earlier novel and subsequent film, but it was a review on Book Snob that made me think I'd better make a start on this one. And oh how glad I am that I did.
For this is truly a lovely lovely novel. And it is also a novel about serendipity. The story is told by Bartholomew Neil. He's thirty-eight, and his beloved, loving, slightly crazy mother has just died after a long illness. He has never had a job, or had to look after himself in any important way. He is used to being called a retard, but he is far from stupid, though he looks at the world in an unusual way -- we have to assume he has Aspergers though this is never mentioned. His grief counsellor Wendy is urging him to leave the nest and find his flock, but he has no idea how to begin. He's set a goal for himself -- to have a drink in a bar with someone of his own age -- but as yet does not know how he will achieve this. And on top of everything else he has a crush on the Girlbrarian, as he calls the silent, rather strange young woman who works in the local library.
Apart from Wendy, Bartholomew's only contact with the outside world is Father McNamee, who is rapidly falling apart and soon moves in with Bartholomew, a rather mixed blessing as he is usually either on his knees praying to a God he has ceased to believe in or completely drunk. So Bartholomew turns to someone who he knows to be wise and good -- Richard Gere. Of course he doesn't know Richard Gere, but he was his mother's favorite film star, and the two of them were much impressed by his work for Tibet and his friendship with the Dalai Lama. So he starts to write letters to Richard Gere, and though he doesn't get, or expect, any replies, he finds the process helpful. Through what he understands of Buddhism, and from his reading of Jung, and from his mother's belief in what she called the good luck of right now, and his faith in serendipity, he manages to find his way through the new bewildering world, has some extraordinary adventures, and ends up... well, you'll have to read it to find out, but it's a happy ending.
The Good Luck of Right Now is funny, moving, thought-provoking and uplifting. I loved every minute of it. Highly highly recommended.
This is 'Interior with the Artist’s Wife' by Albert André (1869-1954), French post-impressionist painter and friend of Renoir and Monet, both of whose portraits he painted. I feel I really should have heard of him but I hadn't till I spotted this.
On my way home after Christmas I found myself in the airport with time to kill. I wanted to listen to my audio book but found I'd left my earphones behind. I actually bought some more in Boots, but they were so firmly encased in plastic that I couldn't get them out, even after bashing the case with my keys and, briefly, biting it with my teeth. So I gave up on that, and had a look at Kindle. I haven't actually got a Kindle, but I thought I could read something on my phone, and somehow this one popped up. It was the title that grabbed me, being an expat myself, so I paid my 99p and there it was within seconds.
So here I was, reading a book about which I knew absolutely nothing, except that it was some kind of spy story. The expats turned out to be an American couple who had moved to Luxembourg with their two small children. Not much like the kind of expat life I live, deep in the French countryside, but it was interesting enough to pass the time till the flight took off. When I got home, though, I basically forgot all about it -- I had other books to read and listen to, and I hadn't yet read enough to be grabbed by it. Then, a few days ago, I picked it up, and finished it very quickly.
This is certainly a skillful and page-turning story. The plot revolves round the narrator, Kate, an ex-CIA agent married to Dexter, a successful businessman. The couple and their two young boys move to Luxembourg so that Dexter can pursue his career. But Kate comes to realise more and more that, not only does she find being an expat housewife and mother very lacking in interest and challenge, but also that she knows absolutely nothing about Dexter's job. So, using her CIA training, she starts to investigate his working life. What she discovers is deeply puzzling and disturbing. Not just that, but she soon realises that her best friends Julie and Bill are not what they seem. In fact they seem to be investigating Dexter too.
The twists and turns of the plot are satisfyingly unpredictable, but the strength of the novel is that perhaps its real theme is trust. How can Kate stay friends with Julie and Bill once she knows what they are really up to? and above all, what will her new knowledge about Dexter do to their marriage?
I know now that this was Chris Pavone's first novel, and that it has been a huge success. But I didn't know that until I'd finished it, and that somehow gives me an interesting perspective on how we choose what to read. I came to the novel absolutely cold, and with no preconceptions. Would I have reacted differently if I'd known anything about the author and the book's reception? Perhaps I would have been expecting too much -- or too little, depending on my current views of best sellers. Anyway, whatever, I'm glad I read it and am looking forward to Pavone's follow-up, due out in the spring.
A bit of Victorian kitsch for the new year. This is Wonderland, by Adeleide Claxton. I haven't found out anything about the painter, except that she was the daughter of Marshall Claxton, an artist originally from Bolton in Lancashire. Wikipedia says she exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1859 and 1867.
I must start by saying that this is the first novel of Peter May's that I have read. But his name has been well known to me for some time, as several bloggers whose opinions I respect have written positive reviews of his Lewis Trilogy. So when the publishers kindly offered to send me his latest novel for review, I was very pleased to accept.
First thing that struck me was that Peter May must have a thing about islands. The Lewis trilogy is set in the Outer Hebrides, and Entry Island takes place in the equally remote Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Or part of it does. The other part takes place in... the Outer Hebrides. For this is a novel of two halves, as I understand the Lewis books are too.
This story concerns Detective Simon Mackenzie, known as Sime, which is apparently pronounced Sheem as it is the Gaelic version of his name. Sime, who is based in Montreal, is called out to help investigate a murder on Entry Island. He is needed mainly for his English speaking ability, because Entry is the only island in the archipelago that is not French speaking. Sime is actually bi-lingual, while the rest of the team are Francophone. Sime is of Scottish descent, and his family is proud of his Gaelic roots, his great great great grandfather having travelled unwillingly to Canada from Scotland during the Highland clearances of the mid-nineteenth century.
With me so far? All this background is actually highly relevant to the plot of the story. When Sime meets the prime suspect, the beautiful Kirsty Cowell, he is puzzled by a strong feeling that he already knows her. The mystery intensifies when he discovers that she has an engraved pendant which bears the same coat of arms as a ring he has inherited from his father. Aware that the solution to the mystery must lie in his family's past, he spends the long hours of the night -- for he has chronic insomnia -- revisiting in his mind the stories in his ancestor's diary, which his granny used to read to him when he was a child.
For a long time this seems like two separate novels in one cover, as while half the book concerns the murder investigation, at least as much time is spent on the history of the 19th century Sime Mackenzie and his childhood sweetheart Kirsty Guthrie, daughter of the Laird of Lewis Island and the man responsible for sending the islanders over to Canada. Of course in the end, the two stories manage to merge, and the past history proves to be relevant to the present investigation, though you'll have to read the novel to find out how.
Peter May obviously enjoys his historical research, and I learned a lot about the Scottish and Canadian past from the novel. I did not exactly guess the identity of the murderer, though I began to have a pretty strong suspicion as the end of the novel approached.
I imagine this novel will be as much of a best seller as May's earlier books, so I hope I can be forgiven for a bit of a quibble. I did find the idea of Sime's apparently perfect recall of the contents of diaries he had heard read in his childhood a bit hard to swallow, and indeed the fact that his ancestor managed to write the diaries at such length and under such terrible circumstances rather strained my credulity. But hey, let's allow the man some dramatic licence.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending me this novel. If you've loved Peter May in the past, you're definitely going to love this. Go for it.