Sunday, March 28, 2021

A Single Thread


A Single Thread / Tracy Chevalier
NY: Viking, c2019.
321 p.

This is a novel full of details about canvaswork embroidery. Really! (note the cover design). But it's also a novel about a single woman in post war England -- a "surplus woman" trying to build her own life as a single working woman outside the traditional bounds of expected early marriage.

It's 1932, and 38 yr old Violet Speedwell has just moved out of her overbearing mother's house to the nearby town of Winchester, home of a great cathedral. She lost both her older brother and her fiancé in the Great War, and has been caring for her mother ever since. But now she's had enough and finally manages a transfer to the Winchester office of the insurance company where she works as a typist. 

Winchester isn't far away, and she still visits her mother weekly. But she's also building her own life; living in a boarding house, penny pinching to eat and live, and discovering the Broderers group at the Cathedral by chance. Even though she's never been much of a needleworker, she joins in to help make kneelers and cushions for the Cathedral, to leave a trace of herself somewhere. This group of women also becomes her social group and support in many ways. There is much time in the novel devoted to explaining the designs, the actual stitches and colours, and the designer, the great Louisa Pesel, all based in the real embroidery history of Winchester Cathedral. 

At the Cathedral, Violet also meets a bell ringer, Arthur Knight, married and much older than she is. But there's a spark there. The novel explores the possibility of a relationship like that in this era, as well as showing other concerns that single women had to face, when Violet gains a stalker. This theme was a bit disturbing, and I'm not sure it was essential. If this character had been removed from the novel, the story wouldn't have lost anything, in my opinion. Reading this book over the past few weeks when so much violence against women was happening in our world, I found it particularly disturbing. 

The detail given to embroidery in this novel is also given to bell ringing, a particularly English occupation. This reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' The Nine Tailors, and just as in that book, I glazed over during the details of bell ringing technique. It just seems so arcane!

The book is well constructed, moving along a good clip, and bringing up so many concerns in a single woman's life. Dependency, the expectations to care for parents, money, companionship, meaning, children and lack of, social constrictions -- all were quite naturally enfolded into Violet's story. Some of her choices might not be the expected ones, or ones that a reader would choose on their own behalf, but she's a realistic and believable character nonetheless. The interplay between Violet and her brother and his family, and her mother, was delicately balanced and highlighted how Violet's life and her options differed from her sister-in-law's 'married with children' life trajectory. I found it an engaging read that I enjoyed overall. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Daughters of the House


Daughters of the House / Michèle Roberts
London: Virago, 1993, c1992.
172 p.

I picked up this slim novel from my shelves when I was in the mood for a book about a house -- you know the kind, centred in a big house and all its things, with generations moving through it but the house staying still. I usually find these set in England but this one is set in the French countryside, and so also involves both Catholicism and Nazis during the war. 

The author is British and French, so she really understands both sides of this story from her own experience. There are two girls as the main characters in this novel; Therèse, born and raised in the house in Normandy, and her cousin Léonie, who is half English and lives there for much of her childhood, only visiting in summers. But at a certain point Léonie and her mother end up staying in Normandy, and the cousins' relationship is the key to this story. 

As the book opens, Léonie is an adult, living in the House with her husband and children -- her mother has just died and so Léonie is inventorying the belongings, since Therèse will be coming home from the convent in which she's spent much of her adult life, to claim her inheritance as well. 

Each chapter is titled for one of the items in the house -- The Writing Table, The Soap Dish, The Green Scarf, and so on -- and each one sparks a short chapter on the memories associated with it, as they relate to Therèse and Léonie's childhoods and the events that shaped them, including the deep secrets of both their family and the wider village in wartime. 

It's a brief book, with short chapters that uncover the experiences of these two young girls in a large house where rooms are forbidden, where there is a secret, neglected shrine in the woods that moves events toward a shocking conclusion, where they are trying to figure out the actions of the adult world around them. The writing is elegant, and the construction of the book sometimes takes precedence over the plot, such as it is. The two main characters are both engaging and slightly off-putting; their childhood actions have long-standing effects that the adults they become (and whom we meet in the opening and closing chapters) are still coming to terms with. 

For such a small book, there is a lot here. While the plot is slow moving and inconclusive at times, the moments from the past that are highlighted are strong with emotional resonance and imagery and there is a sense of the uncanny about the shrine and some of the forbidden rooms -- are there ghosts and voices there? It was a strange little book that I found rich and interesting. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The House of Dolls

The House of Dolls / Barbara Comyns
London: Methuen, 1990, c1989
160 p.

This is a book I picked up secondhand, partly on the strength of Barbara Comyns' name, and partly because of that wacky cover. It's a short novel so I read it pretty much straight away, and over one afternoon. It's an odd one! 

Amy Doll is raising her 13 year old daughter Hetty alone, and to make ends meet she rents out the upper rooms of her house to four older women. Those four women, to make ends meet in their own turn, have taken to entertaining older gentlemen upstairs. Amy forbids Hetty from going upstairs after dark, and always has the radio on -- it's not so much what is going on that bothers her, it's that Hetty might twig. 

But then a local policeman starts calling on Amy, and we can see what might happen... 

The four women upstairs are evoked with their particular individual natures -- their quirks, rivalries, and reliance on one another are all delineated. They use their connections to the old boys network to find their clients, who seem to treat their parlour like an old-fashioned men's club, with a little extra on offer. These women are a bit haggard and brash; I don't think Comyns can write quiet or dull. Their stories are sad, though: the difficulties of older women making their way in life are made clear. 

Comyns was in her 80s when she wrote this, her last book, so perhaps it has some personal knowledge behind what it was like to scrabble for survival. But this book isn't like her much earlier and much better known titles. It doesn't have the strange energy or surreality of The Vet's Daughter, for example. It is more situated in everyday life, with reality grounding the events. 

The characters are an interesting study, and Hetty is the innocent figure in all of this, which offsets the grimness found even in the frivolity of the women's parties. It's all about women, how they manage, how they change, how they can shape what lies ahead (or not). That's what most intrigued me about this story. It wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't a bad read either, offering some themes to gnaw on afterward. 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

My Friend Says It's Bullet-proof

London: Virago, 1989, c1967.
224 p.

I need to remind myself more often that English novels from the 60s don't agree with me. I read this one because it was in my Virago collection on my shelf, and because it's set in Canada, most unusually. However, while there was a fair bit of interest in it, it didn't quite satisfy me. 

It features Muriel Rowbridge, a woman who is having an existential crisis about her life as a woman, due to having breast cancer and having one breast removed. This is a major deal for her, causing her SO MUCH distress and difficulty. I guess it's the time period that makes this into such a major trauma; it seems like it is destroying her ability to exist in the world. 

She's a journalist, and has been sent on an unexplained press junket to Canada with a group of male journalists - her beat, of course, is for the 'women's pages'. She slacks off though, and skips out on many of the press events to go off on drives and outings with a man she met the first night in Canada. Of course she ends up having an affair with him although it happens rather suddenly and instantly and there's no real explanation of how or why this comes to pass so quickly. 

While nowhere is named in the book, besides Montreal, it seems clear that she's travelling around the Montreal and Ottawa areas. She goes out to the country, to a lake, to small roadside cafes and so forth. It's quite a realistic setting in that way. 

The question she's grappling with is whether to stay in Canada with this new man and start over again, or return to England and deal with the end of her relationship with the married man she's been living with and all her old surroundings and their expectations again. Should she run away from her past, or face up to it as a new person? Mortimer really digs into Muriel's inner monologue thanks to her journalistic habit of writing everything up; we get to see the evolution of Muriel's thoughts and feelings. It's a good basis for a story, but it felt far too louche, vague, and 60s for my own tastes. 

I've read a number of titles from the 60s, by English writers, over the last while for the Century of Books, and I don't know what was going on exactly but they are all pretty dark on the subject of women's agency in their own lives. I haven't really enjoyed many of them at all. I'll have to try some titles from another place and see if that 60s feel carries over outside of England. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Nella Larsen's Passing


The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen/ Nella Larsen
NY: Anchor, 2001, c1928
278 p.

I picked up this collection of Nella Larsen's writings recently, and decided to read her classic, Passing, for the year 1929 of my Century of Books project. I've been meaning to read this for a long time, so picked it up at the end of February and began. 

It's a short novel, so was a fairly quick read. But all I can say is whoa, Nella, that ending was not what I'd expected! She really surprised me with her conclusion. 

The story is likely familiar to many; our main character Irene is a respected and important woman in her Harlem circles - she's married to a physician, has two sons, and spends her time arranging charity events for the community. But one day she comes across an old friend from childhood, Clare, who is now "passing" as white and is married to a wealthy white businessman who is also strongly and openly racist. 

Clare is feeling lonely and isolated from her past, and dangerously decides to keep in contact with Irene and her family, and others from Harlem, despite what being identified as Black might mean to her life. She wriggles her way into Irene's life in a way that Irene can't seem to say no to, despite how uncomfortable it makes her. And one day Irene realizes that Clare has taken more from her than she'd realized. 

The shocking conclusion comes when Clare is at a house party in Harlem, and her husband finds her there. But the danger lies in an unexpected quarter. The story examines the existential questions of identity and belonging, in both systemic and intimate ways. How much of the self are these characters prepared to hide, downplay, put aside for others? And how much of a character's identity lies in the areas of race, or gender, or relationship, or personality?

This is a brief , but one that sticks with you and makes you think about a lot of things. The sense of distrust and fear is lurking beneath its surface the entire time, and the outcome will make you question all your interpretations of the story. This is a classic for a reason. A startling and important read.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

How Long 'Til Black Future Month?

How Long 'til Black Future Month? / N.K. Jemisin
NY: Orbit, c2018.
400 p.

This collection of 22 stories which span Jemisin's career is a must read. If you are interested in contemporary speculative fiction, this is a book which I'd consider canonical. 

I finished this last week but haven't had a chance to sit down to write about it -- but just had to get it in before the end of Black History Month -- the perfect companion to looking back. There is a wide variety of subject matter and style in this book, since the stories are drawn from writing across many years. 

My favourites are the more magical, fantastical ones; the harder science ones didn't catch me in the same way. And there's also a story, "Stone Hunger" tied to her best-selling trilogy, the Broken Earth books.

I really enjoyed "Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters", a story set during Hurricane Katrina. There are strong characters and also dragon creatures who protect the city -- it's a beautifully cohesive story, and full of love for the city itself. Funnily enough, the other story that I really loved was also set in New Orleans, but this time in the late 18th Century. "The Effluent Engine" is a spy story; a female spy and female engineer, wreaking havoc on men who are trying to destroy them, and triumphing together. I want more of this one! 

There are many others to explore in this thoughtful and engaging collection. From very short to quite lengthy, from tales of the fae to hard science and space exploration, you'll find something you'll love in this book, I'm sure of it. Jemisin brings her own vision to these stories, and breaks from some of the motifs in traditional male science fiction from the past. It's fresh, and has reignited my interest in reading more speculative fiction.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Grace Kelly Dress


The Grace Kelly Dress / Brenda Janowitz
NY: Graydon House, c2020
336 p.

I've never read Brenda Janowitz before, and the blurb by Emily Giffin on the front didn't bode well since I don't usually like her books. But the dress element of this book convinced me to pick it up. And I am glad I did! It was a poignant and enjoyable story of three generations of women, and one dress. 

The story moves between three women: Rose in 1958 who is creating The Dress, Joanie in 1982 who wore it after her mother did, and Rocky in 2020 who is getting married but doesn't want to wear her mother's dress. 

The chapters are all short, and each woman is quite different so it's easy to keep them sorted. Also, Rose is a seamstress in Paris, Joanie is a college student, and Rocky is a contemporary software developer, so they're distinct in their interests, surroundings and behaviours, too. 

Of course I loved Rose and all the time spent in Madame Michel's Parisien atelier, where she works. Rose is very skilled, she loves sewing and designing; her focus and her sketches catch the eye of Julian, Madame Michel's assistant, and is called upon to assist him in keeping the atelier running after the unexpected death of Madame Michel, which he is trying to keep a secret. Lots of drama! 

Joan is a young college student, a sorority member and recently engaged to a fraternity dude, but she's starting to question a lot about her life. She tries very, very hard to be 'good' to make up for the loss of her older sister, who died at age twenty. This character was a little weak to me, because in parts it felt like she was living more in the late 60s than the early 80s, with her sorority and her pearls and her innocence. But she certainly experiences some of the early 80s when she leaves campus in search of the truth about her sister. 

Rocky is a bit rough around the edges, unlike her sultry sister Amanda. She likes logic and order and things being straightforward. She wants a simple wedding, and isn't thrilled about wearing the elaborate Grace Kelly dress from her mother -- but doesn't want to hurt her mother by turning it down, either. There are a bunch more side stories in Rocky's chapters; Amanda is gay and longing for the last girlfriend she ditched, Rocky's fiancé is South Korean but was adopted by a Jewish family and he's now searching for his birth mother, there are mother issues between Rocky and Joan. 

But through all three of the stories, the dress, and all the details of making it, shine through. I loved how Rose takes the inspiration from the Grace Kelly wedding dress that was the ideal in 1958 and updates it for a younger client. She talks about details like shortening sleeves, updating necklines, adding lace motifs, and about how to construct a dress like this (in separate parts, skirt held up with underpinnings and cummerbund to cover the bodice and skirt join. As a sewist, a reader can picture this and understand how it makes a gown like this work on the body).

Joanie adapts the dress to her taste in the 80s (think poofy Princess Diana sleeves) and Rocky eventually comes to see how she can make it work for her, too. (no spoilers...) It ends with a fairytale-like omniscient narrator telling the story of the dress' future, and it works, and it's touching and sweet. 

If you like stories that move between characters, and don't mind the sentimentality of a book centred around love and weddings, and of course you like to read about sewing, give this one a try. You can't go into it cynically or it just won't work, but if you're looking for a gentle read with some great sewing content and an interesting set-up, you might just find it's exactly what you need. 

(this review was first published at Following The Thread)