Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Reading with a Theme: Loyalty Between Sisters

Serendipity is a wondrous thing. I had no intention of reading about adultery and love triangles involving two sisters, but I somehow ended up with two books on the topic and a TV adaptation of the life and loves of the Bloomsbury Group.

 

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.
Rosamond Lehmann in her youth, from the Frances Partridge archive, The Guardian.

Rosamond herself was linked to the Bloomsbury Group, part of the younger generation gravitating around it. Her brother John managed the Woolf’s Hogarth Press for many years, Virginia Woolf rather admired her books and invited her to dinner, so it’s not surprising that she later published a photographic memoir of many of her illustrious friends (including Cecil Day-Lewis. This is what Woolf has to say about Lehmann’s second novel A Note in Music

I am reading Lehmann with some interest and admiration – she has a clear, hard mind, beating up now and again into poetry… She has all the gifts that I lack: can give story & development & character & so on.

This book was originally published in 1953 and is most likely based on the unhappy love triangle with the married poet Cecil Day Lewis (who then left both Rosamond and his wife for the actress Jill Balcon who became his second wife – and continued to have many other affairs). Even more tragically, Lehmann lost her own daughter in 1958 (after this novel was published), so this brings an added poignancy to the description of the grief at the death of a child within its pages.

echoinggroveIt is the story of two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, who love the same man, Rickie Masters (talk about a heavy metaphorical surname!) Madeleine is married to him, Dinah was his lover for a time.

It is not an easy book to read, not just because of the strong emotions evoked (with illnesses, threats, suicide attempts and melodrama galore), but because of the shifting timeframes. Such a contrast to the timelines alternating so neatly nowadays, marked with dates to avoid any possible confusion to the reader!

This novel moves from one POV to another, one moment in time to another with no qualms and no apologies. Yes, it does get confusing at times and I had to keep turning back to see what had been referenced earlier and when it took place.  But after a while I just surrendered myself to the cascade of destructive emotions and guilt trips. It’s a deliberate device, mirroring the jumble of memories and feelings we carry with us at all times, but it also gives us a fully rounded picture of a love triangle (or more than a triangle at times). We see each character through the eyes of everyone else and therefore end up condemning no one. This is a story that leaves no one happy or unscarred and where no one is an out-and-out scoundrel, merely weak.

However, it’s also a very English tale of passion, so we see very little of the drama happening in ‘real time’ or ‘onstage’. Most often, it is being recounted by the characters in (often endless) conversations. An interesting choice, which brings a running commentary to each of the events. The conversations themselves are more like monologues – telling the reader so much, but not really helping the characters to communicate. There’s a deadening of the soul at work there, which comes both as a relief and a regret.

For an excellent additional review of the book, see here.

drownedTherese Bohman: Drowned (transl. by Marlaine Delargy)

By contrast, this book set in rural Sweden, and has a very clear timeline: summer and late autumn, before and after a tragic event. The storyline is so simple, the reader may feel like it’s been done before, but it’s all about the telling.

Marina is spending the summer with her sister Stella, who lives with her older partner, successful writer Gabriel, in a romantic ramshackle old house in rural Sweden. Marina is entranced by the surroundings and falls for the charms of the charismatic but unpredictable Gabriel. This has predictably dire consequences, but the full extent is only gradually revealed.

The language is lush, as are the descriptions of landscapes and plants and of the old house they all live in. It all creates a dream-like atmosphere, almost soporific, which is perhaps what both Stella and Marina are doing – curiously passive, lulling themselves to sleep, deliberately closing their eyes to what they don’t want to see.

Those expecting a suspense novel or pyschological thriller will be disappointed at the slow pace and lengthy descriptions, but it is really all about close observation, pathetic fallacy (allowing nature and the weather to mirror our emotions) and the spaces between words. And if you want likeable characters, be warned that this is about the innate selfishness of all humans.

Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from virginiawoolfblog.com
Virginia Woolf and Clive Bell on the beach in 1909, from virginiawoolfblog.com

Life in Squares’ 3 part TV series on BBC 2

After the birth of Vanessa and Clive Bell’s first son, it is true that there was a flirtation between Virginia Wool and her brother-in-law. It was more prolonged and hurtful to all concerned than we were shown in the TV mini-series, but it began out of love towards Nessa. Both Virginia and Clive felt neglected by their beloved Nessa, who was one of those radiant and devoted Earth Mothers. Their flirtation was initially designed to get her attention back, but Virginia also felt flattered by Clive’s interest in her writing. As for Clive, he clearly wanted to take it further physically, but Virginia was never too keen. Their Bloomsbury friends disapproved of this turn of events – free love was all very fine, but some things went just too far. And it changed the relationship between the two sisters forever. But the great power of ‘Bloomsbury’ was that all could be forgiven, if not forgotten, that most things could be discussed (‘to death’ even) and that their friendship endured through affairs, marriages, deaths and heartbreak.

I can understand in a way what attracts men to the sisters of the women they have married. They seemingly offer them a second chance at happiness. They bear enough resemblance to their wives that it reminds them of those traits once considered lovable, but they are different enough that it makes the men feel that with that new person they could be happy, they could be understood, they could be their best version of themselves.

What attracts the sisters to these husbands is unfathomable to me, as I have no sister myself and know nothing of sibling rivalry. However, I can imagine that the betrayal by your sister (your flesh and blood) must feel even worse than being betrayed by a partner (essentially, a stranger, no matter how much-loved).