Sunday, November 3, 2013

October 2013 Book Report

1.  Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
It had been too long since my last Dorothy Whipple fix.  This one is excruciating and I could not put it down.  Someone from a Distance is the story of a family that unravels when the father has an affair.  When I say unravel, I mean it was like watching every knot of a knitted blanket get pulled out in slow motion.  

The story begins with a scene at the chronically dissatisfied mother-in-law's house a few miles down the road from her son, Avery North, and his happy family.  The elder Mrs. North decides to advertise for a young woman to come keep her company ("the Times will be so pleased") and the advertisement is answered by an icky French girl named Louise.  (I chose the photograph based on the physical description of Louise.  It's from a fashion magazine in France in 1950, about the same time this book takes place.)  It's obvious that Louise will be the person to seduce Avery, but Whipple takes her time setting everything up.  Of course Avery's wife, Ellen, is fantastic.  Not vain in any way, happy to serve her husband and children, frugal even though she doesn't have to be, and a green thumb.  Everything Ellen does is designed to make her family happy, therefore she is also happy.  On the other hand, Louise is always only thinking of herself - how she looks, what she's wearing, what she can get from every person she meets.  She sees Ellen's happiness and wants to destroy it because she (Louise) is miserable.

Avery has neglected his marriage, content to let Ellen do all the hard work - emotional and physical.  He doesn't do this on purpose, he just stopped working at it at some point.  When he does finally give in to Louise, he is immediately miserable himself.  That is the thing with not having self-control.  As soon as he allows himself to commit this horrible betrayal, he is in prison.  The worst kind of prison.  

There is a wonderful line, speaking of Louise, after she has "won" Avery.  "With love, you don't even need butter on your bread; without it, an elaborate feast is necessary to make you come to the table."  She doesn't love Avery and he doesn't love her.  And now Avery's wife and children are suffering and everyone he knows (including himself) is ashamed of him.  Who wins?  Did either of them think the result of this game they were playing was going to be happiness?  Talk about getting stuck in a moment.

I was wrung out after reading this.  Whipple's genius is in telling this kind of story without being vulgar or salacious.  Her characterizations are so perfect.

2. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
My sister, Melissa, blogged about this one a few weeks ago.  Bridget won a copy of the book at a school Bingo game last year and it was time to get my monthly audio book when I read Melissa's post.  After such a gut-wrenching book like Someone at a Distance, I thought a little Young Adult Fiction would be just the thing.  The audio version is read by multiple voices, which was perfect for this book.

Miri lives in the village of Mount Eskal in the forbidding mountains of an unnamed European country.  The only source of income for the village is a quarry.  When one quarry "dies," the entire village moves on to the next quarry.  Miri is small and not allowed to work in the quarry with her father and sister, Marda (her mother died one week after Miri was born).  A messenger from the king rolls into town one day and decrees that the next princess will come from the village of Mount Eskal, according to some prophecy.  All the girls in the village, ages 13-18, are rounded up and sent to the new Princess Academy, a three hour walk on the other side of the mountain.

There are 20 girls at the academy and the tutor, Olana, is very strict and wicked stepmother-y.  It's fun to picture Miri and the other girls learning how to read.  Educating these young women is the best thing that has ever happened to the village of Mount Eskal.  I learned a lot about being a good listener. :)  No, really!  All the voices were really good.  Miri makes a bosom friend and becomes a leader at the academy and then back in her village.  Even though she's small, Miri is useful.

The girls are paraded in front of Prince Stefan, The Bachelor style.  Who will he choose!  There's a pretty decent twist on that subject.  There was high-stakes drama, revelations, believing in yourself, and true love.  It was fun to read something so hopeful and romantic.  Well done, Ms. Hale. :)

3.  Home by Marilynne Robinson
I was introduced to Marilynne Robinson in a modern literature class in college.  At the time, her only work of fiction was Housekeeping, which is still one of my all-time favorite books.  I read Gilead when it came out and I underlined so much of it that I defeated the purpose of underlining.  Home is a companion to Gilead. Instead of focusing on John Ames, Robinson switches to the Robert Boughton household.  Two of old Reverend Boughton's children have come home to take care of him.  Glory, his youngest daughter, is 38 years-old and not married.  She was a school teacher and engaged, but neither of those worked out, so she is back in the Iowa home where she grew up.  The other child who has returned is Jack, the Prodigal Son. Jack's life is also in a holding pattern and he is hoping to find peace by coming back home and taking care of his aging father.

Robinson lingers over every facial expression, the characters' turn of phrase.  I could feel for old Robert Boughton - his desire for Jack to be happy and safe even when the old man was asleep.  Poor Glory tries her best to make Jack feel at home and trusted, but Jack has a lifetime of disappointing people to overcome. Home leads up to one moment in the final page.  It was unexpected after so many pages of conversation and normal everyday chores.  Glory recognizes that her whole life for the next 10 to 15 years will be in preparation for a few minutes.  Robinson meticulously led up to this realization by Glory.  Her writing is so patient.  When I got to it, I burst into tears.  That's all of us, right?  Every seemingly normal, even mundane moment of our lives is leading up to, preparing us for, a few minutes that will prove us.

There's not much more I can say, really.  I didn't underline much in Home.  There was a lot of talk about religion and belief and spirituality.  None of it offensive.  I wish more modern authors could be like Robinson when it comes to discussions of spiritual beliefs.  We're all more alike than we think.  I don't think I felt for Jack as much as I did John Ames in Gilead.  I can't admire a character who doesn't have self-control or the vision to see what he is doing to those who love him so much.

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