Historical Diversions: Chevalier and Jewett

  A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier has the talent to inform while entertaining, and her latest historical novel – A Single Thread – is a well researched testament to the “surplus women” of the nineteen thirties, caught between two major wars.

With Winchester Cathedral as the backdrop, Chevalier uses the broderers, women who created the embroidered kneeling cushions, and the cathedral bellringers, usually consisting of men only, to tell her story with a little romance, some drama, and a wealth of enlightening information. Based on the work of Louisa Peel and Winchester Cathedral embroidery, Chevalier creates a lovely story full of history few readers will know.

As an ardent embroiderer, I relished some of the intricacies of her descriptions, but I also appreciated the revelations, and will be looking for fylfots among the flowers.

Read the NPR review for more details:  https://www.npr.org/2019/09/21/762825554/a-stitch-in-time-saves-a-life-in-a-single-thread

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this old treasure on a list of recommended classics. The only copy in my library system was in large print – all 150 pages – and I was curious about the Thoreau of Maine and the precursor of Elizabeth Strout (“Olive Kitteridge”).

The novella is a series of vignettes describing the narrator’s summer in a fictional coastal town in Maine at the turn of the twentieth century. Each short chapter builds on a sense of peace and quiet, as she describes open fields, dark woods, and rocky shores. She booked rooms in the house of an old herbalist, expecting to shut her self away in solitude but Mrs. Todd and the villagers tempt her out.  She spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens, carefully cataloguing their mannerisms and stories. With wit and astute observation, Jewett brings old Maine to life.  She leaves at the end of the summer with a refreshed mind and a sense of nostalgia. 

“…there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over -the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance…”

Jewett’s writing has been described as realism, but sometimes it seems like poetry. 

 

 

The Most Fun We Ever Had

Claire Lombardo’s family saga – The Most Fun We Ever Had –  has all the drama of a television series (“This Is Us” comes to mind), as she follows the Sorensons through their lives.  Although Marilyn Connelly and David Sorenson anchor the family with their seemingly perfect married life, and their unlikely unending passion, their dysfunctional daughters command most of the action. Lombardo uses the catalyst of a long lost teenager’s sudden appearance after having been secretly given up at birth for adoption, to explain the family dynamics.

The title is misleading; the story is not the most fun you will ever have, as you follow each character in turmoil, yet it is compelling – and long – over five hundred pages. Marilyn is the stereotypical matriarch who married young and supported her husband through medical school, while having babies and burying her own ambitions, which reappear later. Wendy, the eldest daughter, never quite recovers from having competition in her bright younger sister Violet, born in the same calendar year, followed soon after by Liza.  The youngest, Grace, born later and referred to as the “epilogue” feels left out, despite her parents hovering.  As adults, they morph into a widow; a stay-at-home mom with a law degree; a tenured professor facing parenting alone; and a recent college graduate caught up in an embarrassing lie

Lombardo follows the family through major events but not in order.  She begins the story with the wedding of the eldest, Wendy, and proceeds to explain the cryptic clues she initially drops through flashbacks involving births and deaths, sibling rivalries and secrets, and lots of lies. Sometimes it’s not clear at first who is speaking.

A few surprises kept me reading, wondering if another would appear – it did – and the rivalry between the older daughters could probably have been a book by itself.  The story is absorbing but also exhausting – and maybe just a little too long.

The Cactus

In Sarah Haywood’s debut novel, The Cactus, the prickly plant resembles its owner and her eventual bloom. A romantic comedy with a side tour of sibling rivalry, the story has a middle-aged single woman narrating her story with the somewhat stilted and obsessive voice of a control freak. Susan doesn’t just carefully arrange her cactus plants, align her pencils, and straighten the papers on her desk; she confines herself to a regimented life to avoid unnecessary emotions.

When Susan’s mother dies and leaves the family home to her forty year old brother Edward, she decides to fight the will, and remains unwilling to allow her good-for-nothing jobless brother to stay in the house, despite her mother’s wishes.  Into her ordered life comes a surprise pregnancy.  At forty-five, she decides to keep the baby but forego the marriage proposal from the equally socially impaired father.  The story evolves into her growing sensibility, with new friends, a new outlook on life, and a surprise in her ancestry.

Do you remember the old movie “Cactus Flower,” adapted from the Broadway stage for Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and Goldie Hawn? I had thought this book might have the same farcical approach, with the cactus as symbolic.  In Heywood’s story, just as in the Hollywood movie, the cactus finally blooms with lives improved at the end, but the book has fewer laughs and more anxiety. The story is a fast read with a happy ending.  You might even see a few characters resembling people you know between the pages.

Akin by Emma Donoghue

The premise of an old man suddenly finding he has a long lost young relative seems familiar, but Emma Donoghue reframes the possibilities in Akin with a 79 year old retired science professor, seemingly alone in the world, who has decided to revisit his birthplace in France, and an eleven year old street smart boy whose father is dead and mother is in jail. With the backdrop of the French Riviera and Nice, Donoghue weaves a compelling tale of family, friendship, and last chances.

Shortly before he is scheduled to fly to Nice on a nostalgic trip and to celebrate his eightieth birthday, a phone call disrupts Noah’s plans. I had to laugh when Noah assumed the call was a scam, as I would have, but it is really a social worker desperately trying to keep his sister’s grandson from being institutionalized. After a visit to the boy’s mother in jail and an expedited passport, the two are off on an adventure promising to change both lives.

Photography plays an important role in the story.  Noah’s grandfather was a famous artist with several of his pictures hanging in museums, and his mother assisted him before the war, even remaining in France after she shipped her four year old son to America as World War II crept closer to their home in Nice. Rummaging through his dead sister’s belongings, Noah discovers an envelope with photographs of the area during the war.  Determined to discover more about the time and place, he brings them along on the trip, creating a quest for the two as they travel.

I have been to France, especially Paris and Provence, a number of times, but never to Nice, so Donogue’s thorough description of the area, and its place in history, was fascinating. Although the role of the French in the war has been the subject of many books, I had never heard of the Marcel Network of over 500 Jewish children hidden around Nice and given new names and identities to protect them from the Nazis. Donoghue weaves historical facts into the story but she balances the horrors of war with light and endearing scenes of the Carnival, the circus, eating ice cream, great uncle and grand nephew getting to know each other through small pleasures and unlikely commonalities.

Michael is a tech savvy eleven year old, encrusted with the sadness of having lost everyone dear to him – his father died of an overdose, his mother incarcerated for dealing drugs, his beloved grandmother dead.  Donoghue neatly captures his defensive acting out behavior, and softens it with a young person’s reluctant willingness to be awed.  His character is a elegant balance to the old man who is prepared for death at any time, and a filter for Noah’s discoveries.

As Noah connects the photos to actual places, he begins to assume the worst about his mother.  Was she a spy? Worse, was she helping the Germans?  The quest becomes an investigation to absolve or convict his mother.

Although Noah’s longwinded spontaneous lectures get a little tiring, and Michael’s preoccupation with selfies gets a little annoying, the story offers more than a perspective on a strange male bonding. The women in the story evolve from the background to the more important focus.  The ending is predictable but their journey is not.  Donoghue offers much to consider and discuss – what is family anyway?  And what does it take to risk making a commitment?