Period Piece

x400  With bawdy courtesans and ephemeral mermaids, Imogene Hermes Gowar’s debut novel – The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock – draws the reader into life in late eighteenth century London.  Although the story begins so slowly, taking its time to create the setting with a lonely widower merchant whose life begs for relief from his mundane existence, the pace picks up eventually, with rewarding insights and a rollicking plot.

When Mr. Hancock’s ship is traded for a mermaid, the narrative slogs along as he becomes prosperous exhibiting his fossilized find at a local bar, but when Bet Chappell, one of London’s well connected madams, hires his wizened little mermaid to draw customers to her upscale brothel, the honest merchant connects with one of her prize courtesans, Angelica Neal, and his life is never the same.

The chapters initially alternate between Angelica’s riotous life in prostitution and Jonah Hancock’s more subdued merchant arrangements.  Angelica has failed at her freelance attempts of selling herself and her debt threatens to force her to return to Bet’s “nunnery,” when the kind hearted Hancock pays off her debts and marries her. Their marriage is the chance for him to find happiness and for her to be secure.  Angelica jokingly asks Hancock to produce another mermaid just for her when the first is destroyed, and he takes her request seriously, requisitioning another ship to the Hebrides to find a new specimen.

As Hancock continues to invest, his fortune grows.  He speculates in successful real estate and buys an estate for Angelica in Greenwich.  Suddenly, the captain returns with his cargo – a live mermaid, a phosphorescent sea creature who periodically chimes in with italicized murmers between chapters.  Both Anglelica and the mermaid are fish out of water; both having difficulty acclimating to their new environment – Angelica in her respectable mansion and the mermaid hidden in the grotto at the edge of the estate. The captive mermaid seems to have a a mysterious effect on anyone who wanders close to her, producing a threatening and heavy sadness.

Gowars uses a cast of women to make her case for their surviving in the man’s world of the 1750s: crafty Mrs Chappell; persistent Angelica; former prostitute Bel Fortescue; mean-spirited Mrs Frost, and Mr Hancock’s  teenage niece Sukie, who is sent to live with her uncle.  Together, they keep the story moving to a satisfying ending.  And the mermaid?  Perhaps she didn’t really exist but she has powerful impact.

History Lessons

t_500x300 The Removes by Tatjana Soli

Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn is the stuff of legend, and his name lives on in ignominy or heroism, depending on the viewpoint, but Tatjana Soli’s The Removes introduces him as a Civil War hero and follows his battles with the Cheyenne and Sioux, as well as with himself to his court martial, reinstatement after nine months of enforced leave, and finally to his last confrontation.  Despite Custer’s bravado in his fancy attire and long golden hair,  the horror and gore is sometimes too much for him; when he washes and rewashes his hands until they are raw to remove the imaginary blood, it reminded me of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth – “out. out, damned Spot…”   Like Macbeth, this is a tragedy and not easy to experience.

Soli alternates her story between the young soldier Custer who is married to Libbie Bacon, and Annie, a fifteen year old pioneer girl captured by the Cheyenne and forced to live as a slave among them.  As the key women in the novel, Libbie and Annie represent how the West has changed their lives and their perspectives create an important foil to the violence in the lives of the calvary soldiers and the Cheyenne warriors.

The “removes” calculate the number of times Annie’s life changes, from being captured to trades with other tribes, and finally her return to what is left of her family.  The battles both Custer and Annie witness are fierce and the desperation they both feel is palpable.  Ironically, both Custer and Annie feel more at home in the great outdoors than confined to the “prison” of civilized homes.

The narrative has a stitled staccato rhythm, giving the story the frame of a documentary at times.  As Soli explains the western expansion, the greed for gold, the stealing of Native American territory, the senseless slaughter of people and animals, the story is too horrible to imagine but too compelling to look away.  Custer is both the philandering dandy and the dedicated soldier; Annie is the abused captive as well as the clever girl who barters to survive.  In a note at the end of the book, Soli says “the pendulum swings from simplistic descriptions of Indian warfare in the old Hollywood westerns to the opposite but equally false ones in more current books and films. … We honor the past most when we depict it as accurately as possible without contorting it to contemporary mores.”

Their stories may be fictional, but Soli uses them to retell the unsettling history of the wild west, melding empathetic examples of characters with unforgettable historical events.

Unknown   Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin

If Doris Kearns Goodwin had been my history teacher in high school, I may have paid better attention.  Since I have not read any of Goodwin’s biographies of the four American Presidents she addresses in her latest examination – Leadership in Turbulent Times – I am looking forward to learning more about the men she identifies as great leaders.  Two are immortalized on Mt. Rushmore – Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.  FDR is also in the mix but I was surprised she included LBJ as one of the four leaders to emulate.  In her prologue she reveals her special relationship to Lyndon Johnson, whom she first met when she was a White House Fellow, and later helped him with his memoirs.  She prefers to focus on his role in Civil Rights rather than the Vietnam War.

Clearly, Kearns is determined to provide government leadership models by looking back, since the present has few to offer.  In her forward she states:

“It is my hope that these stories of leadership in times of fracture and fear will prove instructive and reassuring.  These men set a standard and a bar for all of us.  Just as they learned from one another, so we can learn from them.  And from them gain a better perspective on the discord of our times.”

I have only just started reading but the book promises a good lesson in history.

Summer Romance

Summer is officially over, but the summer heat lingers.  Have you read anything steamy lately?

Here is my hot pick for historical romance:

bellewether-9781501116544_lg   Bellewether

Fans of Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander will relish Susanna Kearsley’s Bellewether, complete with romance, historical references, and a time-traveling ghost.

As Charley, the new curator of the Wilde House museum on Long Island, explores the history of the old house, her search parallels the world of the original 1750s family.  Kearsely alternates chapters in the voices of the men and women of the past with Charley and their modern day contemporaries.  The developing romance between Charley and Sam, the handsome contractor who is helping repair and restore the old house, mirrors the eighteenth century relationship of Lydia, twenty year old daughter of the house and Jean-Philippe, the French Canadian lieutenant staying in their house.

The story is slow-moving, bur offers glimpses into the lives of men and women living through one of the most comprehensive wars of the century.  Known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies, the Seven Years War ended with The Treaty of Paris transferring Canada from France to England, switching loyalties forever.  Kearsley also chronicle’s The Acadian Expulsion and its effect on families.

Prisoners during the French and Indian War were sometimes left in the homes of area farmers loyal to the British king under a gentleman’s agreement to do no harm and not try to escape.  Although he speaks no English, Jean Philippe volunteers to help Lydia’s father around the farm.  In the museum house’s legend, Lydia’s brother, Joseph, killed Jean Philippe to stop him from marrying Lydia.  In modern times, Charley is being helped by a mysterious ghost, possibly one of the colonial lovers, as she uncovers clues to the past.  In the end, the true history is revealed, conveniently creating a happily ever after ending for all.

More Historical Romances:

51qskWl-U4L._SY346_ Reading now on my iPhone: The Lost Vintage by Anne Mah

“A woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundy to study for her Master of Wine test, uncovers a lost diary, a forgotten relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II.

51Idch895UL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_  Listening to: The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall

“A dual-timeline narrative featuring a 1949 Miss Subways contestant and a modern-day advertising executive whose careers and lives intersect.”

9781524742959_p0_v2_s192x300-1  On the Wait List at the library: The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

“The glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.”

Quick Lit

Romance, murder, mystery, history…all happy endings – books fun and fast to read or listen to, but I will soon forget them – unless I write them down.   So here they are:

TheSummerWives   Summer Wives

Beatriz Williams’ Summer Wives has all these ingredients as she follows a wealthy family with influence on Long Island.  I found myself rereading the first few chapters to identify the characters as they aged – the story jumps a few decades back and forth, and the ending had me do a double take, but it is a happy one, despite all the waves crashing and beautiful people with issues.

The characters and setting reminded me of Julia Roberts’ early film, “Mystic Pizza” – the island has the wealthy 1 percent summer crowd, but the hard working year-round residents, mostly Portuguese Americans, catch the lobsters, work in the country club,  and keep the lighthouse glowing.  The summer of 1951 ends in death and the conviction of the island hottie, lobsterman Joseph Vargas.  When Miranda returns home after 18 years away, with Joseph escaped from prison, the plot reveals a motive for his confession, with twists and turns keeping you guessing until the end.

All We Ever Wanted

Emily Griffin’s All We Ever Wanted has the lies and scandal of a Lianne Moriarty novel (as in Big Little Lies).  The picture of a teenage girl’s backside gone viral is the catalyst for opposing reactions from families and community.  The ending here is also a little hard to believe – but it is happy.  Need to know more?  click here  

41pYhoGoKDL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Goodbye, Paris

This light romance has a “Room With A View” vibe, with young British Grace meeting her lover, David, for weekend trysts in Paris, but Anstey Harris’ Goodbye, Paris  has more about music and betrayal than Paris.  An immediate crisis is created when David rescues a pregnant woman who has fallen onto the subway train tracks; he suddenly becomes a reluctant hero.  Pictures of him and Grace immediately go viral, but, oh dear, Grace is not his wife.

Although Grace was a promising cellist, her confrontation with her slimy professor left her broken, so now she makes and repairs string instruments – violins, cellos – and sells them in her little music shop, waiting for her married lover to leave his wife and children.  David is clearly a smooth talker who will never leave his wife, and, at times, I wanted to smack Grace out of her dazed stupor, but, as I listened on Audible, I hoped for the catharsis that eventually happens.  Grace finally finds the courage to resist David’s charms and play her cello again.  Lots of romance with a plot worthy of A.J. Fikry.

51vkzW8KqZL._AC_US218_The Home for Unwanted Girls

Joanna Goodman’s story reminded me of Lisa Wingate’s  “Before We Were Yours,” but this time the historical note addresses the Duplessis Orphan Scandal in Canada, with over 20,000 orphans who were falsely labeled as mentally ill when their orphanages were turned into psychiatric hospitals by  the Canadian government in the 1950s.  Most of these children – who were not mentally ill – were left in the care of the nuns  by unwed mothers. The Catholic Church profited by the increase in government subsidies with the order for their “change of vocation” from orphanages into insane asylums – the government paid only $0.75/day for orphans, but $2.35/day for those who were mentally ill.

Goodman creates a fictional story about a fifteen year old girl forced to give up her newborn daughter by her parents.  By the time Elodie is five years old, the orphanage has changed to an insane asylum and she is forced into menial labor and caretaker duties for the older insane patients. Challenges to the nuns’ iron-fisted discipline result in horrible torture, isolation, lobotomies – reflecting the reality of those institutions.  Life is hell for these children.

The story has the mother Maggie searching for her daughter, and includes romance and intrigue to counter the misery of the historical context.  It still always amazes me how this happened not so long ago.

See the Movie, Then Reread the Book – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

8110V2WqqLL   After finishing reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society years ago, I remember thinking how sad the author had died and I would never read another of her stories.  The book stands as one of my all time favorites, and I eagerly anticipated the film version with three actresses from Downton Abbey in the cast – Lily James and Penelope Wilton, and Jessica Brown Findlay — perhaps better known as Downton Abbey’s dearly departed Lady Sybill.

Of course, I remember the feeling of the book but, as usual, I’ve forgotten all the details.  It was a pleasure to read it again after almost ten years.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, see it first – then reread the book.  Both are enjoyable and a comfort.

The movie and the book are the same, but different.  Of course, the book has all of the author’s quirky notes and asides required to be missing in a condensed film version, but the movie has lush images of the scenic English countryside to compensate, and it does select the most important moments to keep.  Although the book introduces the characters through letters, fewer appear in the movie and the letter-writing is replaced by getting Juliet to the island faster.  In the movie the description of Guernsey under occupation has less importance than the mystery of the missing Elizabeth – the fearless founder of the book club.

The characters retain their core values and tone but not always in the same form.  Handsome boyfriend Mark is an American publisher trying to woo Juliet away in the book; in the movie he is an American intelligence officer, still trying to get her to marry him, but a key role in finding Elizabeth is invented for him.   Romance gets more time in the movie, making the handsome staunch Dawsey more appealing for the happily ever after ending.

I missed the funny episode with Oscar Wilde’s letters to Granny Phhen and a few of the colorful characters who were eliminated,  but I’m not sure how the short movie could have accommodated them without a sequel. I liked the movie (how could I not) and appreciated its faithfulness to the story.

Rereading the book was a pleasure, and I found a few phrases I had forgotten  – some made me laugh:

  • I thought of my friends who own independent book stores with:   “Noone in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and noone in their right mind would want to own one…so it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it.”
  • I thought of myself with:  ” so far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga. You can see I need help.”
  • I thought of book clubs with: “We took turns speaking about the books we’d read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away…”

and my favorite:  “I deny everything.”

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