Late In the Day

My mother liked to say after my father died, all sins were forgiven when someone died young while the rest of us had to muddle on into old age.  When Tessa Hadley has one of her four main characters die unexpectedly and suddenly in the first chapter, his story is just beginning but he is not the hero of the piece.

Lydia and Christine have known each other since childhood, best friends forever, with compatible boyfriends who evolve into husbands and a foursome of dedicated friends as adults.  Inevitably, even their children become best friends.

In her review Johanna Thomas-Corr calls them “two upper-middle-class boho couples who sit around listening to Schubert…”

Hadley neatly fills in the backstory with flashbacks and updates, noting  the differences between the two women – Christine, willowy and fragile, a serious Ph.D. candidate who decides to pursue her talent for art when Zachary admires her work; Lydia, a flashy and charismatic schemer, who is happy to be lazy.  Lydia’s unrequited love for Alex, the poet with Czech refugee parents, drives her to marry wealthy Zachary, who has been dating Christine. Christine marries Alex, and the foursome survives, but it’s complicated. In one phone call, three decades of tangled friendship and love is dissolved.

Rebecca Makai’s review for the New York Times notes:

As their lives unravel, we wonder with Christine if the “questioning of impervious male knowledge had always come to women at a certain age, in their prime, as they grew out of the illusions of girlhood… By the end, the romantic fates of the couples’ two grown daughters are still being left to fate and chance, while Christine and Lydia begin for the first time to make their own choices…It might not be history that frees us, Hadley seems to suggest, but personal history, a late coming-of-age.”

I’m a fan of Tessa Hadley, having first met her on The London Train.  Once referred to as the British Anne Tyler, Hadley’s strength is not in the plot but in the nuances in her characters.  Have you read any of her work?

Related Review:

The Silence of the Girls

SilenceOfTheGirls_200x300    Pat Barker’s Trojan women really know what’s going on in The Silence of the Girls, but they have no voice in Homer’s Iliad.   If you missed reading this classic and have wondered what all the allusions mean, Barker’s story follows the original plot closely – even to Achilles’ best friend disguising himself with Achilles’ god-given armor.  Unlike other retellings of The Iliad, Barker tells the story from the point of view of the enslaved Trojan women, with the narrator the captured queen Briseis, a friend of the infamous Helen of Troy, who becomes Achilles’ slave.

The battles are brutal, the men are uncivilized, the feasting is sloppy, the hygiene is nonexistent, and the rats are everywhere.  The women observe, serve, and wait.

If you know the story, the plot line is not a mystery and the outcome not a surprise, but Barker uses Briseis to fill in the story behind the glory. In Homer’s The Iliad, Briseis is the catalyst in a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles.  After Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands Breseis for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight, threatening the Greeks’ ability to win the war. Awarded to Achilles as a prize in conquering her homeland, the city of Lyrnessus, Briseis is a minor character referred to by name fewer than a dozen times in Homer’s epic, and then only to emphasize her beauty. Pat Barker gives Briseis a voice.

Barker addresses how differently history treats men and ignores women.   When King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body, he cries:  “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” This moment is among the most celebrated in literature, and yet Briseis’s perspective is very different. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”   When Briseis described the famous Helen’s confession of how she’d been raped as a child by a riverbank. “Of course I believed her,” Briseis says. “It was quite a shock to me, later, to discover nobody else did.”

The civilized Greeks who gave us democracy and Socratic inquiry could be very uncivilized. Barker dismisses the legend of the Achilles heel, as well as the glory of all those Greek heroes who have been lionized in songs, plays and books. Breisis tells the real story from the silenced women and ends with an admonition – we change history to suit, soften its horrors to be able to live with it.

“What will they make of us, the people of this unimaginable distant times?  One thing I do know; they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told of the massacre of men and boys, and the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they”ll  go for something altogether softer….{and} Achilles {will be}granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…”

Despite the anachronisms and coarse language, Barker’s story makes its point – those silent women’s voices can be very powerful.  In another retelling of a Greek classic, Madeline Miller’s book, Circe, centers around a minor character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who became the protagonist Odysseus’s lover.  Maybe I’ll read that next.

A Few Books About Women

October had me in and out of stories about women –  all entertaining.  A ghost narrates in the first, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has a cameo role in the second, the real socialites of New York City carry the plot in the third,  and a Greek chorus dominates the one I am currently reading.  Have you read any of them?

TCD-US-200x304   The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Morton can always be relied on for a mix of history, romance, mystery, and a touch of the other worldly.  In The Clockmaker’s Daughter she alternates between a nineteenth century mystery and a modern bride’s dilemma.  As with her other books, this story is an easy read with just enough Gothic tension to keep the reader’s interest.

Plot Summary from the Author’s website:

“In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river…

Told by multiple voices across time, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss…{with one of the voices, the ghost of} Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.”

51czBXfdgkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

A woman artist hides her identity in the 1920s, pretending she is a man, and Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan houses an art school.

Plot Summary from Barnes and Noble:

“Within Grand Central Terminal,  two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.

In 1928, twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.”

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined and is the center of a fierce lawsuit: demolition or preservation. Virginia, recently divorced, has just accepted a job in the information booth to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. When Virginia stumbles on the abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, she is drawn into the battle to save Grand Central and the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.”

636540551254787991-Caitlin-Macy-Mrs-HC-cover-image     Mrs. by Caitlin Macy

Following the model of Big Little Lies, Mrs. has a cast of women with disparate personalities and backgrounds coming together as the mothers in a prestigious New York City preschool. Secrets drive the plot, with a big reveal and a death at the end.

Plot Summary by Publisher’s Weekly:

“Gwen Hogan, Philippa Lye, and Minnie Curtis are all married to powerful men and send their children to the prestigious St. Timothy’s preschool. Gwen, married to a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, recently moved to Manhattan and is uncomfortable living in New York City. Philippa, married to the owner of an investment bank, seems both effortlessly stylish and aloof. Minnie, the wife of a wealthy financier, takes an unapologetic pleasure in her financial security that makes the other mothers uncomfortable. The three women bond over school gossip and the difficulties of parenthood, unaware that Gwen’s husband is conducting an insider trading investigation that implicates both Philippa and Minnie’s husbands. “

t_500x300The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I just started this book – recommended by one of my favorite librarians – and the story and language have already captured my attention.  Have you read it?

Plot Summary from NPR:

“Reimagines “The Iliad” from the perspectives of the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War, as Briseis, conquered queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, becomes caught between the two most powerful Greek leaders.”

 

 

 

Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2018

The six books making the cut for the Man Booker shortlist this year include two American authors – Rachel Kushner for “The Mars Story,” set in a California women’s prison, and Richard Powers for “The Overstory,” about nine strangers trying to save one of the world’s last virgin forests.

The rest of the list includes:

  • Washington Black” by Canadian Esi Edugyan, based on the true story of the relationship between an eleven year old enslaved boy and his master’s brother who flee a Barbados plantation.
  • Irish author Anna Burns’ “Milkman” – told in the voice of a young woman forced into a relationship with an older man during the Northern Ireland conflict.
  • Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” – the first book selected for the Shortlist in verse, follows a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder as he travels across the United States.
  • British Daisy Johnson, the youngest author ever shortlisted for the Prize, updates Greek myth in the tragic story of a lexicographer looking for her mother in “Everything Under.”

The winner of 50,000 pounds will be announced October 16.

I’ve read SNAP from the longlist and have “Washington Black” and “The Overstory” on my to-read pile, but I may skip the others. Do you plan to read any before the winner is announced?

Related Review: SNAP

It’s Never Too Late to “Meet Me at the Museum”

1250295165.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_  Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum focuses on second chances in life and love, but shifting gears into this slow-paced epistolary novel fired up my unexpected interest in anthropology and had me looking for more information.  The Tollund man, a perfectly preserved prehistoric man found in the Danish bog, now on display at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark, is the motivation behind a chain of letters between an unhappy older woman dissatisfied with her life on the farm, and a lonely museum curator who has recently lost his wife.  Tina Hopgood initiates the letters with an inquiry about the Tollund man, and Anders Larson, the museum curator responds,  with a short lecture on the exhibit and an invitation to visit.  

After 40 years as a farm wife, Tina is regretting she never visited the museum but also wonders about other options in her life she never had the chance to consider. Recently widowed Anders works at Denmark’s Silkeborge Museum, which houses Tollund Man, and is finding himself unable to move on after the death of his wife.  Gradually, over eighteen months of writing, their salutations progress from “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and “Best Wishes” to “My dear Tina” and finally to  “All my love.” 

As the letters become more personal, they disclose their struggles and give each other advice.  Both have grown daughters who are about to make major changes in their lives, and both are wondering if their lives have had any meaning.  Throughout the story, Youngson interjects long descriptions of farm life from Tina and details of the Tollund Man from Anders.  Tina’s letters are filled with the monotony of tending chickens and slaughtering pigs.  She describes picking raspberries, noting that no matter how careful she is, she always finds some she’s missed, comparing her life to a missed row of raspberries. As their letters eventually merge into philosophical observations from both correspondents and the realization of their new-found connection, raspberries become their private reference for second chances, with Anders noting “I feel I have overlooked far too many of the fruits in this life I have.”

“Our letters have meant so much to us because we have both arrived at the same point in our lives. More behind us than ahead of us…Please do not be angry with the circumstances of your life … nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”

Youngson may be her own inspiration for the story.  As an Oxfordshire farm wife who always wanted to write a novel, she finally did write this debut novel in her sixties, and is now pursuing a Ph.D.  It’s never too late.

UnknownAs for Tallund Man, here’s what I discovered – click here for more information

 

Other Epistolary Novels I’ve Enjoyed:

  • Daddy Long Legs
  • 84 Charing Place
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
  • The Divorce Papers
  • Dear Committee Members