The Silent Sister // by Diane Chamberlain

//published 2014//

I had some mixed feelings about this book.  It kept me thoroughly engaged while I was reading it, but a few different things made me uncomfortable during the story, and I found the ending to be unsatisfactory.  In the end, I think it has to go as a 3/5.  I don’t particularly recommend it, and it’s the sort of book that made me feel that while I wouldn’t avoid Chamberlain’s books in the future, I’m not anxious to seek them out, either.

The story mostly centers around Riley, aged 25, whose father has just passed away.  Riley has returned home to go through his house (her mother passed away just after her senior year of high school) and get it ready to sell.  Riley loved her father and had a good relationship with him, so she’s quite devastated by his sudden death, and that’s amplified by the way that she feels that she is all alone in the world – her older sister committed suicide when Riley was only two, and Riley’s older brother, Danny, suffers from severe PSTD that leaves him unreliable and unpredictable.  He also harbors deep resentment towards their parents (which Riley doesn’t understand) and is completely disinterested in cleaning out the house or reliving memories of any kind.

As the tale unwinds, Riley begins to discover that her dad was actually keeping quite a few secrets, including a major one about her sister.  At this point, the story also begins to give us Lisa’s story from twenty years earlier.

This is a well-written and engaging narrative.  Riley uses the first person for her sections, past tense.  She is likable and kind and very lonely.  Lisa’s section are in third person, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a very relatable character.  I was really hooked into this story from the very beginning.

However, there were several things that gave me unease.  One of the biggest is when Lisa meets Celia.  After spending the evening together, Celia stays the night (romantically) – despite the fact that they had only met that day AND until she met Celia, Lisa didn’t realize she was gay.  It seemed kind of ridiculous and unhealthy for Lisa to immediately get in bed with someone on such short acquaintance, especially when she hasn’t actually sorted through her sexual orientation??  Of course it all works out and they stay together forever because that’s what always happens when you hop in bed with someone you’ve only known about eight hours.  This situation became even more disturbing when more details about Lisa’s childhood were revealed.

I was also a smidge offended by the fact that, of course, the traditional, conservative church was the home of a bunch of hypocritical self-centered people who “push away” people going through a crisis; while the church that is “open and affirming” to gay people are the ones who are so supportive and loving to everyone, no matter what!  I’m sorry, but believing that homosexuality isn’t Scriptural doesn’t automatically mean that I hate gay people or that I’m unwilling to help out people who are going through a dark time in their life.  This wasn’t a huge part of this book by any means, but it was a completely unnecessary dig.

It also seemed really weird to me that part of Riley’s back story was that she had just broken up with her boyfriend of two years – because he had never divorced his wife?!?!?  That seemed unnecessarily wrong, and it honestly changed my perspective of who Riley was as a person.  Like wow, she’s just been an adulterer for two years??  That seems… disturbing?

The rest of my angst I’ll put below the cut as they involve spoilers.  This wasn’t a terrible book by any means.  I really was very engaged with the story and anxious to find out how it ended.  But I felt like justice was not served by the conclusion and it left me feeling rather angry, this concept that this person “deserves” a good life, rather than deserving what they earned through their actions.  So yes, a 3/5.  And for a more positive review, be sure to check out Carol’s thoughts, which first led me to this book!

Also – #14 for #20BooksofSummer!

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The Joy Luck Club // by Amy Tan

 

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//published 1989//

When I picked up The Joy Luck Club, I was hoping to read a book that would emphasize the mystery of the culture within a culture – the difficulty of balancing the culture from the past with the culture of a new place and time.  In this story, Tan blends old and new culture beautifully, telling the story of four women and their daughters in a way that wonderfully expresses the yearning every parent has to see life be better for their children than it was for themselves, and the inability for any child to truly appreciate the sacrifices that have been made for them.  And she does this while emphasizing the impact that the Chinese culture has had on each of the characters.  Throughout the story, Tan’s ability to express various aspects of this culture and its influence on Tan’s characters gave layers of depth and interest to the tale.

It is an odd story in many ways, being more of a collection of vignettes surrounding a group of individuals than a linear story.  There are four sections in the book, and within each section is a chapter told by either one of the mothers or one of the daughters.  For me, this was the only part of the book that was a tad confusing – because there were long gaps between characters’ chapters, and because the next chapter about a character would not directly pick up where the last chapter had ended, I found myself having to flip back through the book at the beginning of each chapter to remind myself what had happened in this family before.  I think this mild confusion was emphasized because every chapter is told in first person, so rather than reading a chapter wherein an individual’s name is repeated throughout, thus helping me to remember that Lindo Jong was the person who was pledged to marry a neighbor’s son, the personal pronouns in every chapter meant that I had to flip back to that chapter to remind myself whether Lindo Jong was the person pledged to marry the neighbor’s son, or the one who told the Moon Lady her secret wish.

However, the first person narratives did, in this instance, make the stories feel much more personal and real, and also gave the narrators opportunities to emphasize not just the action of what occurred, but how they felt about the event and how they believed it influenced them in the future.

The nature of these stories means that we jump back and forth in time.  The mothers were all born, in China, around 1915, so when they tell a tale from their childhood, it usually takes place sometime in the 1920’s.  Most of the immigrated to America in the 1940’s, and their daughters were born in the early 1950’s, so many of the stories take place in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Finally, the present-day story, where the book begins and ends, takes place in the late 1980’s, when the daughters are approaching middle age, and the mothers are elderly.  Despite this, I never felt lost or confused as to what was happening when.  Tan easily inserts dates when necessary, and they flow naturally into the story, giving context and place to each chapter.  This is a book where date and location are important, as the story ranges through the good part of a century wherein the world goes through many advances in technology and changes in societal mores.

While Tan doesn’t claim this book to be autobiographical, she was born in 1952 of parents who had immigrated from China just a few years before.  This is definitely a story that is rooted in what the author knows.

This wasn’t exactly a happy book, yet despite the many tragedies and misunderstandings throughout, Tan somehow manages to leave us with a sense of hope, that each of these mothers will be able to reach her daughter and share what it is that has shaped her.

I’m not sure that The Joy Luck Club is a book that I will return to again and again, but it was a thoughtful read, beautifully written and brilliantly executed.  I look forward to seeing what else Tan has written since this 1989 debut.

This book was initially brought to my attention by a lovely review by The Literary Sisters, who do a much better job than me at outlining the story!

Bitter Greens // by Kate Forsyth

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//published 2012//

So this is my first official 2017 read – my other reviews this week have been of books I actually read the last week of December.  It was quite the book to start things with – almost 500 pages of me not being completely convinced that I liked the book.  In the end, a pretty solid 3/5 read for me, although this book had an extremely satisfying ending, so that boosted it up to a 3.5.

Bitter Greens is several stories in one.  The first story is that of Charlotte-Rose, in late 1600’s France.  She tells her story in first person, and at the beginning of the book, she has been exiled from court and sent to a poor convent, where things are pretty miserable.  There, she meets one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina.  This sister begins to tell Charlotte-Rose a story about a young girl a hundred years earlier who lived in Italy, who was kidnapped  by a witch and imprisoned in a tower.  And then, part way through that story, we start also getting the perspective of the witch as well.

Despite the multiple layers, each story was so distinct that I didn’t have any trouble telling them apart.  And Forsyth would usually spend a few chapters with one character before switching to another, so we got each of the different stories in large chunks.  Charlotte-Rose was telling her own story in first person, both what was currently happening to her in the convent, and about different episodes in her past that led to her being exiled there.  Seraphina’s Rapunzel tale was told in third person, which made sense, but I was confused because the witch’s story was being told in first person.  The Rapunzel story felt natural because we knew where it was coming from – Charlotte-Rose is hearing it from Seraphina – but where was the witch’s perspective coming from?  It added a good layer to the overall story, but felt a little awkward.

This was another story that just sort of assumed that magic and witches and whatnot are real things that happen.  And, just like when I read The Shapeshifters, I found myself completely accepting Forsyth’s version of history – that a spell and bathing in blood could make a woman stay young; that a curse and some hair and a bat’s wing could force a man to desire you; that you could torment a man with a curse and make him die from the terror of his own dreams.

There were a lot of things about this book that I liked.  The setting is done very well.  The terror and uncertainty of all three of the time periods really came across, especially in France when only Catholicism is legal and everyone must join the church or die.

Charlotte-Rose and the Rapunzel character (Margherita in this story) were likable and tangible.  I also appreciated how Forsyth even managed to make the witch into not exactly a sympathetic character, but one whose perspective you could at least understand.  Charlotte-Rose is based on a real person as well, and Forsyth gives us some extra information – just enough – at the beginning and end of the book.

However, the problem was that this book was basically about sex, the repression of women, and the way that those repressed women can use sex to control the  men around them.  All the sex got very old very quickly, and there was a lot of it.  I found myself flipping pages frequently looking for the next actual bit of the story.  Everyone was a whore, or related to a whore, or acted like a whore (by their standards, not mine).  And like I get the fact that at these various time periods there weren’t really any options for women except for marriage, a convent, or prostitution, but still.  It felt like I was being beat over the head with this fact on every page as the women bemoaned their lack of choices, and then went on to continue manipulating the men in their lives by giving or withholding sex.  I just was totally over all the descriptions of sex.  I really feel like I can walk into a room without being overcome with lust for someone in said room, but that didn’t seem like something that ever happened to one of Forsyth’s characters.

I’ve also realized that I just have an issue with the actual story of Rapunzel.  In the story, Rapunzel is locked in the tower, immured from society and social knowledge.  When the prince starts hanging out with her, he has sex with her despite the fact that she doesn’t really know anything about it or what it means or that it leads to babies, and that’s just really creepy to me.  This book was the same, and I don’t blame the book – it’s the original story that’s creepy!  Actually, I felt like Forsyth handled it a little better than some, except for the fact for no reason that I could understand we also had to have this bit with Margherita having her first period and I’m not going to go into details here but I just never really want to hear about menstrual blood or people touching menstrual blood and I don’t understand why novels act like they have to get into the nitty gritty detail to  prove that they’re serious about writing about women.  I mean, please.  So that was super weird.

But the ending!  I dragged a bit through this book.  It’s a bit of a chunk of a book and since I was terribly excited about it, I mostly left it sitting at my spot at the counter where we eat our meals, and would read it whenever I was eating.  So it took me a few days to get through it and I was feeling fairly ambivalent towards everyone, assuming that Forsyth was going to do the traditional Novel thing and kill everyone off and/or leave them in hopeless misery for the rest of their lives.  Instead, while they didn’t all necessarily get happy endings, they at least got logical and satisfying ones.  I really liked the way that things came together in the end.  I felt like all of the women in the story had changed and grown.  And despite hundreds of pages of sex and sex being the only thing women can do, in the end it actually seemed like each of the main characters had grown past that, to find their true selves.

So as I said, a 3.5/5.  This was pretty good historical fiction with intriguing characters, and if there had been about 80% less sex, I think this book would have received a 4/5, especially with the satisfactory ending.  I heard about this book from both Sophie and Lady Fancifull, and I definitely recommend checking out their reviews as well.

Terms & Conditions // by Robert Glancy

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//published 2014//

I don’t know exactly what I expected from Terms & Conditions, but I think it delivered.  This story had an innovative format that I found completely addictive.  I actually ended up liking the main character, and while bits of the story were rather depressing, the ending was solid and at least somewhat optimistic, which I appreciate.

I don’t even really know exactly how to describe this book.  The main character, Frank (or possibly Franklyn), has been in a terrible car accident and is suffering from amnesia.  Frank has spent his life working in the family law firm, and his job is to write all the terms and conditions – the small print at the bottom of the contracts – the stuff that no one reads.

The book is divided into very short chapters that mostly start with “Terms and Conditions of __________”.  Then there are a few pages (or just one) of Frank talking about the subject (e.g., life, me, senses, coffee, and my wife are the first five sections).  However, the entirety of each chapter is riddled with footnotes – and if you dared to skip them, you would miss the whole story.  Which, in a way, is the point.

I can see how the format would be extremely aggravating to some people.  However, I felt that Glancy pulled it off.  The footnotes are always situated in a position in the sentence or paragraph that makes it easy to glance down and read the addition without breaking the rhythm of what is happening.  I personally ended up loving the format. I loved the short, snappy sections.  I liked the way that they had a heading, then a summary sentence, and then Frank’s thoughts on the topic.

Terms & Conditions of Coffee:  Its taste never lives up to the promise of its aroma.

Terms & Conditions of the Spleen:  You can live without it but it makes life just a little bit harder.

Terms & Conditions of Meetings:  They’re never about work.

Terms & Conditions of Warnings: They usually come without warning.

Terms & Conditions of a Prenuptial Agreement:  It’s just a postnuptial disagreement waiting to happen.

Really, my only problem with this format came down to font size.  Because so much of the story is fine print, it’s literally in fine print – and I could legit only read this book in strong light because my eyes aren’t that fantastic and some of the font was quite tiny.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time.  Both books have an unusual format and short, snappy chapters.  And both of them are about individuals slowly realizing that the constant grind of doing something that they kind of hate is kind of killing them inside.  At one point in Terms & Conditions Frank reflects –

I don’t want to change society – I’m not that ambitious – but I would prefer it if my every working hour was not devoted to making this world a slightly worse place to live.

I feel you, Frank.  That’s kind of what inspired me to throw in the towel at my law office job last winter and instead become a seasonal farm worker of sorts.  (So not changing society, but somehow I hope that selling people flowers and apples is making the world a slightly happier place than doing debt collection on their hospital bills.)

At any rate, the problem with these types of books is that they frequently end in a sort of depressing manner.  But (and hopefully this isn’t too much of a spoiler here), I felt like Glancy handled this story very deftly.  Parts of it definitely were sad and frustrating, but it was ultimately a story that ended on a hopeful note.

Sometimes I feel like a lot of people act as though getting up and going to work every day, having a house, being married, raising a family and some vegetables – like all of that stuff is what makes your life terrible and sucks out your soul.  But I think that the problem isn’t with a steady routine and regular work, but rather that we all too often allow ourselves to be shuttled into careers that we didn’t really choose – families pressure us into pursuing specific jobs that don’t really appeal to us, finances mean that we can’t get an education learning the thing we’re interested in, or we didn’t even realize there was another option until we’re twenty years deep into the thing we kinda hate.  It isn’t always practical to break away from a soul-sucking job, but maybe more of us could if we were willing to really look at our options and change the way we live.

At any rate, I really enjoyed Terms & Conditions, and found myself wishing Frank all the best.  4/5 for an engaging story with an unusual layout.  Recommended.

PS This book was originally brought to my attention way back in 2014 by Carol over at Reading, Writing & Riesling, so be sure to check out her review!

The Morning Gift // by Eva Ibbotson (+ life updates!)

So, first off, I did completely Princep’s Fury which was my Book 20 for 20 Books of Summer, so I was successful!!!  Totally stoked.

Secondly, things have been quite busy around here.  Somehow, summer is almost over and I still have a lot of things on my list to get done!!  So I have been painting shelves and fence and house trim and the porch, and also trying to learn how to make my own tomato sauce with tomatoes from my garden as well as freezing green beans and also hanging out with my family and trying to train the dog how to not drag me across town when we are taking a walk.  So, life is busy but good.

I have also, weirdly, been selling books.  I have this whole box of books that I keep meaning to donate or something, but there is this funny thing… not everyone reads the same books!  So, much to my surprise, people are buying the books I don’t want??  About half the books are ones random people have given me (another funny thing: people seem to think that if I like to read, it means I like to read… everything, apparently??  Because they literally hand me a pile of books and say, “Hey, I know you like to read so”.  I mean, I appreciate the sentiment but it makes me giggle sometimes).  The point is, this means that I have a little bit of spare cash… to buy books!  Do you think I could eventually make my whole book thing self-sustaining?? (HA!)

ANYWAY on to The Morning Gift.  I approached this book with mixed feelings.  The official synopsis says:

Ibbotson magically recreates pre-World War II Vienna and introduces Ruth Berger, passionate, clever, and wildly in love with Heini Radek, a young prodigy come to study piano at the Conservatoire.

… When Hitler’s forces move into Austria, Englishman Quinton Somerville offers Ruth matrimonium ad morganaticum – marriage based on the morning gift, a present given by a husband wishing to free himself from a new wife.  If she accepts, Quin will bring Ruth with him to England, and safety, as his betrothed.  The consequences of her decision are surprising – and undeniably romantic.

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//published 1993//

Now, basically my favorite trope is one in which people are married and then fall in love.  (My favorite, I think, is The Princess by Lori Wick.)  So that’s the reason that I put The Morning Gift on my list to begin with.  HOWEVER my only other experience with Ibbotson was quite negative: A Company of Swanswhich I basically hated because the characters were completely unlikable, the situation mind-blowingly unrealistic, and the couple NEVER had a conversation in which they walked away with the same understanding as to what had just happened – how am I supposed to root for a romance with two people who are literally incapable of communicating?!

Point being – I was leery of The Morning Gift but… romance after marriage…!!!

And what I got was a 3/5 read.  There were a lot of things about this book that I liked, but a lot of negatives as well.

The main positive were the setting and background characters.  These were brilliantly done.  I enjoyed every character who crossed these pages.  They all felt quite real and interesting.  I am always intrigued to hear about various subsets of people and how they were impacted by WWII.  My understanding is that Ibbotson herself left Vienna in the 1930’s, and that a lot of this background information was semi-autobiographical, and I think that that was part of what made this so realistic.

Ruth is a likable heroine.  She is intelligent and kindhearted, studious and fun.  It was easy to see why everyone loved her and wanted the best for her, but at the same time she wasn’t a perfect angel, either.

Ironically, the main problem with this story was… the story.  :-/  Parts of it made sense, but there were long sections in which I found myself wondering what in the world was going on.  About a third of the actual story should have hit the cutting room floor, and the whole thing would have flowed much better.

The beginning is good.  We meet Ruth and her family, happy in Vienna, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Ruth is a smidge spoiled, but has one of those characters that doesn’t seem to be negatively impacted by the spoiling, and is well-loved by everyone.  A distant cousin comes to stay with them, and he is a musical genius.  Ruth, who is very attracted to music, is drawn to Heini (seriously, Heini?!) when they are children, and continues to virtually worship him as they grow older.

This leads to our first hiccup.  Heini is always presented as someone who is completely self-absorbed.  He knows he is a musical prodigy, and takes advantage of everyone in pursuit of his passion.  He takes Ruth for granted and expects her to wait on him hand and foot.  Consequently, I never liked Heini, and never understood why Ruth liked him, either.  He’s never given a single characteristic that makes him likable.  And I realize that this is so that later, when Ruth stays with Quin instead, we won’t feel bad for Heini but… then it ends up feeling like there is no point to Heini’s character at all. He was definitely the last-believable and least-interesting character in the cast, put there solely to create an impractical love triangle.

So anyway, Ruth and Heini are engaged, yadda yadda, Germany is getting really interested in taking over Austria, and many of Ruth’s friends and family start to leave for England because even though they are not orthodox, they are Jewish.  Ruth is going somewhere else in the country to college when her family leaves Austria, believing that Ruth will have no problems leaving on her student visa, but there is an issue and Ruth isn’t allowed to leave.  She returns to Vienna, but everyone is gone – and Hitler invades.

Through a series of coincidences, Quin is in Vienna.  He had met Ruth’s family several years earlier, when Ruth was still a girl.  Running into her again, he feels an obligation to see her to safety.  They try a couple of options, but nothing is successful and time is running out, and so, by page 66, they are married and on their way to England.

Before the wedding, we get this conversation, wherein Quin explains to Ruth that this will be a marriage in name only:

It had been a mistake to introduce the word morganatic into a conversation that was already going badly. …

‘Who is he, this Morgan?’ [Ruth] asked.

‘He isn’t anyone,’ said Quin, sighing.  … ‘The word morganatic comes from the Latin matrimonium ad morganaticum  – a marriage based on the morning gift.  It’s a gift given the morning after the bridal night with which the husband, by bestowing it, frees himself of any liability to the wife.’

Ruth never really seems to grasp the concept of the morning gift, probably because Quin explains it terribly: I didn’t grasp the concept, either.  I was even more confused when I looked it up.  Quin’s explanation goes on to say that the morning gift means that they are basically not married any more, but according to the Wikipedia article (which is obviously correct), the morning gift was actually used in situations where one spouse (usually the husband) marries someone quite beneath him socially.  The morning gift is given because the wife and any children they have will not inherit money, land, or titles from the husband.  But the wife who receives the gift is still quite married – the husband couldn’t go off and marry someone else.  It’s just a little bonus money because that’s all the money she’s going to get.  Consequently, I never understood why Quin was dragging the morning gift into his situation at all, because it didn’t match what was happening with them.  And after this conversation on page 47, we don’t hear about the morning gift again until page 310.  What even.

In between, the story drags on and on and on, full of misunderstandings and misapprehensions.  Quin and Ruth keep their marriage a secret, and are working on getting a divorce, which is quite difficult to do at this time in England, especially since they have to wait until all of her visa stuff is settled first.  Meantime, they spend basically no time together, yet I’m supposed to believe that they are falling in love.  There’s another girl, of course, who is super weird to me.  Like Heini, she is presented as completely unlikable and honestly rather dreadful, so why would Ruth ever perceive her as a threat?  Quin is completely oblivious to the pursuit from the other girl, and consequently sends all sorts of mixed signals.

I honestly got very frustrated with Quin.  When my niece was learning to talk, she would frequently not talk, instead whining or crying because she wasn’t getting what she wanted.  Our response to that was always, “You need to use your words!”  And that’s exactly what I kept wanting to say to Quin.  USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.  QUIT EXPECTING EVERYONE TO FREAKING READ YOUR MIND.  It was super, super annoying.

I won’t even go into the ending.  Just when it appeared everything should be resolved, that ol’ morning gift reared its ugly head again and I had to drag through another fifty pages of completely impractical and unrealistic filler before finally getting to the actual end.  We’ll just say that if I had been Quin, I would have been genuinely ticked off.  (Although it’s sort of his own fault…USE YOUR WORDS, QUIN.)

If it weren’t for the fantastic background and wonderful secondary characters, this book would have been a low 2/5, but those things really brought the tone of this book up.  I loved Ruth’s parents and all the neighbors and the wonderful women running the tea shop and the other professors and Ruth’s college friends.  The descriptions of everyone trying to adjust to and find a new life in England were really well done, and I loved how everyone jumped right in, trying to find a way to be useful and industrious in their new lives.

On the whole, I definitely plan to give the rest of Ibbotson’s works a miss.  Two books of unlikable and unrealistic situations, wherein all the romantic tension is created solely because the two people involved don’t know how to USE THEIR WORDS is plenty for me!

#17 for #20BooksofSummer!

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My Cousin Rachel // by Daphne du Maurier

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//published 1951//

This is one of those reviews that I probably ought to have written as soon as I finished the book, as the story gave me so many feels.  But I’ll try my best to recapture my initial emotions.

Du Maurier is an author that I added to the TBR because I had read one of her books and loved it (Rebeccaof course) but somehow had never read another of her works.  One the whole, while I didn’t love My Cousin Rachel like I did Rebecca (I’ve read Rebecca multiple times, but don’t really picture myself returning to My Cousin Rachel… well… maybe I will), it still did not disappoint.

The story begins much as Rebecca does – with the ending.  Somehow, du Maurier manages to make her first chapter actually be the epilogue of the story, and instead of ruining the ending, it adds to the tension throughout.  Just as in Rebecca we already know that the narrator will never return to Manderley – and thus spend the entire book wondering what has happened to make that so – My Cousin Rachel tells us in the very first chapter –

The point is, life has to be endured, and lived.  But how to live it is the problem.  The work of day by day presents no difficulties.  I shall become Justice of Peace, as Ambrose was, and also be returned, one day, to Parliament.  I shall continue to be honoured and respected, like all my family before me.  Farm the land well, look after the people.  No one will every guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders; nor will they know that every day, haunted still be doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer.  Was Rachel innocent or guilty?

And so, from the start, we know that we are not going to know whether or not Rachel is innocent or guilty (of what?  We don’t even know that, yet).  We know that our narrator, Philip, is alone.  And we know that, for some reason, he carries a “burden of blame,” although we do not yet know whether or not it is deserved.  Throughout the entire first chapter, du Maurier introduces us to a narrator who is still young, yet filled with confusion and angst about … something … something that has to do with his cousin Rachel.

Philip is an orphan, and has lived almost his entire life with his bachelor uncle, Ambrose.  Ambrose was known for not really caring for women; not only was he unmarried, he didn’t even employ any women in his household.  One of the primary landowners of the area, Ambrose was the Justice of Peace, and known for being quiet, just, kind, and intelligent.  As Ambrose grew older, his health began to deteriorate.  Philip tells us that Ambrose’s doctor recommended that he begin spending his winters in a warmer climate.  And one of those winters, when Philip was around twenty, Ambrose decided to go to Italy for his winter rest.

And there, in Italy, he met a distant cousin, Rachel, a widow.  He wrote to Philip and told him so.

“I have made the acquaintance of a connection of ours,” he wrote.  “…my cousin Rachel is a sensible woman, good company, and has taken it upon her shoulders to show me the gardens in Florence, and in Rome later, as we shall both be there at the same time.”

Still, despite Ambrose’s warm words about Rachel, Philip is shocked when he receives a letter from Ambrose telling of Ambrose’s marriage to Rachel.  And as the gaps between Ambrose’s letters get lengthier and lengthier, Philip is uneasy – a feeling that is confirmed by Ambrose’s last letters, which speak of Rachel not as a kind and loving wife, but as a gaoler, watching over him in his illness.  Ambrose hints at an even darker possibility – that of poison.  His last letter, a mere scrawl, sent Philip rushing to Italy – “For God’s sake come to me quickly.  She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.  If you delay, it may be too late.  Ambrose.”

Du Maurier does a brilliant job building this story.  Everything I have given you so far is in the first three chapters, and they are written exquisitely.  The tension is palpable, and we are given subtle looks at Philip’s character through his narration.  Philip is rather jealous when Ambrose is married, and we know from the beginning that he is suspicious of Rachel, but his story seems straightforward enough.  When Philip arrives in Italy, too late for Ambrose, who has died, he is told a different story (although not by Rachel, who has left town) – that Ambrose was suffering from a brain tumor.  His father died that way as well, and Philip is told that all of Ambrose’s paranoia stems from this.

The rest of the book, we are left wondering which it is.  Was Ambrose perfectly sane, and Rachel poisoned him for his money, and so she could marry her lover?  Or was Ambrose delusional and ill, and Rachel loved and nursed him as best she could?  Philip himself sways back and forth between the two possibilities.

Despite the fact that there wasn’t a great deal of action, I found this book entirely engrossing.  Du Maurier has crafted a set of characters who are very real.  The story feels off-kilter the entire time.  You can never find your balance, because every time you reach a decision as to Rachel’s character, you’re given a new fact or incident that throws it all into a new light.

Throughout, Philip came across as incredibly young. I think that du Maurier capture that perfectly, that blend of arrogance and self-consciousness that one has when one is twenty.  That constant swing between complete confidence that one has solved all the world’s problems and that the old are rather ridiculous and hidebound, and the uncertainty and worry about how other people are viewing and judging you and whether or not you’re doing everything the way one ought to.  My early twenties are definitely the least favorite years I’ve lived yet, where you’re expected to be an adult and to make adult decisions, and yet you actually have no earthly idea what you’re doing.  Philip’s voice embodies all of that, blusteringly confident on one page, and agonizingly indecisive on the next.

I personally had a mild beef with the ending, which I’ll put below the cut.  Please only read it if you’ve read the book – because you should all read the book, and you should read it without knowing the ending.  It’s fantastic writing, and has definitely cemented my need to read all of du Maurier’s works.

20booksfinal#15 for #20BooksofSummer!

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Giant’s Bread // by Mary Westmacott

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//published 1930//

In my quest to read all of Agatha Christie’s books (may or may not be achievable), I included on my list the six novels she wrote as Mary Westmacott.  I expected these books to be different from Christie’s other fare (why else would she use a different name, other than to escape expectations?), but I was still surprised to find how heavy Giant’s Bread was.

Our story opens in London, with the opening night of a new opera.  Strange, wild, artistic, innovative, alluring – it is a musical the likes of which have never been seen or heard before.  The rest of the novel leads us to that opening night: how did such an opera come to be written?

Our story follows Vernon Deyre, a “poor little rich” boy, who is raised with everyone money can buy and very few of the things money can’t.  Lonely, imaginative, and sensitive, Vernon is a rather unusual male protagonist, being neither brave nor strong.  Vernon becomes friends with his cousin, Josephine (“Joe”), who comes to live with them, and later their neighbor, Sebastian, a young Jewish boy (which, between the wars, was an important facet of one’s character).  In adulthood, Jane is added to the mix as well.

The book is really about all four of these individuals.  The focus is on Vernon, but we learn a great deal about the other three as well.  Even just seeing Vernon through the eyes of the other characters gives us insight into those individuals.

I can’t say that I enjoyed Giant’s Bread.  It was, on the whole, quite depressing.  I didn’t really like any of the four main characters, although Sebastian had his moments.  It was definitely a character-study story.  The plot was minimal and involved a lot of Vernon’s feelings.  I’m also not completely sure what Christie/Westmacott was trying to say.  In the end, Vernon sacrifices everything for his genius, and I’m not sure that I agree with the decision.

There were some good moments in this book, and the writing was solid.  But it really comes back to the concept of “a novel” and the fact that, generally, I hate them.  Constantly depressing, everyone’s worst features emphasized, no redemption.  In the end, everyone is weak, and all four of the characters succumb to their particular weakness.  In my mind, this book would have been much better if the characters had instead learned to recognize and overcome their deficiencies, instead of being destroyed by them.

A 2/5.  I intend to read at least one more of her novels, but honestly, if it’s as depressing of a ride as this one, I may skip the rest!