Agatha Christie

When Hastings Fell in Love

Title: Murder on the Links
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
First published in 1923

Plot summary from Goodreads: An urgent cry for help brings Hercule Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies facedown in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And for whom was the impassioned love letter in the pocket? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.…

Oh, Hastings. You ninny.

This is the second Hercule Poirot novel – and in spite of the title has almost nothing to do with golf. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since I find golf slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, but it was almost a deal breaker. I did not want to read this mystery. Based on the cover, I assumed it would be about a British guy in knickers geting clonked on the head with a five iron on the back nine. I read it purely for completeness sake – and I am glad I did.

The only connection to golf is that the body was buried in a location that was soon to become a hazard on a new golf course. Also, it is set in France, which I found totally baffling since I have never, not even once in my entire life, considered the possibility that there might be golf courses in France. So, I learned something there.

The mystery itself is quite a clever little mystery, with lots of misdirection. There is a funny rivalry between the vain Poirot and the equally vain and condescending Gireau, who is the inspector investigating the case for the French police. Poirot is frequently piqued at being mocked by Monsieur Gireau, and is able to prove his superiority in satisfying fashion. Hastings, though, is a total dolt. He gets mixed up with an acrobat known to him only as Cinderella, and ends up in a not-even-remotely convincing romance. It is silly, although Cinderella ends up proving her courage in a rather compelling way.

One of the things about Agatha Christie is that she has no qualms about depicting her female characters as just as venal, just as sneaky, just as mean, just as smart, just as strong, just as wilful, and just as brave as her male characters. It’s refreshing, really. Her character studies aren’t terribly detailed, but she stays away from stereotyping based on gender.

On the whole, I would put this in the midrange of Christie’s work. Not dazzlingly clever, like some, but still enjoyable.

Phyllis Whitney

Snowfire by Phyllis Whitney

Title: Snowfire
Author: Phyllis Whitney
First published in 1972

Plot summary from Goodreads: In this gripping new novel of love and danger, Phyllis A. Whitney spins into magnificent focus the icy weather and fiery passions of a chic eastern ski resort. The slopes are fine but for Linda Earle, who hasn’t come to Graystones for winter sports, the atmosphere is terrifying. Seeking to clear her brother of a murder charge, Linda finds her search for the truth hampered by her attraction to the mysterious Julian McCabe. It was Julian’s wife who had been murdered and now Linda’s presence has aroused new terrors. Is Linda going to be the next victim?

In a lot of ways, I am the perfect audience for this book.

Phyllis Whitney is one of the big gothic romance authors from the 1970’s. This is the second Whitney I’ve read – the first being Window on the Square. Whitney writes in both a contemporary and a historical time period. Window on the Square is historical. This one is contemporary.

To understand why I am the perfect audience for this book, you must understand something of my childhood. I was born in the midwest, and my parents fell in love with skiing when I was very young. I recall chartered bus trips from Omaha, the place of my birth, to Breckenridge and Aspen, Colorado, with the kids bedded down in the front of the bus, while our parents – the adults – played cards, smoked cigarettes, flirted and drank cocktails in the back. It was a raucous good time.

We moved to Idaho specifically for the skiing when I was in the fifth grade, and I spent every weekend on the slopes. I joined junior racers and my high school ski team. I threw myself down the mountain as recklessly as possible, and warmed up in the lodge and made fun of the ski bunnies who got all gussied up for the purpose, apparently, of sitting in the lodge and being hit on by the ski bums.

I don’t know if Phyllis Whitney was a skier, but she nailed 1970’s ski culture, from the fondue to the snow bunnies to the apres-ski gluhwein.

Graystones, the house at the center of this book, was perfect – a Norman castle transplanted into the north woods. The mystery was engaging, with Linda, the heroine, going “undercover” as an apres-ski hostess to clear her younger brother, Stuart, who has been accused of murdering Margot, the wife of Stuart’s ski mentor, Julian.

Julian is the owner of Graystones. As in Window on the Square, Linda forges a connection with Adria, the small daughter of Margot, who believes that she has killed her mother – the parallels between this book and Window on the Square are notable. And, while I will admit that I think that WotS is the superior book, this one was quite enjoyable. The story comes to a climax on the mountain at night, with Linda fleeing, on skis, from the pursuing murderer.

Now, about the cover. I really like the cover that shows up on goodreads, but like a lot of these books, it was issued in other covers, and my actual cover is not available to choose! I think that the cover for this edition is a little bit misleading, though – because that dress looks like this would be a piece of historical fiction.

This, however, is my cover:

Yes, it is just as crazy in person as it is in a photograph! So, this is a cheesy little book, but it is fun.

Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Title: Appointment With Death
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #19
First published 1937

Summary from Goodreads: Among the towering red cliffs and the ancient ruins of Petra sits the corpse of Mrs. Boynton, the cruel and tyrannizing matriarch of the Boynton family. A tiny puncture mark on her wrist is the only sign of the fatal injection that killed her. With only twenty-four hours to solve the mystery, Hercule Poirot recalls a remark he overheard back in Jerusalem: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Mrs. Boynton was, indeed, the most detestable woman he had ever met.

This book is about what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. It is one of my absolute favorites of the Poirot novels for both the setting – the rose red city of Petra, Jordan – and the villainy of the victim.

Christie draws on her experience travelling with her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, as she did in Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. In my opinion, this mystery is loads better than Murder in Mesopotamia, and is every bit as good as Death on the Nile.

The book begins with Poirot overhearing two people speaking in the hotel room next to his, through an open window. The voice of a man says “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” The first section of the book occurs at the hotel, where the reader is introduced to the Boynton family, including Mrs. Boynton, who is a simply unredeemable, petty domestic tyrant. She has exercised total psychological control over the four children who travel with her: Lennox Boynton, Raymond Boynton, Carol Boynton and Ginevra Boynton. She is manipulative and extremely cruel to her family, and she has them so cowed that they have simply collapsed under her tyranny.

The book is partially narrated by a young doctor named Sarah King, because once the Boynton family leaves Jerusalem for Petra, Poirot is not present until the end. The murder occurs with him off-stage. Sarah King is also an interesting character – one of Christie’s bright young women – and she is more than capable of seeing clearly that Mrs. Boynton is mostly pathetic, in spite of her ability to terrorize her family.

Mrs. Boynton is the sort of person who doesn’t understand that everyone has a breaking point, so by the time we get to Petra, it becomes clear that she is going to come to an unhappy end. This is essentially a closed circle mystery, with an ingenious solution. The first time I read it, I was a bit blindsided by the identity of the murderer. In subsequent readings, I’ve been astounded at how cleverly Christie drops clues into the book that, with exquisite subtlety, point the reader to whodunnit.

M.M. Kaye

Death in the Andamans by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in the Andamans
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1960

Plot summary from Goodreads: Death in the Andamans is a masterpiece of mystery and romance from one of our most beloved authors. When a violent storm lashes the tiny Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, Copper Randal barely manages a safe return to Government House. She does get back in one piece with her hostess, Valerie Masson, Val’s fiance, and handsome naval officer Nick Tarrent, but one of the islanders is unaccounted for when the boats return to harbor. Cut off from the mainland and confined to the shadowy, haunted guest quarters, Copper and the other visitors conclude that one of their number is a murderer. The killer must be found before the storm destroys all trace of any possible clues.

M.M. Kaye is best known for her best selling epic The Far Pavilions, a novel set in British Raj India and published in 1978. I was 12 when The Far Pavilions was published, and read it when I was maybe 14. It was an incredibly formative novel for me, igniting a love of door-stop-sized books and historical fiction.

As it happens, Kaye had published six mystery novels with romantic subplots prior to publishing The Far Pavilions, which I found when I went looking for more books by her, after polishing off her second major work, The Shadow of the Moon. Each of her mysteries is set in an exotic location that was part of the British Empire, except for her second, Death in Berlin. Death in the Andamans was the last of them, published in 1960. They are billed as a series, although each of them contains different characters and different settings, so the only commonality is in the theme.

Each book centers around a young, innocent, and attractive woman who is travelling to an interesting locale. The Andamans, apparently, are an archipelago of islands between India and Myanmar. I only know this because I googled it, having never heard of the Andamans prior to reading this book. The British established a penal colony there in the 1840’s, and the islands were occupied by the Japanese during WWII. They also figure prominently in the second full length Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four.

Death in the Andamans is set over Christmas and is a classic closed circle mystery. Copper Randall, the heroine, has inherited a small legacy, which she used to promptly throw up her job and accept her friend Val’s invitation to come out to the Andamans, where Val’s father is the British official in charge, living in Government House. Once she arrives, she meets Nick Tarrant, handsome naval officer and erstwhile swain.

On Christmas eve, a great storm severs contact between Government House, where our characters are trapped over the holiday, and the outside world. When one of the characters, an unappealing fellow with a whole raft full of enemies, turns up having been murdered, Copper, Val, Nick, and Val’s fiance, must solve the mystery and stay alive.

M.M. Kaye’s romance subplots are always extremely chaste, with absolutely no premarital hanky panky, excepting a possible kiss or two, in spite of the fact that we have four lusty young people running through corridors in their night clothes and otherwise behaving like they are at a slumber party. It’s refreshingly simple. The setting is wonderfully exotic, and M.M. Kaye’s descriptions are evocative of time and place.

This is the third of her Death In books that I’ve read this year. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Death in Kashmir, which was the first I read. I’ve not yet reviewed that one, or the other, Death in Cyprus – which is my least favorite of the three, although it is still plenty entertaining. I, somewhat sadly, only have three left – Death in Zanzibar, Death in Berlin (the one I have queued up right now) and Death in Kenya.

M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Title: Death in Berlin
Author: M.M. Kaye
First published in 1955

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Miranda Brand is visiting Germany for what is supposed to be a month’s vacation. But from the moment that Brigadier Brindley relates the story about a fortune in lost diamonds–a story in which Miranda herself figures in an unusual way–the vacation atmosphere becomes transformed into something more ominous. And when murder strikes on the night train to Berlin, Miranda finds herself unwillingly involved in a complex chain of events that will soon throw her own life into peril. Set against a background of war-scarred Berlin in the early 1950s, M. M. Kaye’s Death in Berlin is a consummate mystery from one of the finest storytellers of our time.

I liked this installment, but I didn’t love it. It started strong, with a murder on a train that was reminiscent of The Murder on the Orient Express – mysteries set on trains are an especial weakness of mine. However, once we arrived in Berlin, I just wasn’t feeling the love for the setting. Post-war Berlin was grim, and although the discussion of the different sections of a divided city was interesting, I prefer the more exotic settings in her other books.

This particular book contained a lot of regressive themes and tropes. Older women are haggard, aging, rapidly losing their appeal. Young women are blooming and fresh. The male characters, especially Richard – the main character’s cousin – have important work to do with the British government, while the women have servants and seem to do very little at all. While I expect to get those kinds of elements in a book that was published in 1955, it was even more obvious in this book than it often is.

A few other things that bothered me with this book included the primary love interest/main investigator Simon Lang. In the other M.M. Kaye mysteries I’ve read, there is more of an equality of investigation between the heroine & hero. In this one, Lang does all of the work, and pretty much excludes Miranda from the process of figuring out whodunit. In addition, he literally uses her as bait to trap the murderer, and then his proposal of marriage is presumptuous and arrogant, telling Miranda that he will be her husband, not asking her to marry him.

So, this is the least favorite of the M.M. Kaye’s mysteries so far. It is well-written and the plot is interesting, but I didn’t engage with the characters, and found the setting to be humdrum.

Victoria Holt

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt

This is a migrated review from 2017. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Secret Woman
Author: Victoria Holt
First Published in 1970

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Anna Brett is a governess to a wealthy English family, a role she’s convinced she’ll be doomed to live the rest of her life. But when she meets Redvers Stretton, the dashing captain of a ship named The Secret Woman, and she’s whisked from the bleak British coast to the sunny South Seas, she quickly realizes that things will never be the same. But with a murder dogging her steps and the mystery of a missing treasure haunting her dreams, Anna is forced to confront the clever captain-a man who may have just as many secrets as his ship.

First published in 1970, The Secret Woman was written by the prolific Eleanor Hibbert under her Victoria Holt pen name. While this book was published in “Holt’s” early period, it was actually published in the middle period for Hibbert. There were a total of 32 books published under the “Holt” name, and of those 32, approximately 23 of them were published after The Secret Woman.

Victoria Holt tends to be very hit and miss. This one is a miss.

I think that, perhaps, Holt was going for an homage to Jane Eyre with this one, with Redvers as the Rochester character, the conveniently orphaned Anna as Jane, and Redver’s wife, Monique, as the ill-fated Bertha. Like Bertha, the mildly mentally ill, consumptive Monique comes from an apparently fictional island named Coralle. Bertha, of course, is from Jamaica, and is the daughter of a wealthy family.

The issues with this book start with the pacing. The plot summary is misleading in that most of the elements referenced in the summary do not appear until the 50% mark of the book. The first 50% of the book felt relatively superfluous, focusing on Anna’s childhood and young adulthood, being first sent to England without her parents, later being orphaned, and then being raised by her unpleasant, unloving, bitter Aunt Charlotte. This, again, may be an ill-advised attempt to copy Jane Eyre. Few writers have the skill to write a Jane Eyre character, and Holt fails completely.

The “meet cute” between our hero and heroine also fails. Redvers and Anna meet when she is 12 and he is 19. I can understand her romanticizing him, since he is a dashing young man. I cannot understand, and am entirely grossed out, by his apparent romanticizing of her. She was twelve. There is nothing at twelve to attract a young man of nineteen.

It isn’t until around the 55% mark that Red & Anna end up in one another’s company consistently. From there, the book devolves into a shipboard travelogue. Way too much of the narration is delivered through the diary of the third-wheel Chantel, which ground the story to a halt. The suspense/gothic elements don’t appear until around 75%, and by that time, I am done. That section could’ve actually been pretty interesting, if it had been expanded to be more of the book, and if Holt hadn’t decided that the best way to deliver the reveal was through a letter.

Note to authors: telling us why and how something happened through a letter written by the perpetrator is generally not an emotionally resonant method of storytelling. Again, the tension, the suspense, the drama grinds to a freaking halt while I read a three page letter written by the villain/ess (no spoilers here) as he/she is in his/her death throes.

As an Eyre retelling: fail. As a gothic/romantic suspense: fail. As a period drama: fail. If you aren’t a Holt completist, don’t bother with this one. First you’ll be bored, then you’ll be irritated.

Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Title: Loitering with Intent
Author: Muriel Spark
First published in 1981

Summary from Goodreads: “How wonderful to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century,” Fleur Talbot rejoices. Happily loitering about London, c. 1949, with intent to gather material for her writing, Fleur finds a job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to the peculiar Autobiographical Association. Mad egomaniacs, hilariously writing their memoirs in advance—or poor fools ensnared by a blackmailer? Rich material, in any case. But when its pompous director, Sir Quentin Oliver, steals the manuscript of Fleur’s new novel, fiction begins to appropriate life. The association’s members begin to act out scenes exactly as Fleur herself has already written them in her missing manuscript. And as they meet darkly funny, pre-visioned fates, where does art start or reality end? “A delicious conundrum,” The New Statesman called Loitering with Intent.

I read this one as a Book of the Month for a Goodreads Group. I am pretty sure this is my first Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has definitely been on my radar screen for several years. I have a mental impression of Spark being an acerbic, mid-twentieth century British author who writes along the lines of Stella Gibbon. I don’t yet know if this is an accurate assessment, since I’ve not read enough of either of them to actually make a determination.

I spent probably 20 years reading primarily literary fiction. About five or six years ago – around the same time I joined Goodreads and started my first book blog, I rediscovered the joys of genre fiction, and have read much more of that in the last half decade. I read almost nothing that is considered “literary fiction,” like this book, at this point. Literary fiction can tend to be a bit dire, and literary fiction by men tends to focus so strongly on the sexual agonies of the middle-aged male and his angst over the aging (and the failing) of his penis that I avoid it like the plague because it’s so freaking boring.

However, I do love literary fiction by women – especially British women – that was written from approximately 1915 through the 1960’s. This one was actually published in 1981, when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but it is convincingly set in the 1940’s, so it fits nicely into my wheelhouse. The narrator is Fleur Talbot, a young writer who gets mixed up with a very odd group of people at the same time that she is writing her first novel, Warrender Chase.

As Fleur begins working for The Autobiographical Society as a secretary, she begins adding fictionalized, but far more interesting (i.e., salacious), bits to the boring autobiographies that are being submitted. When her boss, Quentin Oliver, realizes that she is not merely a good secretary, but is also a talented writer with significant flair, he concocts a plot that involves the wife of Fleur’s married lover, her publisher, and himself, to steal Fleur’s book. At the same time, Fleur becomes friends with Quentin’s mother, Edwina, who is a riot (remember Estelle Getty, from The Golden Girls. That). She is an elderly woman with zero fucks left to give, who thinks that her son is more or less a total tool, and who constantly torments him and his assistant, the noxious Beryl Tims, by, among other things, peeing on the floor.

My mental picture of Edwina Oliver

Anyway, things get pretty madcap, with break-ins and thefts and extortion. Fleur’s narration is darkly comic and the characterizations are sharp and unsparing. Overall, it’s a charming, if slight, piece of fiction about a frank, funny young woman in the 1940’s London publishing world.

Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This is an old review from 2015. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
First Publication: 1920

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When the Countess Ellen Olenska returns from Europe, fleeing her brutish husband, her rebellious independence and passionate awareness of life stir the educated sensitivity of Newland Archer, already engaged to be married to her cousin May Welland, “that terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything.” As the consequent drama unfolds, Edith Wharton’s sharp ironic wit and Jamesian mastery of form create a disturbingly accurate picture of men and women caught in a society that denies humanity while desperately defending “civilization.”

The Age of Innocence is the third book in Wharton’s loosely-linked cycle focused on upper class New York of the 1870’s (the other two books are The House of Mirth, published in 1905, and The Custom of the Country, published in 1913). She’s writing from a distance, looking backward between 30 and 50 years, but this is an era and subject that is deeply familiar to her by dint of her birth. Wharton herself was fairly unconventional – unhappily married to a man who was seriously mentally ill, she commenced an affair with a newspaperman and divorced her husband.

The Age of Innocence, unlike the other two books, is narrated by a male character, Newland Archer, who provides a bridge between the older, conventional attitudes and newer, more liberated attitudes, and is, to some degree, crushed by convention. He lives on the cusp of change, but chooses to follow the strictures of society. He is conflicted about what he really wants from his life.

On the one hand, when speaking of his future wife, he says:

He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton. He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular married women of the “younger set,” in which it was the recognised custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and as eager to please as the married lady whose charms had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and had disarranged his own plans for a whole winter.

He chooses May Welland to be his wife, an athletic, beautiful and extremely proper young girl who is totally conventional. He announces this choice with desperately unfortunate timing on the very evening that he will meet May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, who, as it turns out, represents the consuming passion of his life. There are many moments during the book that are turning points, where he could choose passion, but, instead, he follows duty and societal expectation.

There is something both noble and sad about Newland Archer. He was an anachronism, even in Wharton’s time – the honorable man who would sacrifice passion for domesticity. As the book continues, the shackles around Archer tighten by his own choice. At any moment, he could throw caution to the wind, leave May, leave New York, and follow his heart. But he never does, and I end up thinking more of him for the sacrifice, not less.

He could not deplore (as Thackeray’s heroes so often exasperated him by doing) that he had not a blank page to offer his bride in exchange for the unblemished one she was to give to him. He could not get away from the fact that if he had been brought up as she had they would have been no more fit to find their way about than the Babes in the Wood; nor could he, for all his anxious cogitations, see any honest reason (any, that is, unconnected with his own momentary pleasure, and the passion of masculine vanity) why his bride should not have been allowed the same freedom of experience as himself.

Archer acknowledges that May has been raised to be just that which she has become – a “blank page.” She has been raised to go, innocent, from father’s home to husband’s home. The entire society is in a conspiracy to ensure that ladies like May never have to confront the difficulties of life. How terribly suffocating and infantilizing that must have been. But, in spite of that, she knows, of course, that her husband is passionately in love with someone else. And it isn’t just sexual passion, it is also intellectual passion. With Ellen, he has found his soulmate and his intellectual equal, someone who would challenge him. May was not capable of engaging him.

Archer had reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration.

In the end, what does Archer gain? Well, his children of course, who love him quite dearly. And May, who, limited as she was, sacrificed as well.

He had been what was called a faithful husband; and when May had suddenly died — carried off by the infectious pneumonia through which she had nursed their youngest child — he had honestly mourned her. Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites. Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.

By the end of the book, Archer’s world has changed inalterably. His son is marrying the daughter of Julius Beaufort, a young woman who resembles Ellen Olenska in many ways – sparkling, vibrant, unconventional – with the approval of society. Archer knows that it has changed too late for him – he is the old guard, his children are the new. They will get their chances. He sacrificed his for duty.

Wharton knows how to end her books with a knife twist to the gut, and we get one here, too. Archer doesn’t hold out for happiness at the end. He lived the life he chose, and he will honor that choice, painful, limiting, sometimes sad and always dutiful, even to the end.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters. At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

That hurts.

Willa Cather

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

This is an old review from 2016. I am closing down a blog, and republishing book reviews that fit this blog theme prior to deleting the old one.

Title: The Song of the Lark
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1915

Plot Summary from Goodreads: In this powerful portrait of the self-making of an artist, Willa Cather created one of her most extraordinary heroines. Thea Kronberg, a minister’s daughter in a provincial Colorado town, seems destined from childhood for a place in the wider world. But as her path to the world stage leads her ever farther from the humble town she can’t forget and from the man she can’t afford to love, Thea learns that her exceptional musical talent and fierce ambition are not enough.

It is in the solitude of a tiny rock chamber high in the side of an Arizona cliff–“a cleft in the heart of the world”–that Thea comes face to face with her own dreams and desires, stripped clean by the haunting purity of the ruined cliff dwellings and inspired by the whisperings of their ancient dust. Here she finds the courage to seize her future and to use her gifts to catch “the shining, elusive element that is life itself–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.” In prose as shimmering and piercingly true as the light in a desert canyon, Cather takes us into the heart of a woman coming to know her deepest self.

Richly imagined, Cather’s third novel is an exploration of the passion of the artist and the strength of youth. Her main character, Thea Kronborg, child of immigrants from Moonstone, Colorado, has all of the brazen energy and boundless potential of her prairie town. She is the exceptional child in a family of many children, the others quite ordinary, a girl so relentlessly herself that the triumphant arc of her life has a feeling of inevitability, in spite of the many obstacles that she must overcome with the force of her mind and character.

The early part of the book concentrates on her time spent in Moonstone. Even as a child, many of her friends and acquaintances seem to recognize in Thea something to be nurtured. Dr. Archie, the unhappily married town doctor, introduces her to great writers, and spends time with her – in an entirely uncreepy way, thankfully – helping her intellectual development along. Her mother ensures that she has what music lessons are available, and private space in which to practice, which is a luxury in a home of at least five children. Thea herself possesses all of the engaging hubris of the child, confident in her future.

Of this child, laying in her attic room, at home, Cather says:

Life rushed in upon her from that window – or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within not without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once contained within some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardour and anticipation. [page 129]

Thea is a character who bursts with possibility. I can’t help but contrast Cather’s writing with Edith Wharton, another woman who was writing very different books at nearly the same time, and compare Thea to Lily Bart. Where Lily is frozen and constricted, an expensive piece of carved marble, Thea is red-blooded and expansive, fully human. Where Wharton’s characters are limited by complicated societal rules, Cather’s characters, like her landscape, are boundless and free.

When Thea is 15, her family, along with Dr. Archie, arrange for her to leave Moonstone to study music in Chicago, after she inherits a small life insurance policy from a friend. She finds herself on the train, headed east:

She smiled — although she was ashamed of it — with the natural contempt of strength for weakness, with the sense of physical security which makes the savage merciless. Nobody could die while he felt like that inside. The springs there were wound so tight that it would be a long while before there was any slack in them. The life in there was rooted deep. She was going to have a few things before she died. She realized that there were a great many trains dashing east and west on the face of the continent that night, and that they all carried yong people who meant to have things. But the difference was that she was going to get them! That was all. Let people try to stop her! She glowered at the rows of feckless bodies that lay sprawled in the chairs. Let them try it once! [page 200]

Thea bursts off the page, with her her self-confidence, her fearlessness, and her prodigious talent. Cather writes the western experience better than any other author I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of Wallace Stegner. Growing up under open skies has an impact on her characters, and she ensures that the reader understands this. You look at the world differently when you’ve lived in a place where you can stand and mark the curve of the world untouched by signs of civilization.

It was over flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang — and one’s heart sang there, too. Thea was glad that this was her country, even if one did not learn to speak elegantly there. It was, somehow, an honest country, and there was a new song in that blue air which had never been sung in the world before. [page 202]

Her time in Chicago moves her further along the path to musical success, and one of her teachers discovers that rather than piano, it is her voice that is truly remarkable. Ultimately, over the next several sections of the book, Thea leaves Chicago, studies in Germany, and returns to New York a fully-fledged opera singer. I am again reminded of Wharton – her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Age of Innocence begins in an opera house, where Newland Archer is knuckling under to the societal pressure that he must marry, and he must marry a young woman who is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Thea Kronborg. When Cather speaks to Thea through Fred Ottenburg, Thea’s married lover and greatest supporter, she might be speaking about May Welland:

Don’t you know that most of the people in the world are not individuals at all? They never have an individual idea or experience. A lot of girls go to boarding school together, come out the same season, dance at the same parties, are married off in groups, have their babies at about the same time, send their children to school together, and so the human crop renews itself. Such women know as much about the reality of the forms they go through as they know about the wars they learned the dates of. They get their most personal experiences out of novels and plays. Everything is second hand with them. Why, you couldn’t live like that.” [page 327]

Among Cather’s longest books, The Song of the Lark moves quickly through Thea’s development as an artist and represents a remarkable character study of a young woman who is unbowed by convention. As I continue with my Willa in Winter project, I plan to return to some of the themes that Cather is developing in this book, as my understanding deepens through further reading. I’ll end this review with Thea’s words:

She rose impatiently and walked to the edge of the cliff. “It’s waking up every morning with the feeling that your life is your own, and your strength is your own, and your talent is your own; that you’re all there, and there’s no sag in you.” [page 290].

I can’t help but feel that Willa Cather had no sag in her, either.