Archive for January, 2012

Best "Having-a-Baby" Novel

I read a lot of women’s novels. I don’t call them that, but 72% of the books I read in 2011 were by women.  I read literary novels and genre fiction.

But they are mostly literary novels.

I didn’t know that till this weekend.

Over the weekend I read Jennifer Weiner’s Then Came You, despite the chick lit label, because I wanted to try a novel by this perceptive promoter of women’s fiction. I quickly understood that it was not for me.  Weiner is a highly intelligent woman and good researcher who knows how to dramatize a social issue, in this case surrogate motherhood, but this novel turns into a fairy tale. The egg donor, the surrogate mother, the intended mother, and her jealous stepdaughter have problems.  The baby brings them all together.

It’s not that Weiner doesn’t write well.  Some of it is well-written, some of it is poorly written.

But it seems to be written for an audience of women that I don’t know.

There are other things in life than motherhood.  And babies don’t alway fix things.

I will say this, Weiner’s is a variation on a theme.  There are many much more saccharine books out there about babies’ turning people’s lives around.

The most mawkish baby novel I ever read was Anna Quindlen’s Blessings.

“I don’t read Quindlen,” one woman said.

I soon saw why.

The plot is, well, idiotic.  Two teenagers leave a baby in a box in front of the estate called Blessings.  Skip, the caretaker, and Lydia Blessings, the owner of the estate, want to keep the baby, and there is much forced comedy as they try to do this secretly.  And, if I remember correctly, the baby saves a whole town, not just Skip and Lydia.  Probably the teenagers come back; I don’t remember but it seems likely.

No idea if Quindlen’s other novels are good, but I guarantee that this is terrible.

There are also great books about having a baby.  The best I’ve read is Margaret Drabble’s comic novel, The Millstone.  The narrator, Rosamund Stacey, a recent Cambridge graduate, gets pregnant “out of wedlock,” as we used to say, the first time she has sex.   George, a BBC announcer with whom she had a one-night stand, has no idea.  But Rosamund plods along and has the baby by herself, continues to do her research at the British Museum, and loves her baby, but there are also the anxieties of motherhood, the baby’s health problems, etc. It’s not a having-a-baby fix-it book.

Here is a scene everyone will recognize:  Rosamund having a pelvic exam.

“It was the first time that I had ever been examined, and I could have put up with Dr. Esmond, who was a gray-haired old man with rimless glasses, but I was not prepared for being examined by five medical students, one after the other.  I lay there, my eyes shut, and quietly smiling to conceal my outrage, because I knew that these things must happen, and that doctors must be trained, and that medical students must pass examinations; and he asked them questions about the height of the fundus, and could they estimate the length of pregnancy, and what about the pelvis.”

Published in 1965, this novel is a classic.

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The National Book Critics Circle Award announced its finalists Saturday, and will announce the winners on March 8.

I have read four of these: Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (very good), Allan Hollingshurst’s The Stranger’s Child (brilliant), Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia (very good), and Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence (brilliant), proving that I have indeed absorbed the critical climate of 2011.  No, it’s not that way.  I had read other books by Eugenides, Hollingshurst, Spiotta, and Lethem:  hence my interest.


Teju Cole, Open City (Random House)

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (Knopf)

Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (Lookout Books)

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)


Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (Random)

James Gleick, The Information (Pantheon)

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (Knopf)

John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead: Essays (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)


Diane Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing (W.W. Norton)

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace (Free Press)

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (Little, Brown)

Luis J. Rodríguez, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone)

Deb Olin Unferth, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War (Henry Holt)


Mary Gabriel, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of the Revolution (Little, Brown)

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin Press)

Paul Hendrickson, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (Knopf)

Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking)

Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press)


David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything (Faber & Faber)

Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews (Graywolf)

Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday)

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture (Open Letter)

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)


Forrest Gander, Core Samples from the World (New Directions)

Aracelis Girmay, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions)

Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon Press)

Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press)

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It is the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

For years I have supported NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League).   Long ago, after a drive to collect signatures on Pro-Choice petitions and postcards, we volunteers had a stamp-licking/addressing/mailing party. Some  had had abortions; some had not.  Some were quiet; some told their stories.   The one I remember most vividly was the middle-aged stay-at-home mom who had been whisked away as a pregnant teenager to a home for unwed mothers, with a cover story given out about going to live with relatives–and being forced to have a baby against her will and then give it away had been the most traumatic event of her life, she said. She would have given anything for an abortion.  Another rode a bus from Illinois to New York (one of the few states with legal abortion before Roe. v. Wade) to get an abortion, and afterwards had to get right back on the bus because she didn’t have the money to stay overnight.  A hard-working dancer who worked at many jobs could not sacrifice her career for a fetus.

Here is President Obama’s statement today:

As we mark the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we must remember that this Supreme Court decision not only protects a woman’s health and reproductive freedom, but also affirms a broader principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters. I remain committed to protecting a woman’s right to choose and this fundamental constitutional right. While this is a sensitive and often divisive issue- no matter what our views, we must stay united in our determination to prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant woman and mothers, reduce the need for abortion, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption. And as we remember this historic anniversary, we must also continue our efforts to ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities as our sons to fulfill their dreams.”

And here is a clip from a Pro-Choice rally in 2011.

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No-Brow American Fiction

Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner

It was supposed to be my Middlebrow America Weekend.  I chose two best-selling novels, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Weiner’s Then Came You, ao I could read them at the food court.  I had to go to the mall to buy a comforter for the Relative (her blankets got stolen at the nursing home),  jeans, and earplugs.

So there I am eating Chick-fil-A and switching on my Nook from Freedom to Then Came You.

You don’t need me to tell you about Freedom, a satire of American upper-middle-class life, the most praised book of 2010.  Everybody liked it, except maybe Ron Charles.  Then Came You, Weiner’s novel about surrogate motherhood, is a little trickier.  I only wanted to read it because it is Weiner’s latest and I like her gender criticism of the promotion of male vs. female books.

Now I’m bogged down in both books.  It’s not that they’re not easy to read.  They are.  It’s not that I won’t finish them this weekend.  I will.  Both these writers are very smart. Franzen has attitude; Weiner has attitude. Franzen went to Swarthmore; Weiner went to Princeton.  They have written roughly the same number of books  Franzen: seven.  Weiner: nine (and a couple of only-e-books).

But here’s my problem.  They’re not middlebrow.  They’re no-brow.

Franzen is no-brow because his characters are so obnoxious.  If he were middlebrow, he would write in a different vein and make us care about the characters.  He isn’t highbrow, because it is basically a (well-written) beach book.  Why do we all read it?  Because the Berglands are a perfect American family–lawyer and stay-at home mom in a gentrified neighborhood in St. Paul–but they’re just as fucked-up as we are.  Their marriage is on the rocks.  Their obnoxious son Joey moves next-door to live with a trashy family when he has an affair with their daughter, and embarrasses his parents.  They have a daughter somewhere who’s a non-entity.  So it’s kind of trash lit, only well-written.

And I call it no-brow lit, because it’s its own brow.

Then there’s Weiner’s Then Came You.  She’s such a smart writer:  in the beginning, I was very impressed by her smoothly-written first-person narratives of Jules Strauss, a work-study student at Princeton who resents her classmates  and has a  drunken father who needs rehab, and Annie Barrow, an uneducated stay-at-home mom whose husband can barely support them with his airport luggage-scanning job.  Both these characters get involved in the egg donor and surrogate mother mill because they need the money.

Weiner helps us get into the heads of these characters, but then the writing gets much rougher as she adds what seems like marketing material, a shallow character, India, a fortyish woman who marries a rich man and wants to have a baby to seal the deal.  And India is all about product.  Suddenly we’re reading about designer clothes and purses and and  penthouses on every page. In a way Weiner is selling stuff:  by naming all the products, she turns this into an ad. By the way,  India also has a jealous stepdaughter, Bettina, who is such a non-entity I have nothing to say about her.

And Weiner is so, so much smarter than this.  She could write as well as Franzen if she took more time.  She has drawn two very believable characters. Then with India and Bettina, she loses her middle, goes low, and then comes back up with Jules and Annie.


I really prefer a brow in my reading.

So I think I’ll read Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor books.

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Not the Equivalent of a Lost Weekend

A few weeks ago I spent my first-ever Middlebrow Weekend.

“I’m on retreat,” I said.

First I did the retreat.   I drank herbal tea, did a few Sun Salutations, and washed my face really briskly with Neutrogena.  I didn’t give myself the full spa treatment:  no oatmeal facial scrub or cucumbers to place on my eyes.

I considered reading the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness:  A Handbook for Living.

What I needed was not Buddhism.  What I needed was a weekend of middlebrow fiction. So I read two novels by Monica Dickens in two days, The Room Upstairs and The Angel in the Corner.

That was the English Middlebrow Weekend.  This weekend I’m celebrating an American Middlebrow Weekend:

Jennifer Weiner vs. Jonathan Franzen.

In 2010 Jennifer Weiner pointed out that she and Jonathan Franzen both write domestic fiction.  He is lauded in the NYT; she is never reviewed there and is classified as chick lit.

In her FAQ at her blog she says:

I don’t have a problem with Jonathan Franzen – especially now that he’s made peace with Oprah. I have a problem with the way the literary establishment rushes to coronate the latest work of what would be called “domestic fiction” if John were Jane, while covering women’s quote-unquote ‘literary fiction’ in the most cursory or dismissive ways possible, and ignoring much of what’s considered women’s genre fiction completely. It’s worth noting that Jonathan Franzen himself has acknowledged in interviews that there’s a problem with the way women’s work gets treated.”

I agree with Weiner, but I have never read her novels, because I thought they were “chick lit.”  I love genre fiction, endlessly recommend old SF and mysteries –“You haven’t read The Day of the Triffids?  You haven’t read Dorothy Sayers?”–but I don’t read much “chick lit.”  I vaguely remember watching Weiner and Jane Green on a talk show–was it Martha Stewart? and if so, why?–talking about how they don’t want to be classified as chick lit.

And I meant to read something by them.

So this weekend I’ll read both Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, Then Came You.

We all know that Freedom got way, way over-hyped.  Under normal circumstances, I would have read it, but I was put off by the months of pre-pub-publicity.

I’ve read 250 pages of it, and it’s good.  My initial impression is that it’s an entertaining, well-written satire. It’s not really like reading.  It’s addictive in the way TV is.  You don’t get that calming hormone (there must be some kind of reading hormone).  You keep reading and reading and reading, and you don’t much like Patty, a college-basketball-player-turned-stay-at-home- mom-turned-adultress-turned-gym-receptionist-who-wants-a-boob-job, or Walter, her lawyer-husband-turned-environmentalist-sell-out, or Richard, the self-destructive indie rock musician.  But you can stand them.  And you can’t stop.  And you want to stop.  Then you read for pages and pages about their manipulative son Joey and his obsessed girlfriend Connie and you put the book aside.   “Please, God, don’t make me read any more about Joey and Connie.”

But I’m back to Joey and Connie…

And I have started Weiner’s Then Came You.

She writes very well.  Yes, she can write as well as Jonathan Franzen–when she wants to.  This is a “serious” novel, not the humorous narrative I associate with chick lit.    But it is an “issue” novel, and this makes it more an Oprah novel than Franzen’s, which became Oprah novels.

So I’ll get in trouble for saying that. I loved the Oprah book club.  I read almost all the Oprah books.  But you can’t help knowing that every book had to have an “issue.”

Franzen writes mostly in the third person, and that allows him more distance and more latitude for satire.  They both write about unhappy families, but Weiner does not go in for satire.  Franzen rambles, and there isn’t much plot, while Weiner sometimes relies on formula.

Weiner earnestly links three realistic, sad, addictively readable first-person narrativesn.  I had a hard time tearing myself away from it this afternoon.

Her three main characters are  isolated in their different ways:  Jules Strauss is a student at Princeton who hangs out at a mall where her snobbish classmates don’t shop, and has a drunken father who needs rehab; Annie Barrow is an uneducated stay-at-home mom whose husband can barely support them with his airport luggage-scanning job; and India Bishop is a high-powered PR woman who has had a lot of plastic surgery and can’t get pregnant by her millionaire.

But one of these characters does not belong with the others:   India.  She doesn’t seem real to me.  She seems like a character in, I don’t know, a miniseries.

And there is a fourth woman, India’s stepdaughter, whom I’ll ignore right now.

The issue is surrogate motherhood.  I’ve never had much sympathy with the women who hire them–why not adopt?–but Weiner shows us the inside-out problems that lead the two young women who need money to pursue this line of work, and the woman who can’t get pregnant to need them (that’s where it’s going). And of course I’m beginning to think about this problem in a less judgmental way.

She goes for the dramatic effects of interior monologues, affecting backstories, and straight-ahead plots.  She develops two of her characters, Jules and Annie, in a leisurely way, and then depends only on backstory to present India.  Thebeginning of the novel is so well-written–and then sometimes one senses an outline beneath it as one goes along.  There is some clunkiness in the parts about India.  And there’s, unfortunately, that TV-rather-than-reading feeling, which I mentioned about Freedom.

I do see some similarities between the two,  but I wouldn’t say they’re exactly the same kind of novel.

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It is a slow day in blogdom, or I wouldn’t dignify the following with a response.

Jennifer Weiner

Yesterday Salon published Teddy Wayne’s desperately-seeking-attention essay, “The Agony of the Male Novelist,” an attack on a blog entry by novelist Jennifer Weiner. He is annoyed that she revealed that of  254 works of fiction reviewed by The New York Times in 2011, 104, or 40.9 percent, were by women, and 150, or 59.1 percent, were by men.

Wayne says that Weiner is rich and successful (yes, she admits this, but is not reviewed in the NYT), that women writers make more money than men (no stats ), that the majority of fiction readers are women (there ARE stats to back that), that women belong to book clubs, and women writers are deliberately churning out book club books like The Help.

Oh, really?  Some book groups read The Help, but mine is reading Jane Austen.

And apparently women readers are really, really dumb, and only read junk.

My favorite part?

“..and being a midlist male author who writes about males is a distinct financial disadvantage. Not only will you not get reviewed in the Times, but you won’t get reviewed in the women’s magazines that drive sales, like People and O, the Oprah Magazine. Book clubs will ignore you. Barnes & Noble will relegate you to the back shelves. Your publisher won’t give you much support — if it even publishes your book in the first place. As a book-editor friend once admitted to me, “When we buy a debut novel by a man, we view it as taking a real chance.”

I love the unattributed book-editor quote–I put it in bold print so you wouldn’t miss it.

An embarrassment for Salon.

BOOKS I’M FINISHING. Yes, I’m still reading.

1.  Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe.  It’s not SF, as I mentioned before.  I’ve been reading this slowly, and am impressed by her characters’ brilliant dialogue about philosophy.  The narrator has a practical, funny, cynical outlook on genre fiction (she ghosts Y.A. SF), literary novels without plots (this is one), knitting (socks are hard), anthropology, infidelity, tarot cards, dogs, and New Age books.  The New Age books inspire her to write a feature on how New Age books’ instructions for dealing with the universe do and do not help–and the feature leads to success, directly or indirectly.  So asking the universe for help helps?

2.  Monica Dickens’s The Landlord’s Daughter.  This 1968 novel is less well-written than most of her books, and is like an outline of a violent novel by Ian McEwan.  When the narrator’s wife Charlie dies, he decides to write her story, ostensibly for her hippie daughter, Julia, who flew from Cape Cod to England to view the body but left before the funeral, upsetting him.  He and Charlie are curiously casual about crime:  the narrator becomes friends with a young musician who breaks into his house, and this fore-(or back-)shadows Charlie’s much more dangerous involvement as a young gym teacher with a murderer.  She had no boyfriend, and desperate, it seems.  I love most of Monica Dickens, but the writing isn’t very good here.  Can’t recommend it.

The Mystery Writers of America has announced the Edgar Award nominees for 2012 on Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday.

Best Novel: The Ranger by Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam’s Sons); Gone by Mo Hayder (Atlantic Monthly Press); The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Minotaur Books); 1222 by Anne Holt (Scribner); Field Gray by Philip Kerr (Marion Wood Books).

Best First Novel by an American Author: Red on Red by Edward Conlon (Spiegel & Grau); Last to Fold by David Duffy (Thomas Dunne Books); All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen (The Permanent Press); Bent Road by Lori Roy (Dutton); Purgatory Chasm by Steve Ulfelder (Thomas Dunne Books).

Best Paperback Original: The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit Books); The Faces of Angels by Lucretia Grindle (Felony & Mayhem Press); The Dog Sox by Russell Hill (Caravel Mystery Books); Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley (Harper); Vienna Twilight by Frank Tallis (Random House Trade Paperbacks).

Best Fact Crime: The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins (Crown); The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge by T.J. English (William Morrow); Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (Doubleday); Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender by Steve Miller (Penguin Group); The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter by Mark Seal (Viking).

Best Critical/Biographical: The Tattoed Girl: The Enigma of Steig Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of our Time by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg (St. Martin’s Griffin); Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making by John Curran (HarperCollins); On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda (Princeton University Press); Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film by Philippa Gates (SUNY Press); Scripting Hitchcock: Psycho, The Birds and Marnie by Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (University of Illinois Press).

Best Short Story: “Marley’s Revolution” – Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine by John C. Boland (Dell Magazines); “Tomorrow’s Dead” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by David Dean (Dell Magazines); “The Adakian Eagle” – Down These Strange Streets  by Bradley Denton (Penguin Group USA – Ace Books); “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” – Down These Strange Streets  by Diana Gabaldon (Penguin Group USA – Ace Books); “The Case of Death and Honey” – A Study in Sherlock by Neil Gaiman (Random House Publishing Group – Bantam Books); “The Man Who Took His Hat Off to the Driver of the Train” – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Peter Turnbull (Dell Magazines).

Best Juvenile: Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger (Abrams/Amulet); It Happened on a Train by Mac Barnett (Simon & Schuster); Vanished by Sheela Chari (Disney-Hyperion); Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic Press); The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey (Egmont USA).

Best Young Adult: Shelter by Harlan Coben (Putnam); The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (Putnam); The Silence of Murder by Dandi Daley Mackall (Knopf); The Girl Is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines (Roaring Brook); Kill You Last by Todd Strasser (Egmont USA).

The Simon & Schuster – Mary Higgins Clark Award: Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur Books); Come and Find Me by Hallie Ephron (William Morrow); Death on Tour by Janice Hamrick (Minotaur Books); Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry (Crown); Murder Most Persuasive by Tracy Kiely (Thomas Dunne Books).

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There is a Dickens Fellowship, a George Eliot Fellowship, a Winston Graham and Poldark Society, a Betsy-Tacy Society, a Philip Larkin Society, a Barbara Pym Society,  a Booth Tarkington Appreciation Society, and a Katherine Anne Porter Society.

Everybody has a society.

Why isn’t there a Pamela Hansford Johnson Society?

I started rereading Johnson’s A Summer to Decide after I learned it had been reissued as an ebook by Bello Macmillan.

This stunning novel, a chronicle of restlessness in relationships and work, should never have gone out of print.  The third in Johnson’s Helena trilogy, it can be read as a stand-alone, the story of Claud Pickering, an art critic struggling with inertia as he tries to make sense of his life.  (I myself started with the second volume, An Avenue of Stone, and then went back t the first, Too Dear for My Possessing).

And the trilogy reminds me slightly of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. Both are narrated in the form of reminiscences by intelligent male characters who possess a strong sense of irony; both weave psychological insights about love, marriage, adultery, art, and business into the narrative.   Powell’s sequence, published between 1950 and 1975, spans the 1920s to the ’70s, but Johnson’s, published between 1940 and 1948 and spanning roughly 25 years, came first, and I wonder if she influenced him. I do, however, prefer the voice of Johnson’s self-educated Claud Pickering to Powell’s public-school-Oxford-educated Nick Jenkins.   (But I would have to reread all these books to make good comparisons, so don’t take this too seriously.)

In A Summer to Decide, Claud, 38, is Hamletishly at loose ends, cushioned by money.  He plays at working at art galleries to learn the technical side of dealing.  He feels no need to commit to serious work or to a serious relationship.  And, later in the novel, his girlfriend, the beautiful, hard-working Ellen, dismisses his job as insignificant.

The truth is, work doesn’t define him as it does most men.  His life revolves around his family, particularly his stepmother, Helena, an Irish singer who,  years after morphing from mistress into respectable wifehood, intermittently brawls with her friends, adding  panache to otherwise dull, pre-scripted events.  Claud and Helena have a love-hate relationship:   hostile when he was in his teens, the relationship is now a bickering Oedipal alliance and odd cohabitation in London.  One senses that Claud will never be free while he lives with outrageous Helena.

Both are devoted to Helena’s daughter and his half-sister, Charmian, a kind, sociable, charming young woman whose liveliness has faded through the difficulties of  her marriage to Evan Sholto, a  drunken adulterer.  Evan pretends to go to “appointments” day and night looking for jobs, while living off Charmian’s money.  Charmian, pregnant and tormented, cannot break off the relationship, and when  Evan’s mother moves in, it becomes intolerable.

Near the beginning, Charmian goes to a nursing home to give birth to her daughter, while Helena, who has become unexpectedly ill, dies in a hospital.   Claud chose to visit Charmian instead of hurrying to see Helena when the doctor called—-life over death?  He has to live with that.  So he is now free and must redefine his life; Charmian, who hadn’t had a close relationship with  her mother, now  hears her voice when she must make decisions. Now that she has the baby  she badly wants a divorce.

We’ve seen the wrong relationships.  What happens when you have the wrong kind of work?  Claud, who has written a few books, is vaguely aware that he wastes himself at the gallery; the women in his life strongly disapprove of his dilettantism.

Charmian’s husband Evan really finds the wrong kind of work, and his dishonestly drags the family down into a quagmire of white-collar crime.

But of course it is Johnson’s intelligent, vivid writing that makes this book. great.  Here is Claud near the beginning meditating on his despair.

“For a long time I had been, not in a state of drift, for that implies movement of some sort, however, sluggish, but in a state of suspended living.  I had not been in particularly good health, and had lost weight.  My work seemed futile; I was pleased when Crandell fond me a job at one of the Bond Street galleries, because I had wanted to learn something of the technical side of picture dealing and connoisseurship, and had been content to take a small salary.  Now I could only see myself as one of the legion of the uselessly and futurelessly employed, sitting on a sun-warmed but very small rock in the middle of quicksands.”

Again, there is so much to these books.

Isabel Quigley, in her book Pamela Hansford Johnson, says:

“Possibly the three volumes of the trilogy [Too Dear for My Possessing, An Avenue of Stone, and A Summer to Decide] are together Pamela Hansford Johnson’s most impressive achievement.  In them, for the first time, she used the public and private lives—the outer and inner worlds—of her characters with complete assurance, and manipulated a large number of these characters and worlds, covering a wide social field, without any sense of strain.”

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