Librarians order books we want, don’t say Shh, and sometimes protect patrons’ civil liberties by putting reserved books in manila envelopes so no one can see what anyone else is reading (the Ames Public Library).
I just read two novels with librarian heroines: Elizabeth Berridge’s Sing Me Who You Are and Angela Lambert’s Love among the Single Classes. Neither book is quite a classic, but both are very good. In Berridge’s novel, the heroine hates being a librarian and leaves her job; in Lambert’s, the heroine doesn’t think about it much. But both have the training.
In Berridge’s beautifully-written novel, the protagonist, Harry, quits her librarian job to move with her two Siamese cats into a musty, moldy, leaky old bus she inherited from her Aunt Esther. Located in a field near her cousin Magda’s big house, the bus is considered by the locals as an impractical, eccentric habitat.
Harry is not surprised when her cousin Magda shows up to protest and asks what Harry will do if Magda sells the field. Harry, who has never married and is considered plain, can’t help but be pleased that domineering Magda has lost her tweedy good looks, and that she “had not so much disintegrated…as set, into middle age.”
Magda says that Harry won’t stay anyway in the winter, and that Harry will need a job.
Harry says, outraged:
Has it ever occurred to you that I’m bloody fed up having a job? I was stuck in that damned library for fifteen years, and half of that was working at exams. I want to feel free and think about what to do.”
At first she enjoys the experience of living in the bus. The woods and fields are beautiful, she plays with her cats, she reads a lot of poetry, and gets involved with Gregg, Magda’s husband.
Magda, who is on the City Council and is involved in a complicated land development deal, practically throws Gregg at Harry, asking her to keep him company while he waits for a doctor’s report on his loss of vision.
The two have an affair, and obviously Harry’s assessment of her own looks is wrong, because other men in the village also find her attractive. She thinks she is
a tallish, near-sighted woman with fading red hair and a bully-boy assurance. She should have been big and jolly; once she had been; a child with an open clear look. Now, landing where she had chosen, she felt lumpish and sad and deflated by the finality of arrival. And she walked alone in the field that had once blazed with yellow mustard followed by her two cats, who leaped over the ticklish grasses on the verge, fearing abandon. So she was not quite alone.
Parts of the book are told in the form of tapes of memories of an old friend Scrubbs, who lived with Harry’s family for a while as a child, and was later a fellow POW with Gregg in World War II a Japanese camp. Scrubbs died after the war (accident or suicide?) and is missed by both. But I don’t think tapes are the best way to portray this part of the book
Most of it works, however, Berridge.writes graceful, lyrical prose, and I will be reading more of her books.
Lambert’s novel has a different take on librarians. In Love among the Single Classes, the narrator, Constance Liddell, a divorced librarian, falls madly in love with Iwo, a Polish refugee who advertises in the paper for a wife. Constance is lonely: she is 44, has three children, one of whom still lives at home, and is afraid she’ll go the rest of the life without being touched.
In the six years since my divorce, eight since Paul, my husband, left me, I have seen my chances of becoming a wife again diminishing fast. The brave ideals of feminism, which I discovered and embraced wholeheartedly as a single woman, can’t alter the ageing process, or the bitter truth that very few men consider women over forty to be desirable…. Of course women in their twenties and thirties are firmer and tauter in face and body: but can that make up for the lack of parallel experience?
Most of the novel is narrated by Constance, and I love her voice, her intensity, and her humor. Her librarianship is the background to her emotional life, and her colleagues tease her about her love life.
But Constance’s experience with Iwo is heartbreaking. She loves; Iwo does not. He treats her horribly, and yet she can’t resist his charm.
One short part of the novel is narrated by middle-aged Iwo, and his voice is not as convincing as Constance’s: He is an austere, frigid (though not sexually frigid) character, a former economics professor who is now doing a manual job and living in a rented room in England with no hope of finding a good job. He is seeing two women, and prefers Joanna, the beautiful 35-year-old Polish-English woman who wants to marry him,. He also fantasizes about going back to Poland to live with his wife, who doesn’t encourage this.
Constance’s voice is stronger. I love her descriptions of winter and amazing (to me) love of Christmas, when she pays close attention to decorations and gifts, and makes a happy Christmas for her family, her ex- and his girlfriend, and Iwo, who basically despises Constance but gets along with her husband.
Lambert’s novel is unflinching and thoughtful, if slightly uneven, and I liked it very much.