BOOK REVIEWS

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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Severance by Ling Ma

“To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

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Ayoade on Top by Richard Ayoade — book review

Ayoade on Top is a hilariously strange book. Richard Ayoade’s critical analysis of ‘View from the Top’ (a 2003 romcom starring Gwyneth Paltrow) is a delight to read. Throughout the course of this short book Ayoade argues that this long-forgotten film is a modern masterpiece.
I found Ayoade’s dry wit and his clever observations regarding the film’s many ‘subtexts’ and his asides on Paltrow’s career to be ‘on point’. Ayoade’s humour may not be for everyone but I found Ayoade on Top to be a thoroughly diverting book.
You can watch him talk of this book here.
I would definitely recommend this to those who like in-depth takedowns of bad movies. Adroit, satirical, and whimsical, Ayoade on Top is a really entertaining read.

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

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“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton — book review

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“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

As many readers have already pointed out, there is little mirth to be found in The House of Mirth (and I thought that The Age of Innocence and Summer had despairing endings…what a misguided fool).
As with the majority of her works, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is chiefly concerned with depicting the conflict between social and individual fulfilment, and it focuses on the experiences of American’s upper social class during the turn of the last century.
Wharton demonstrates incredible social nuance in her almost anthropological-like study of New York’s elite society. Her commentary regarding the prevailing behaviours found within this group of people is insightful, satirical, and witty. Her portrayal of this privileged class emphasises its pettiness, giving us the impression that beneath their refined appearances and manners lies hatred, envy, and hypocrisy. Wharton throws light upon the discordance between their behaviour and their values. They are little more than jealous gossips, ready to temporarily forget their strict sense of propriety if it means to tarnish someone else’s reputation. It’s very much an every person for themselves type of world (or as I like to call it, a shark eat shark kind of world). Someone’s ruin or misfortune might not result directly to your advantage but it’s guaranteed to entertain (and possibly detract attention from your own ongoings).
This group of selfish and wealthy individuals make for a rather unhealthy environment. Yet, socialite Lily Bart, strives to belong to it. While this is a story that follow’s a woman’s unsuccessful attempts at social climbing to define it simply as such doesn’t do it justice. Throughout the course of the narrative Wharton constructs and deconstructs Lily’s character, making her into much more than a social climber. Lily’s story provides a keenly observed social commentary, and Wharton does so without employing a heavily didactic or moralistic tone.
Throughout the course of her novel Wharton interrogates themes of gender and class. The narrative’s discourse of personal vs. social identity is epitomised by its main character, Lily Bart, and by her eventual downward path (view spoiler). Alongside her satire of New York’s high society, with its oppressive customs and its pretence at niceties, Wharton criticises binary thinking. Unlike her characters, Wharton does not pass judgement on Lily’s transgressions, rather she makes her protagonist’s changing circumstances make her aware of the way in which her values have brought about her own ruin. Although Lily is not painted as the story’s victim, the narrative informs readers of the limited options available to women in Lily’s position.9780140187298.jpg

Lily Bart is one of the many tragic heroines who is ruined by her own materialism and romanticism. These fictional women are often frivolous (Rosamond Vincy), selfish (Emma Bovary), inclined to transgress social norms (Sula Peace), mostly concerned with their own economic elevation (Becky Sharp), and often branded as evil or regarded unsympathetically. Yet, Lily’s character subverts notions of good and bad, as Wharton does not seem to equate her protagonist’s self-interest with vice. While other characters within this novel are quick to label and condemn Lily, we read of her various internal struggles (whom she wants to be vs. who others want her to be) and of her many ill-fated attempts at love and happiness.
Lily very much plays a role in many of her relationships, making herself into what others want her to be. Above all she is an actress, a performer. Yet, her self-fashioning aggravates the disconnect between who she is and who she pretends to be (and often results in problematic situations in which others expect her to do or act in a way that goes against her wishes).
Lily’s solipsistic nature did not make her into an unlikable character. Even when she seems to exhibit the same hypocrisy as those she criticises, I still found her to be a beguiling individual. While her debts are certainly a consequence of her own materialistic desires, if not opulent impulses, we come to understand the significance that appearances (such as one’s dresses) play in one’s fortune and reputation. Lily can charm those in her circle as long as she continues to live a certain lifestyle, she has to keep up with their expensive tastes and habits.
Lily often falls prey to ennui, a boredom that is tied to a sense of sublime potential, one that makes her feel superior to her environment. Lily is frequently unsatisfied by those paths that are open to her: to Lily, marrying a dull man would inevitably result in a life of ‘mediocrity’ and, more important still, in a restriction of her freedom.
So Lily remains adamant in her certainty that she been cast into the wrong role (or life), believing instead that she deserves to live as freely as she pleases, possibly married a man who is both sophisticated and wealthy, and more importantly surrounded by riches. While she certainly longs to and works toward belonging to this upper crust, she finds them to be both petty and shallow, and is often repulsed by their bad tastes, appearance, and behaviour.
This sense of self-importance allows her to manipulate those around her. Lily is a schemer, prone to self-pitying, and not very emphatic. Yet it is her very cleverness and charm that make into a formidable figure.
The novel mostly focuses on Lily’s attempts to find wealth (whether this is through a husband or fortune, she initially doesn’t seem to mind), and the way in which her plans often backfire. As her reputation is shredded beyond all repair, Lily slowly begins to reconsider herself, her values, and her past actions. Her character’s development is realised through extensive acts of introspection, and Wharton’s narration lends itself beautifully to Lily’s self-analysing.

What more can I say write? This story is populated by gamblers and gossips, who are eager to use and walk over Lily (and I hated them, how I hated them), but there are those who show compassion and love towards her. And yes, I am a sucker for a doomed romance (not sure if that makes me a romantic or a bit of masochist).
In spite of its satirical tone, this novel tells tragic story. (view spoiler)

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton — book review

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“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

A few months ago I read Edith Wharton’s novella, Summer. Although I thought its obliqueness to be rather fascinating, I was frustrated by its relatively short length, and thought that the characters would have benefitted from having some more depth. The Age of Innocence, by comparison, is a much more detailed story, one that focused on a cast of interesting characters, who regardless of their likability, struck me as incredibly realistic. Through their words, mannerism, and motivations, Wharton makes her characters into fully formed individuals.

Newland Archer is one of the novel’s central figures. Archer is a gentleman lawyer who will soon announce his favourable marriage to the young May Welland. All is seemingly well until May’s cousin returns to America to escape from an inauspicious marriage to a Polish Count. Rumours and gossip abound, and to begin with Archer is merely vexed by the attention that his social circle seems to paying to her. Yet, he soon becomes intrigued by the way in which Countess Ellen Olenska seems either oblivious or uncaring of the rules of civility that dictated New York during the 1870s.

For the majority of the narrative Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska exhibit great restraint over their attraction and romantic feelings for one another. Their relationship is one that is punctuated by periods of tenderness, broodiness, fascination, and abnegation. There are stretches of time in which they hardly see one another, and yet they remain quietly devoted to the other.
Archer, through the tumultuous passion he harbours towards Countess Olenska, seeks to escape, if not transcend, from the artificiality and limitations he perceives within his society. Countess Olenska becomes his objet petit a, that is an unattainable object of desire, who he desperately longs for perhaps because he knows that a future with her would be impossible. It is the very act of longing for her that allows him to envision a future free of all that he finds wanting in May Welland his actual fiancee.

It is the very forbidden nature of his feelings for Countess Olenska that seems to inflame his passion for her. He assigns to her the role of ‘beloved other’, regarding their ‘affair’ as an inescapable outcome of their ‘true love’.
Alienated by the majority of her relatives, regarded as ‘other’, Countess Olenska is lonely and unhappy. I admired both her strengths and her weaknesses, and found her to be on of the few characters to actually have dignity. Even in America, in other continent from the Count, she seems unable to escape from the shadow of their unhappy marriage. In Archer she finds an ally of sorts, yet, her experiences prevent her from falling into old patterns.
Archer, on the other hand, attempts to escape from the strictures imposed on him by his family, acquaintances, and New York’spolitesociety, by engaging in an illicit affair which if made public would likely ruin his reputation and career. In his feelings for Countess Olenska, Archer experiences a romantic love untethered by concepts of duty and tradition; while his engagement with May is dictated by notions of propriety and decorum, Archer believes that his relationship with Countess Olenska is unaffected by the social constraints and rituals that otherwise mar his existence.
Archer’s interactions with Countess Olenska provide him with a taste of freedom: while his conversations with the naive and sheltered May are interspersed with platitudes and empty phrases, Archer’s exchanges with Countess Olenska—even when consisting of a couple of words—seem to carry depths of meaning. Her language, as well as her very glances and expressions, are loaded with ‘real’ emotions, emotions which Archer believes to be absent in May. His fiancee’s personality seems to him a blank slate, one that he ought to fill.

In spite of his dishonesty readers will find it difficult to condemn or judge Archer. Tired of the formulaic dynamics of his world, burdened by ennui and disenchantment, Archer feels truly awake and alive when he is in the proximity of Countess Olenska. He grows jealous of men such as Julius Beaufort and often makes unfavourable comparison between Countess and May.
The difficulties Archer and the Countess experience are often a result of their own preoccupation with one another. They always perceive something or someone to be in the way of a possible future together (May, Count Olenski, the Mingotts, the scandal itself).
As the narrative progresses we begin to see that Archer’s impression of the falsehoods within his society and of other people’s character may not be as clear-cut as he thinks. For example, Archer believes that May’s ‘ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination’. Her later actions however suggests that her ‘intuitions’ may be more deliberate than accidental.
The novel examines the way in which desire and happiness are obstructed and influenced by social conventions and notions of duty (what Archer wants for himself vs. what society wants for Archer). Yet, Wharton doesn’t suggest that a union between Archer and Countess Olenska would have a harmonious outcome.
It is the very fact that their romance is ‘doomed’, weighed down by denial, guilt, and regret, that makes it all the more ‘sublime’, it is the pain that accompanies their unfulfilled love makes it all the more vivid.
While Archer’s relationship to May seems to consist of perfunctory speeches (ones which, much to Archer’s displeasure, echo those between May’s own parents), his interactions with Countess Olenska are often ‘clandestine’, which is why they leave such a lasting impression on him. If urgency and secrecy no longer enveloped their meetings, would Archer feel the same passion for the Countess?
In one of the very first pages we are told that Archer was “at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”. Paradoxically, Archer draws more pleasure from the act of yearning, for something or someone, than from having or experiencing that which he yearns for. In other words, the idea of a future union with the Countess seems to Archer better than an actual union with her. This deferral of his own satisfaction brings about a painful sort of happiness—what could be described as jouissance, that is a ‘backhanded enjoyment’—as it it the very act of longing for the Countess that enables him to entertain the idea that a true and meaningful union can be possible. However, later on in the narrative, Archer seems to want to break free from this self-sabotaging (that is of finding fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment).
The narrative, and the characters themselves, seems to have a certain foreknowledge regarding the outcome of this affair. Still, even if we know what their romance will lead to, we still feel invested in their relationship and it is up to the reader to decided whether Archer and the Countess are victims of their time and circumstances or whether they are the ones responsible for their own misfortune.

Wharton’s rendition of 1870s New York is a strikingly nostalgic one. Yet, in spite of the wistful tone the narrative has towards this Gilded Age, Archer’s story critiques the way in which the customs of his time perpetuated this ideal of a ‘pure’ bride, one whose innocence was, if not performed, carefully fabricated by those around her.

“Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Wharton’s commentary on class and gender emphasised the way in which individuals were restricted by the time’s social norms. The story also presents us with a compelling interplay of duty and desire, of hope and dissatisfaction, and of passion and indifference. The contrast between American and European values seems to be embodied by the two women in Archer’s life: May (as the American ideal) and Countess Olenska (as the worldly, if not ‘exotic’, European).

While there are countless of literary works featuring alienated heroes and ill-fated lovers, The Age of Innocence can offer its readers with a particularly piercing narrative that is written in Wharton’s carefully elaborated prose. Her elegant writing style perfectly lends itself to the ironic and serious tones of her story. The very words Wharton chooses seem to possess a contemplative quality that capture with painful clarity Archer’s feelings for the Countess.
This was an incredibly poignant novel that I will definitely be revisiting again (my heart has to recover first).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Grand Union: Stories by Zadie Smith — book review

9780241337028.jpgGrand Union: Stories was one of the most insufferable collections of short stories I’ve ever read.
While I do think that Zadie Smith is a good writer I wonder whether she is one in actual practice…sadly I’m starting to think that she will never write something that I will be able to actually appreciate.
Her stories present us with a murky blend of satire and wokeness, which strive to be thought-provoking and ambivalent ‘hot takes‘ on present issues but, more often than not, seem closer to drafts for a creative writing workshop.

These short stories are so focused on critiquing a certain subject that they neglect all other components. To make a certain ‘point’ or to pass as ‘shockingly’ candid narratives, these stories resort to unfunny caricatures and explicit scenes (which are shocking for the sake of being shocking).
Smith combines a mixture of topical or ‘in‘ things such as Tumblr (there is a short story that pokes fun at it through a series of posts that seem as if taken directly by Tumblr itself…how does that qualify as satire?) that go at odds with the erudite references and elaborate speculations that punctuate these narratives.
There were also many phrases that just struck me as unnecessarily contrived: such as “It was true. What the woman had said was true, in intention, but what the girl had said was true, too, in reality” and “For a fatherless family, The Dialectic as theirs now was, this collective aspect was the perfect camouflage. There were no individual people here”.
In spite of their short length, these stories dragged. The first one, perhaps the shortest in the collection, was the least offensive one….the rest seemed to last past their ‘punch line’. For example, a story focused on a certain type of British tourist (a Brexiteer group who goes to Spain to eat British food and float in a pool/river all day) is rather clumsily narrated (the ‘we’ and ‘us’ tried to make them into some sort of multi-conscious collective) and within a few lines resorts to repetition as a way of stressing their poor behaviour.
A story that could have presented us with a woman’s struggle to reconcile herself with her sexuality (in that she wants to dominate rather than submit or be equal to her partner) ends up being little more than a needlessly graphic tale(I don’t mind explicit scenes if they have some sort of purpose/impact or if they are smoothly incorporated within the rest of the narrative) that seems to close to Fifty Shades of Grey for my comfort (view spoiler). Not only did it strike me as being crass just for the sake of being crass but it was also full of corny repetitions ( we get it, she wants to “nullify his flesh in hers”)
This is one shallow collection of stories that seem to exude smugness (yet they are not as clever as they set themselves to be). There is no heart or depth within them, and the characters seem mere sketches that exist only to offer a certain, often idiotic, viewpoint (white, conservative, middle-class women are the worst, we get it). In these stories people suck, the world is terrible, and we should all have a laugh at the expenses of other people’s interests or beliefs.
You might be able to appreciate this one if you are a ‘hardcore‘ Zadie Smith fan…but if you have are not too keen on her writing you might want to skip this one.

A last pearl of wisdom from Smith: “And that’s all a year actually is—a series of months that jump four at a time”.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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