Unfinished Portrait by Mary Westmacott

May’s theme for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is ‘betrayal’ and the suggested title this month is Unfinished Portrait, a 1934 novel which is one of six books Christie published under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Although I haven’t managed to take part in the challenge every month so far this year, I was particularly keen to join in with this one as I’ve previously only read one Westmacott novel – Giant’s Bread – and have been looking forward to reading more of them ever since.

Unfinished Portrait begins by briefly introducing us to Larraby, a portrait painter who is visiting an unnamed island when he comes across a woman sitting alone in a garden. Sensing that something is wrong, Larraby engages her in conversation and discovers that he is correct – she is intending to commit suicide. Not wanting to leave her alone, he accompanies her back to her hotel and listens as she tells him the story of her life and explains the sequence of events that have put such desperate thoughts into her head.

The woman’s name is Celia – at least that’s what Larraby calls her, as he doesn’t know her real name – and her story forms the main part of the novel. A lot of time is spent on Celia’s sheltered childhood, growing up in the late Victorian period in a comfortable home with servants and a nanny until the family’s financial position is affected by the early death of Celia’s father. I only know the basics about Agatha Christie as a person, but apparently Unfinished Portrait is semi-autobiographical, drawing on her own childhood memories to create Celia’s tales of inventing imaginary friends, time spent abroad due to her father’s poor health, the close relationships she had with her mother and grandmother and her first attempts at writing books. Later, Celia finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage to Dermot, a man who is insensitive, controlling and eventually unfaithful – which again is based on Agatha’s own marriage to Archie Christie. If I’d been more familiar with Christie’s own life I would have appreciated the autobiographical element of the book a lot more, which would probably have added to my enjoyment of it, but I still found Celia’s story compelling in its own right.

After finishing the book, I could see how it fits the challenge topic for this month, exploring the theme of betrayal from several different angles: Dermot betrays Celia with another woman, Celia herself betrays a previous lover, and later in life she feels she has betrayed her daughter. All of these betrayals combine to cause the deterioration in Celia’s mental state that leads to her feeling so unhappy the day she meets Larraby. It’s a sad and emotional story – even sadder knowing that it was how Christie felt about her own situation at that time. Of course, the book was published in the 1930s and so it’s an ‘unfinished portrait’, leaving a lot of things in Celia’s life (and Christie’s) unresolved and incomplete.

I found this book quite different from Giant’s Bread, the only other Westmacott book I’ve read, and I think I preferred that one overall. I’m definitely more of a Christie fan than a Westmacott fan, but these are still great books and I’m looking forward to reading the other four.

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – #DDMReadingWeek

This week HeavenAli is hosting another of her Daphne du Maurier Reading Weeks, assisted by Liz who is collecting the links this year. As you may know, du Maurier is one of my favourite authors; I have now read all of her novels and short story collections at least once and some of her non-fiction (I attempted to rank them all in this post, just for fun). For this year’s Reading Week I’ve decided to re-read her 1957 novel The Scapegoat, which is one I particularly loved when I first read it back in 2011 (here’s my original review). I’ve wanted to read it again ever since, not just because I enjoyed it so much, but also because I formed a theory about what was actually happening in the book and I was curious to see whether I would feel the same way on a second read. I’ll discuss this later in this post, but don’t worry – I’ll include a spoiler warning for those of you who haven’t read the book yet.

The novel opens in Le Mans where our narrator, John, an English academic, is on holiday. When he meets a man who looks and sounds just like him at the station, he feels an instant connection with him and after spending the evening drinking and talking, he accompanies the other man back to his hotel room. He learns that his new friend is a French count, Jean de Gué, and that they have something else in common – they are both depressed and dissatisfied with life, John because he is lonely and has no family, Jean because he has a large family, all of whom are causing him problems. As the night wears on, John falls into a drunken stupor and when he wakes up the next day his companion has disappeared, taking all of John’s clothes and possessions with him and leaving his own in their place.

When Jean’s chauffeur arrives, ready to drive him home to his château in the French countryside, John begins to protest, explaining that there has been a mistake – but then, on an impulse, he decides to take this opportunity to leave his old life behind for a while and continue to impersonate Jean de Gué. On reaching Jean’s château, John finds that nobody suspects he is an impostor and he is able to take Jean’s place within the family. He also begins to understand why Jean had said his family life was so difficult – there are all sorts of tensions and conflicts between various members of the family and to make things worse, the de Gué glassworks is facing financial ruin. It’s up to John to put things right, if he can.

I enjoyed this read of The Scapegoat as much as my first. If you take everything at face value, of course, it requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Not only do John and Jean look completely identical, so much so that not even Jean’s mother, wife or daughter guess the truth, but they also sound exactly the same (and John’s French is so fluent that nobody suspects a thing). Is this likely? Of course not, but it provides du Maurier with her starting point for this fascinating novel and it’s perfectly possible to just accept the plot for what it is and enjoy the story. After all, it’s no more ridiculous than the book that apparently inspired this one – Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. And as always with a du Maurier novel, you can expect beautiful descriptions, a strong sense of place and interesting, if not necessarily very likeable, characters.

*My Scapegoat theory (includes spoilers)*

When I first read this book in 2011, I found myself beginning to wonder – what if John and Jean weren’t doubles after all? What if there was only one man, with multiple personalities (now known as dissociative identity disorder)? It makes so much more sense to me that Jean, feeling that he has made a mess of his life, has created a new identity to deal with the problems he has caused for himself. At the end of the book, when everything has been resolved, he has no further need of John and although it’s not clear exactly how much Jean has learned and how he will manage his relationships and business affairs in the future, he feels that he can now cope on his own. He tells John that he has emptied John’s bank account, sold his flat and furniture in London and resigned John’s position as university lecturer – in other words, destroyed John altogether, because John never really existed and is no longer necessary.

After finishing the book on that first occasion, I remember looking at other reviews and being surprised that almost nobody else had mentioned that any of this had occurred to them too. I accepted that I must have misunderstood the whole book; however, the Daphne du Maurier website quotes a letter written by Daphne herself regarding The Scapegoat which seems to support my interpretation. Her reference to ‘that man’s nature’ doesn’t really make sense to me if there were actually two separate men in the book.

“Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other? This is the purpose of the book. And it ends, as you know, with the problem unsolved, except that the suggestion there, when I finished it, was that the two sides of that man’s nature had to fuse together to give birth to a third, well balanced.”

On reading the book for a second time, I have been paying closer attention and looking for subtle clues and hints. There are just three main obstacles in the way of my theory. First, there’s Jean’s dog, César, who is hostile towards John and the only member of the household who seems to sense that something is wrong. However, when Jean and John meet up again at the end of the book, Jean explains that John hasn’t been whistling to César in the correct way and this is why he hasn’t been obeying his commands. Also, during a scene in a hospital, we are told that Jean is blood group O and John is blood group A – but as it’s John himself who tells us this I don’t think it can be taken as conclusive evidence of anything. The only thing I can’t manage to explain away is that when Jean calls the château to inform John that he’s coming home, it’s a servant who answers the phone and tells John that someone wants to speak to him. If it wasn’t for this one moment, I would have been nearly convinced that I was right!

I did find plenty of things to support my theory, including the fact that, when speaking to Jean’s family for the first time, John finds that the ‘tu‘ form of French comes naturally to him, although he’s never used it before; the way John muses that Jean’s ‘inner substance was part of my nature, part of my secret self’; and in particular, the whole conversation he has with Jean’s mistress, Béla, in Chapter 12.

‘You said something a while ago about taking stock of oneself,’ I said. ‘Perhaps that’s just what I’ve been doing, over a period of time, and it came to a head that evening in Le Mans. The self I knew had failed. The only way to escape responsibility for failure was to become someone else. Let another personality take charge.’

‘The other Jean de Gué,’ she said, ‘the one who’s been hidden for so long beneath the surface gaiety and charm, I’ve often wondered if he existed. If he’s going to emerge, he’d better do so now. Time’s getting on.’

What do you think?

*End of spoilers*

Overall, after finishing my second read of the book, I think probably the way everyone else has interpreted it is the correct way, but du Maurier does like to be ambiguous and I enjoyed looking below the surface and dissecting the different layers! It really is a fascinating novel and still one of my favourites by du Maurier. Now I just need to find time to revisit some of her others!

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge – #1940Club

This week Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their very popular clubs in which we all read and write about books published in the same year. It’s 1940 Club this time and I’ve decided to start with a book by an author I already know and love – Elizabeth Goudge. The Bird in the Tree is the first in her trilogy of books about the Eliot family who live at Damerosehay, a house on the south coast of England.

It was the widowed Lucilla Eliot who had first chosen to make her home here, in this little shipbuilding village in Hampshire, but Damerosehay has now become a sanctuary for the whole family. As the novel opens, in the autumn of 1938, Lucilla’s son George has separated from his wife and their three young children have been sent to stay with their grandmother. Lucilla’s maid and beloved companion Ellen, her middle-aged daughter Margaret, and two very different dogs – Pooh-Bah and the Bastard – complete the household, while nearby lives Lucilla’s son, Hilary, the village parson.

At the beginning of the novel, the family are awaiting the arrival of another of Lucilla’s grandsons, twenty-five-year-old David. David’s father, Lucilla’s favourite son, died at the end of the Great War and he and his grandmother have always been very close. George’s children love David too and are excited about their cousin coming home to Damerosehay. However, David’s visit is destined to be an unhappy one this time. He has fallen in love with George’s ex-wife, Nadine – his aunt by marriage – and plans to marry her. David is dreading breaking the news to Lucilla, let alone his three little cousins, and knows he will be forced to choose between his feelings for Nadine and his love for his home and family.

Although this is a book for adults, Goudge writes about children with a lot of depth and understanding. In this book, we have nine-year-old Ben, gentle, sensitive, with a vivid imagination; his younger brother, the robust and mischievous Tommy, his complete opposite in every way; and five-year-old Caroline, a quiet, withdrawn child who sucks her thumb and wants only to feel loved by her mother. The adult characters are equally well drawn. I particularly liked Lucilla’s two unmarried children, Margaret and Hilary, dismissed by their mother for being a ‘dowdy frump’ and ‘stout and bald’, respectively, but who have both decided that even though their lives haven’t gone quite the way they had hoped, they’re going to make the best of things and find happiness wherever they can. Nadine is another character who interested me; she is also disapproved of by Lucilla for being too independent and worldly, but the two begin to find some common ground by the end of the book.

Goudge’s descriptive writing is always beautiful and in this novel she brings the fictional Hampshire village of Fairhaven to life with details of local customs, history and legends, basing it on the real village of Buckler’s Hard on the banks of the Beaulieu River. She makes the setting feel almost dreamlike, especially as there are a few elements of the story that are nearly, but not quite, supernatural. Several of the family members, including Lucilla, David, Ben and Caroline, have such a close affinity with Damerosehay and Fairhaven that they begin to experience visions and ghostly encounters, but these appear to be within their imaginations rather than real. There’s also a recurring motif of birds, particularly blue birds, which explains the novel’s title.

This novel, like Goudge’s others, feels very sentimental and quite dated, especially in its views on subjects like divorce and marriage, but I enjoyed it anyway. Towers in the Mist is still my favourite of her books – I loved the beautiful depiction of Elizabethan Oxford – but I’m looking forward to reading the other two books in this trilogy, The Herb of Grace and The Heart of the Family.

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry – #ReadingIrelandMonth23

Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; he writes beautifully and I’ve loved some of his previous books – in fact, the only one I’ve read that I didn’t like much was Days Without End, mainly because the subject (army life in the American West during the Indian Wars) didn’t really appeal to me. His new novel, Old God’s Time, has a very different setting – Ireland in the 1990s – and I hoped it would be another good one.

Old God’s Time is the story of Tom Kettle, a recently retired police detective who lives in the annex of a castle in Dalkey, a coastal resort to the southeast of Dublin. The castle overlooks the Irish Sea and Tom is finding some contentment in the quietness and solitude of his retirement…until, one day, two younger policeman arrive at his door. They are reopening an historic case Tom worked on in the 1960s and they want to hear his thoughts on it.

Forced to confront moments from his past that he would have preferred to forget, Tom begins to remember. He remembers his beloved wife June and his two children Joseph and Winnie, all now dead, in separate tragic incidents. He remembers his career as a detective and his time in the army. And he remembers that terrible, disturbing thirty-year-old case, linked to one of the darkest episodes in Ireland’s recent history.

When I first read the blurb for this book, it sounded like a crime novel, but being familiar with Sebastian Barry’s work, I knew it would probably be something quite different! In fact, the crime element is pushed into the background until much later in the book, and instead we spend time inside Tom’s head, watching him go about his daily business while memories fleet in and out of his mind, almost at random. The memories don’t come to him chronologically, but in a haphazard, disordered way and sometimes it is unclear whether he is even remembering things accurately. This doesn’t make for easy reading and I spent the first half of the novel feeling very confused. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ writing is not my favourite style at the best of times and although it does usually work for me in Barry’s novels, I wasn’t won over until the second half of the book. From that point, I was gripped.

The story that does eventually unfold in Old God’s Time is very sad and very grim. It’s a subject that is painful and difficult to read about, but it’s one that needs to be discussed and not ignored. My heart broke for Tom, June and the other characters, but at the same time it’s not a completely miserable book and the beautiful descriptions of the Irish landscape provide a bit of respite from the sadness of the story. I didn’t like this book as much as The Secret Scripture or On Canaan’s Side, but it’s a powerful novel and one I’m pleased I read.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

I’m counting this towards Reading Ireland Month 2023, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

The Efficiency Expert by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs is not an author I’ve ever considered reading; neither his Tarzan series nor his John Carter of Mars books have ever appealed and I hadn’t thought to look into what else he had written. The Efficiency Expert was suggested by one of my blog readers (thank you, Cheryl!) and it proved to be an excellent recommendation. The book was published in 1921 and seems to be one of only a few novels Burroughs wrote about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.

Jimmy Torrance is in his final year at university when he discovers that, having devoted his time to football, baseball and boxing instead of his studies, he is now in danger of failing his course. After working hard for the rest of the semester, he manages to get his diploma and ‘would have graduated at the head of his class had the list been turned upside down’. Unimpressed, his father orders him to come home before he can acquire any more debt, but Jimmy heads for Chicago instead, determined to get a good job and make his father proud of him.

Arriving in Chicago, Jimmy begins to look for work but soon finds that his college education counts for nothing without any experience. Forced to accept that nobody is going to employ him as an office boy, let alone the general manager’s position he had hoped for, he embarks on a series of increasingly embarrassing jobs including selling ladies’ hosiery in a department store and working as a waiter in a disreputable nightclub. Eventually, just as he reaches his lowest ebb, he is offered the position of ‘efficiency expert’ in a factory. Things seem to be looking up at last – but when he notices a discrepancy in the company’s accounts, he must decide whether to act and risk losing the only good job he’s ever had.

The first half of the book is entertaining and quite amusing as Jimmy stumbles from one disastrous job to another, while repeatedly encountering two young women who are mystified to find him serving at tables one day and driving a milk wagon the next. Jimmy is very naïve when he first arrives in Chicago, assuming that as a graduate he will be able to walk straight into any job, and his story will resonate with other young people who have had to work their way up from the bottom. I admired him for not asking his rich family and friends for help, which would have made things easier for him, but it’s this same sense of pride and integrity that results in him losing or leaving job after job.

Jimmy makes two new friends in Chicago – a pickpocket and safe-breaker known as the Lizard, and Little Eva, a prostitute he meets during his nightclub job – both of whom become better people due to their association with Jimmy. There’s a clear message here that decent people can be found in all walks of life and nobody is beyond redemption if they are only given a chance. The more privileged characters in the book (or some of them anyway) are not shown in such a good light! There’s a romantic element to the story too, with Jimmy having three possible love interests. The one he ends up with is neither the one I’d hoped for nor the one I’d expected, but at least that means the book isn’t completely predictable!

After Jimmy starts working as an efficiency expert, the story takes a different turn and the book becomes more of a thriller than the light comedy it had seemed at the beginning. It’s exciting for a while, but I thought it fell apart slightly at the end, with characters who had become inconvenient to the plot being too easily disposed of and loose ends tied up too neatly. Still, this book was fun to read and although I’m still not drawn to Tarzan or the science fiction novels, I’m pleased to have found an Edgar Rice Burroughs book that I did want to read and did enjoy.

If you have trouble finding a copy of this book, it’s available through Project Gutenberg.

The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder (tr. James Anderson) – #NordicFINDS23

What is this great fairytale we live in and which each of us is only permitted to experience for such a short time? Maybe the space telescope will help us to understand more of the nature of this fairytale one day. Perhaps out there, behind the galaxies, lies the answer to what a human being is.

It’s been years since I last read anything by Jostein Gaarder! I loved Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, which I read around the time they were published in English in the mid-1990s, but although I read a few more of his books after that I found them disappointing in comparison and didn’t explore any of his later work. This month, Annabel is hosting her second Nordic FINDS event, celebrating literature from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try one of the Gaarder novels I never got round to reading.

First published in Norwegian in 2003 and translated into English by James Anderson the following year, The Orange Girl is narrated by Georg Røed, a fifteen-year-old boy whose father, Jan Olav, died eleven years earlier. Georg’s mother has married again and had another child and Georg gets on well enough with both, but he has never stopped wondering about the father he can barely remember. One day, Georg’s grandmother finds a letter written by Jan Olav before his death and addressed to Georg, intended for his son to read when he was old enough to understand it. The Orange Girl includes Jan Olav’s letter in full, interspersed with Georg’s reaction to it and the lessons he learns from it.

In the letter, Jan Olav tells the story of a young woman he meets in Oslo in the 1970s. He comes to think of her as ‘the Orange Girl’ because when he sees her for the first time on a tram, she is wearing an orange dress and carrying a large bag of oranges. When the tram stops, she disappears, leaving Jan Olav desperate to find her again. As the weeks and months go by, he becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious Orange Girl and discovering her true identity. Who is she? Why did she need so many oranges? And why is it important for Georg to hear her story so many years later?

On the surface, The Orange Girl is a quick, easy read. Being narrated by a teenage boy, it’s written in simple language (Georg actually feels more like a ten or eleven-year-old than a fifteen-year-old), and like many of Gaarder’s novels, it would be perfect for younger readers. The story of the Orange Girl is entertaining and amusing – particularly when Jan Olav creates a series of imaginary scenarios to explain the huge bag of oranges! I would have liked to have been given a stronger sense of place as Jan Olav follows the girl from Oslo to Seville and back again, but it wasn’t that sort of book; it’s concerned mainly with plot and ideas rather than setting.

However, anyone who has read any of Gaarder’s other books will know that they always contain a philosophical element, and this one is no different. Georg and his father share an interest in the Hubble Space Telescope, which leads to a lot of discussion of the expanding universe and the place of human beings within it. The book also raises the question of whether, if you knew before you were born that you would die early and have all your happiness taken away, would you still choose to be born at all? These are clearly the things Gaarder really wanted to write about here, and the Orange Girl story is just a way of illustrating these philosophical points.

I haven’t been left wanting to immediately search out the rest of Gaarder’s novels, but I did find this one quite enjoyable and am glad I picked it up for Nordic FINDS.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries is the second book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I had mixed feelings about the first book, High Rising, which I read nearly two years ago, but still wanted to try this one as I knew it was about a different set of characters and I thought I might get on better with it.

Published in 1934, this book introduces us to the Leslie family who live at Rushwater, their estate in West Barsetshire. The family consists of Henry Leslie and his absentminded wife, Lady Emily, their two sons John and David, and their daughter Agnes, who is married to Robert Graham and has three young children. There was also another son, the eldest, who died in the Great War, and his sixteen-year-old son Martin is now the heir to Rushwater and lives with his grandparents. As the novel opens, Robert Graham has gone to South America on business so Agnes and the children are spending the summer with the Leslies and so is a niece of Robert’s, Mary Preston.

This probably all sounds straightforward enough to you, but for some reason it took me ages to remember who was who and I wished I had drawn a family tree at the beginning! Anyway, once I started to settle into the story and get to know the characters, I found it quite enjoyable. The plot mainly revolves around Mary Preston and the question of which of the Leslie men she’ll marry – David or John. David, the younger brother, is charming but selfish and thoughtless (he promises to bring Mary the ‘wild strawberries’ of the title, then forgets them), while John is quiet, kind and considerate. I knew which of them I wanted her to choose but Thirkell keeps us in suspense until the end of the book!

There’s also a subplot involving a French family, the Boulles, who move into the vicarage for the summer. Keen for Martin to improve his French, the Leslies arrange for him to study with the Boulles’ children, but instead he becomes involved in a plot to restore the French monarchy. Meanwhile, the lovely but irritating Agnes spends the entire book fussing over her children, and Mr Holt, an acquaintance of Lady Emily’s who talks about nothing but gardens and his titled friends, keeps imposing himself on the family, oblivious to the fact that nobody wants him there.

I enjoyed this book once I got into it; although it doesn’t have much more substance than High Rising, I found it funnier and can see now why people praise Thirkell for her humour and wit. There are also touches of poignancy when the Leslies remember their lost son, killed in the war, and when John, who is a widower, grieves for Gay, his late wife. Some of the characters, such as Mr Holt and the Boulles, are clearly there for comedy purposes, but the family themselves, annoying as some of them were, felt realistic to me. I liked John and Martin, while I found Mary’s infatuation with David, who treats her carelessly, frustrating but all too believable. I should mention, though, that there are a few instances of racism, mainly in the first half of the book, that even though I’m used to it in books of this era, I found more jarring than I normally would.

I still haven’t been completely won over by Angela Thirkell but I liked this better than the first book and will probably continue with the series at some point. However, the third book is about Tony, the teenage boy from High Rising whom I found almost unbearable, so I don’t know what I’ll think of that one!

This is book 35/50 read from my second Classics Club list.