Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

It’s been a few years since I read my first Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels, and I really thought I would have read another one before now. For some reason, though, it has just never felt like the right time and poor Excellent Women has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end. I wish I’d managed to read it sooner as I did enjoy it, although I think I preferred Less Than Angels, which is surprising as this is certainly Barbara Pym’s best known book and seems to be many people’s favourite as well.

Mildred Lathbury is one of the excellent women of the title and is also our narrator. An unmarried woman in her early thirties, she lives alone in a flat in 1950s London and works part-time at a society for impoverished gentlewomen. Although her parents are both dead, Mildred’s father had been a clergyman and the church is still a big part of her life. She devotes her spare time to helping out at her local parish church, St Mary’s, where she has become good friends with the vicar, Julian Malory, and his sister Winifred.

As the novel opens, Mildred discovers she has new neighbours moving in below – they are Helena Napier, an anthropologist, and her husband Rockingham (Rocky), who has just come home from the Navy. After being apart for so long, the Napiers are struggling to settle down into married life; Helena is preoccupied with her work and spending a lot of time with another anthropologist, Everard Bone, leaving Rocky to turn to Mildred for companionship and support. Soon Mildred finds herself more deeply involved in the problems of Helena, Rocky and Everard than she had intended to be – and a further complication arrives in the form of Allegra Grey, an attractive widow who takes the spare room at the vicarage and quickly begins to cause trouble for the vicar and his sister.

Excellent Women is definitely the sort of book in which characters are more important than plot, and I’m happy with that when the characters are as real and as convincing as these. I liked Mildred from the beginning – partly because, as a single woman myself, I could understand and sympathise with her in a lot of ways, but also because she seems a genuinely nice person. Her friends and neighbours expect Mildred to always have time for them and their problems, to listen, to give advice and to provide cups of tea – all the things that make an ‘excellent woman’ – but there’s also a sense that she is often taken for granted and misunderstood. She likes living on her own and values her independence and, while she hasn’t completely ruled out the prospect of marrying one day, it isn’t a priority for her either.

I enjoyed getting to know Mildred and spending some time in her world, but I didn’t love this novel as wholeheartedly as I hoped I would and as I know most other readers have. Although the writing is quite witty in places, I remember finding Less Than Angels a much more humorous book and I think that could be why I liked that one more. Or maybe I just like to be different! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more of Barbara Pym’s work – and will try not to wait so long before picking up another one.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

This is Jessie Burton’s second novel, following her very successful debut, The Miniaturist. I had one or two problems with The Miniaturist and didn’t fall in love with it the way so many other people seemed to, but I did like it enough to be interested in reading more of her work.

The Muse is split between two different time periods. In 1967, we meet Odelle Bastien, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Trinidad who is looking for work in London. As she settles into her new job as a typist at the Skelton Institute, a prestigious art gallery, Odelle strikes up an unusual friendship with her employer, the glamorous and secretive Marjorie Quick, who encourages her to follow her ambition of becoming a writer. At a party one night Odelle is introduced to Lawrie Scott, who shows her a painting he has inherited from his mother. A few days later he brings it to the Skelton where it causes a great deal of excitement; it seems that Lawrie’s painting could be a lost masterpiece.

To discover the origins of the painting, we have to go back to Spain in 1936 where Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his English wife, Sarah, are living in a rented finca – a country house – in a village near Malaga. The couple’s daughter, nineteen-year-old Olive, has ambitions of her own but is keeping her talents hidden knowing that they wouldn’t be appreciated by her father. When local painter and political activist Isaac Robles and his sister Teresa come into her life, Olive has some big decisions to make; this could finally be her chance to follow her dreams.

What is the truth behind the painting once owned by Lawrie Scott’s mother? What really happened to the artist Isaac Robles, whose final fate is unknown? And is Marjorie Quick really who she claims to be? Like The Miniaturist, The Muse has an element of mystery, but unlike the previous book, it is grounded entirely in reality with no hints of the supernatural. I thought the writing style felt quite different too, especially as this one is written in the past tense instead of the present tense of The Miniaturist. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that they could have been written by two different authors, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it’s good to see authors trying something new.

I found both threads of the novel interesting to read. In the 1960s, Odelle gives us some insights into what it’s like to be an immigrant from the Caribbean living in Britain and what it’s like to be black in a predominantly white community. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Odelle herself feels almost superfluous to the story; it’s Lawrie who owns the painting and Marjorie Quick who is connected in some way with the events of 1930s Spain. Usually in this type of novel, the modern day (or relatively modern, in the case of this book) narrator has some kind of personal link with the historical characters, but Odelle doesn’t, which seemed a bit strange to me.

The 1930s storyline is where most of the real action takes place. With Spain on the brink of civil war at that time, Spanish politics form a large part of the story – not just as a backdrop, but with a real significance to the lives of the Schloss and Robles families. A lot of care has obviously gone into creating the Spanish setting – the descriptions feel detailed and vivid – but again, my problem was with the characters. None of them came fully to life for me and I struggled to understand their motives and the decisions they made.

Although there were some aspects of the novel I liked – such as the mystery surrounding Marjorie Quick and the exploration of the struggles faced by women in the worlds of art and literature in years gone by – I think of Jessie Burton’s two novels I probably preferred The Miniaturist.

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

The Misbegotten I really enjoyed The Misbegotten; I don’t normally choose books depending on the season (unless for a specific event such as the R.I.P. challenge) but this was a perfect October book! A big, thick novel with an atmospheric nineteenth century setting, a dark and gothic feel, and a mystery at its heart: ideal for this time of year.

In 1803, a little girl known only as Starling is found wandering in the marshes and is taken in by Alice Beckwith, a loving, kind-hearted young woman with a mysterious past of her own. Having grown up with only an elderly servant for company – except for the occasional visit from her guardian, Lord Faukes, and his grandson, Jonathan Alleyn – Alice is delighted to have Starling living with them and they soon come to think of each other as sisters. The only threat to their relationship, as far as Starling is concerned, is Alice’s love for Jonathan.

In 1821, we meet Starling again, now working as a maid in the household of Jonathan Alleyn, who has been left mentally disturbed after returning from the Peninsular War. We learn that Alice disappeared several years earlier and that Starling believes Jonathan may have killed her.

Into the Alleyn home comes another young woman, Rachel Crofton, who has recently left her position as a governess to marry the wine merchant Richard Weekes. Married life isn’t quite what Rachel had hoped it would be and when Jonathan’s mother asks her to become a companion to her reclusive son, Rachel agrees. Soon she finds herself spending more and more time at the Alleyns’ house and as she gets to know both Jonathan and Starling better, she becomes determined to uncover the truth behind Alice’s disappearance.

The Misbegotten is a story of secrets: secrets between family members, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends. As the story unfolds, we see the consequences of these secrets and how they lead to lies, to devastating tragedies and to the destruction of relationships. The suspense builds as Rachel and Starling come closer to discovering what really happened to Alice and the plot takes some unexpected twists and turns. I was reminded of one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins, whose novels also include similar elements – and I was also reminded of Jane Austen, because most of the action takes place in the city of Bath.

The characters are interesting and well developed and I found that I cared about them all. I cared about Rachel, trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing all she can to help another unhappy family. I cared about the gentle, loving Alice who had vanished without trace. I cared about Jonathan, struggling to cope with his wartime experiences and the loss of the woman he claims to have loved. And I cared about Starling, who is not at all easy to like but who is doing what she believes is right.

This is a long and complex novel and sometimes there are details, subplots or conversations that seem irrelevant – but as the various threads of the story come together we find that everything that happens is significant after all. The only time I began to get impatient was towards the end, when there are some lengthy passages describing Jonathan’s adventures in the Peninsular War. Although these are very well written (and again, very relevant) I was so caught up in the main plot by that point that I resented being pulled away from it even for a few pages!

This is the first Katherine Webb book I’ve read, but based on this one she seems to be just the sort of author I love. I’m sure I’ll be reading more!

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an elderly butler who worked for many years in the service of Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. After his master’s death, Stevens has continued to serve the house’s new American owner, Mr Farraday. Given a week’s holiday – and the use of Mr Farraday’s car – Stevens decides to take a drive through the English countryside to visit Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper. During the journey, he reminisces about the past, about his relationship with Miss Kenton, and about what makes a butler ‘great’.

I loved this book; it’s definitely one of my favourites of the year. It’s a gentle, slow-paced novel but completely compelling and, despite the lack of drama, I found it difficult to put down. I’m aware that my description above probably doesn’t make the story sound very interesting but I can promise you that it really is! Stevens’ trip through the South West of England (which takes place in 1956) and his memories of the past (the 1920s and 1930s) give the author a chance to explore lots of different topics from the daily duties of a butler and the running of an English country house to the political situation in Europe between the two world wars. Most of all, though, this is a story about loss and regret, misplaced loyalties and missed opportunities.

One of the things I found most impressive about this book was the authenticity of Stevens’ narrative voice. Ishiguro gets it completely right; the language is formal, emotionally restrained and perfectly suited to what we learn of Stevens’ personality. I could almost have believed that I really was reading the memoirs of an elderly British butler! The edition that I read (a library book) was from Faber and Faber’s ‘Secrets and Lies’ series of modern classics, which immediately made me wonder what secrets Stevens was keeping from us and what lies were being told. However, it’s not as simple as that. Unlike some unreliable narrators, Stevens is not intentionally trying to mislead the reader; he is actually lying to himself. He knows, for example, that Lord Darlington’s views are not always entirely right, but he wouldn’t dream of questioning them and manages to convince himself that there’s nothing to worry about.

Stevens spends a lot of time thinking about the qualities that make a great butler and he decides that the most important of these qualities is ‘dignity’. Sadly, Stevens has devoted so much of his life to maintaining his dignity that he has missed out on things like love and friendship and has denied himself the right to form opinions of his own. He never allows himself to experience pleasure or enjoyment and never displays any emotion, even when faced with personal tragedy. His story is such a sad one, though not without any humour – the book is quite funny in places, especially when Stevens describes his unsuccessful attempts at ‘bantering’. The ending is perfect too; the book’s final chapter is poignant and moving but does leave both the reader and Stevens with some hope and optimism.

The only other book I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro is Never Let Me Go, which I enjoyed but didn’t love as much as this one, although it’s difficult to compare the two as they’re so completely different. Now I’m wondering which of his books I should read next.

The Midnight Rose by Lucinda Riley

The Midnight Rose Anahita (Anni) Chavan’s whole family are gathering at her hill-top bungalow in Darjeeling to celebrate her one-hundredth birthday, but even surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there is still one person missing. This is Moh, her beloved son, whom she has not seen since he was a small child. Everyone believes him to be dead…everyone except Anni who is sure that he is still alive somewhere in the world. A year later Anni herself has died, but before her death she had written down her story and entrusted it to her favourite great-grandson, Ari Malik, in the hope that he would try to find out what happened to her missing son.

Anni’s story leads Ari to Astbury Hall in England, where filming is currently taking place for a new period drama set in the 1920s starring the beautiful young American actress, Rebecca Bradley. When Lord Astbury invites her to stay at the Hall for the duration of the filming as a safe haven away from the world’s press, Rebecca gratefully accepts, hoping that the peace and quiet will give her a chance to decide what to do about her equally famous actor boyfriend, Jack, who has just proposed to her.

Soon Rebecca is drawn into Ari’s search for the truth about Anahita’s past and as her tragic story unfolds, we are taken back to India in 1911, where as a young girl Anni becomes friendly with Princess Indira, the daughter of the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar. She and Indira are sent to school in England just before the beginning of the Great War, and while staying with family friends at Astbury Hall in Devon the relationship Anni forms with Donald Astbury changes her life forever.

This is the third Lucinda Riley novel I’ve read (the other two were The Girl on the Cliff and The Light Behind the Window – I still need to read Hothouse Flower) and it’s my favourite of the three. Although there were times when I found the plot easy to predict and a few coincidences that felt too implausible, there were enough unexpected twists to keep me in suspense wondering what was going to happen next. I particularly loved the parts of the book set in India during the British Raj and also the insights into what life was like for a young woman trying to find a place for herself in a new and unfamiliar country.

Sometimes when a book is set in multiple time periods, the different threads of the story can feel disjointed and unconnected, but that was not the case here. They came together perfectly, with the secrets of Astbury Hall being slowly revealed as Ari and Rebecca discover them. As usual, though, I found myself enjoying the historical sections of the book more than the contemporary ones. The modern day characters do have storylines of their own – Rebecca’s troubled relationship with her boyfriend and Ari’s struggle to find the right balance between his work and his personal life – but they didn’t interest me as much as Anni’s. I thought Lucinda Riley’s writing really came alive in the sections about Anni – the dialogue felt vibrant and the characters were strong and memorable, especially Anni herself, her best friend Indira, and Donald’s cruel and manipulative mother, Maud Astbury, the villain of the book.

The Midnight Rose is a long novel (650 pages – and it’s one of those books that is physically big and heavy too) but once I became swept up into the story I stopped thinking about the number of pages and concentrated on enjoying Anahita Chavan’s fascinating tale.

I received a copy of this book from Pan Macmillan for review

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Coming Up for Air I think I need to start this post with an apology to George Orwell because like many people, I read Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and assumed I’d read everything by Orwell that was worth reading. I was obviously wrong because Coming Up for Air is a great book, though very different from his two most famous novels. In a way, though, I’m glad I’ve waited until now to read it because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much when I was younger.

Coming Up for Air was published in 1939 and tells the story of George Bowling, a forty-five-year-old insurance salesman who is bored with his dreary, middle-class existence. Married with two children, George’s biggest worries are his mortgage, his weight and the risk of losing his job, but with Europe on the brink of war he knows that the monotony of his life could be about to change. On the day that he receives a new set of false teeth, George takes a trip into London where he sees a poster that triggers memories of his childhood and Lower Binfield, the small, peaceful town where he grew up. George is tempted to return to Lower Binfield for the first time in years, but if he goes back now, what will he find?

Based on the other two books I’ve read, this is not really the type of book I would have expected from George Orwell. However, there are some similarities with Nineteen Eighty-Four in Orwell’s surprisingly accurate predictions of the future. Reading this book gave me an eerie feeling, knowing that it was being written just before the beginning of the Second World War, when the author could have had no real knowledge of what was to come, yet anticipating the changes that would soon be upon the nation.

“I can feel it happening. I can see the war that’s coming and I can see the after-war, the food-queues and the secret police and the loudspeakers telling you what to think. And I’m not even exceptional in this. There are millions of others like me.”

My favourite part of the book was the long section in the middle where George looks back on his childhood in Lower Binfield at the turn of the century. This whole section is a lovely nostalgic portrait of an England that is now gone forever…that had already gone by 1939, destroyed by the First World War.

“1913! My God! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you, the feeling of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.”

The novel doesn’t have a lot of plot, but that wasn’t a problem; I didn’t find it slow at all. There’s not much dialogue either, as we spend the whole book inside George’s head with his thoughts and memories. Despite this, I found the book completely engrossing. The only time I got bored was with George’s long and enthusiastic description of fishing, his favourite hobby until the age of fifteen. But even this was steeped in nostalgia:

“The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool — and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside — belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler.”

George’s actions and opinions are not always very admirable and his views on the women in his life leave a lot to be desired, but despite his flaws, I couldn’t actually dislike him. He’s so ordinary; not a hero, but a real human being with good points and bad points. He has a wryly funny, self-deprecating narrative style which saves the book from becoming too depressing, though overall I found this a sad and poignant story rather than a humorous one. I don’t know much about Orwell’s own life, but I’m sure this book must have been autobiographical to some extent.

I loved Coming Up for Air and will certainly consider trying another of Orwell’s books.