It isn’t officially the holidays, but you may be plotting your holiday reading, or perhaps taking the break before the holidays.
Here are a few notes on three fabulous plot-oriented escape reads to add to your TBR.
Ada Leverson’s Bird of Paradise (1914). Leverson, a friend of Oscar Wilde, is best known for The Little Ottleys (Virago), a witty trilogy which consists of Love’s Shadow, Tenterhooks, and Love at Second Sight. I recently read one of her lesser-known novels, Bird of Paradise, and found it equally charming.
The heroine, Bertha Kellynch, is exceptionally intelligent, fashionable, and very much in love with her husband Percy, who describes her as a bird of Paradise. Leverson emphasizes Bertha’s uniqueness. She is not just beautiful: she gives sensible advice. Her lovelorn friend Madeline pines for the affections of a caddish aesthete who lends her architecture books; her snobbish mother-in-law dithers at an at-home party until Bertha steps in to chat with a nouveau riche former chorus girl; and Bertha deals tactully with her former boyfriend, Nigel, who visits her house a tad too often and makes his wife jealous. We know everything will end well, beccause Bertha is so calm, but there are a few tense moments in this sweet, comical novel.
Susan Howatch’s The Wonder Worker. About 10 years ago, one of my former English professors taught a class on Howatch’s brilliant six-book Starbridge series, which is slightly reminiscent of Trollope’s Barsetshire series. Starbridge is a fictitious Anglican diocese in England which seethes with intrigues.
I recently read The Wonder Worker, which is set at St. Benet’s Church in London in the ‘80s. It is entrancing. I dare you to put it down! Howatch describes the chaos of a ministry of healing which goes astray. The charismatic Nicholas Darrow changes strangers’ lives but neglects his family; his wife Rosalind, a successful businesswoman, has grown to despise his hypocrisy and wants a divorce; Lewis Hall, a priest who was Nicholas’s former spiritual adviser, has a troubled past and rages in his diary about his ambivalence toward women and hatred of modern times; and Alice, an obese gourmet cook, stumbles into the church to get out of the rain and finds help for her dying aun; she also finds a job as the cook at St. Benet’s. I couldn’t get enough of this book; it is the first of a trilogy.
Henry James’s The American. Do you like your Henry James with a plot? That is not his strength, but this early novel does have action. Christopher Newman, a wealthy American businessman, travels to France and meets Claire de Bellegarde, a beautiful widow whom he wants to marry. Her aristocratic family does not think he is good enough for her. There are complications and Gothic elements: dire family secrets, a mysterious death, ties to a nunnery… you won’t think this is James at all.