Summer Reading: A Women’s Prize Finalist, a Golden Age Mystery, and a Book about Ancient Greece

A few weeks ago, inspired by other bloggers, I posted a picture of my Twenty Books of Summer. So much ambition, so much flippancy! Thus far I have read neither The Man without Qualities, Part 2, nor The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald. Well, their day will come. The temp has been in the nineties since June 4 (and it is 100 degrees today) so I’ve indulged myself with books I already own. Let me recommend three smart but undemanding books that have helped me forget the heat!

Amanda Craig’s The Golden Rule is shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize. And what a compelling read! If you enjoyed Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, you will be fascinated by this thriller-cum-literary novel about Hannah, a desperate, underemployed woman who forms a murder pact with Jinni, a charismatic woman she meets on a train.

Hannah and Jinni fall into conversation: both have been physically abused and are separated from their husbands. Jinni hatches a murder plot seemingly on the spur of the moment: they agree to kill each other’s husbands, with tasers and knives. Hannah hesitates but is hypnotized by the well-dressed Jinni’s charm and apparent compassion. It’s as though desperate Hannah has finally found her place with the in-crowd.

Hannah, a Millennial, refers to her generation as Generation Rent. Her wealthy husband Jake, who has a trust fund, has deserted her and their daughter Maisy to live with his new girlfriend, Eve, leaving Hannah in an apartment in a bad neighborhood in London. And so Hannah, who quit her stressful advertising job when she had a baby, must support herself and their daughter by part-time house-cleaning jobs, their tiny income supplemented by the food bank. As for the rent, she is terrified of eviction: she fights with Jake every month for the rent.

But this novel is not so much a thriller as a detailed narrative about Hannah’s struggle to survive. When her mother Holly dies, she and Maisy go to Cornwall to sort out Holly’s things and reconnect with the family. Conveniently Jinni’s husband, Constantine, the man she has agreed to kill, lives nearby in a run-down mansion on a huge woodland estate. Faking a car breakdown, she walks up the drive and knocks on the door and meets Stan, a rugged, hairy, smelly, drunken man with chipped teeth, whom she assumes is the caretaker. An odd friendship develops between the two.

Craig is a smart, eloquent storyteller who interweaves Hannah’s narrative with the kind of anthropological details that document the problems of a generation. (Margaret Drabble did this kind of thing in her earlier novels, though in a different style.) And Craig, like her bookish heroine, is a master of literary tropes, playing with Stranger on a Train and Jane Austen’s books.

A great read! Should this compelling, brilliant novel win the Women’s Prize? Well, I am not one of the judges, but I thoroughly recommend this as a reading treat.

Not a summer goes by without my reading a mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957), the brilliant translator of Dante who was best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series. My pick this summer was Unnatural Death, the third book in the Wimsey series, which presumably I read at some time in the past since I do have a copy.

As usual, Lord Peter Wimsey is smarter than his crime-solving peers and twice as whimsical as the average member of The Egotists’ Club, which Sayers describes as “one of the most genial places in London.” But it is not whimsy that persuades him that Agatha Dawson, a rich, old woman with cancer, has been murdered. A doctor confesses at the club that he suspects Agatha did not die a natural death but when he suggested an autopsy he became unpopular and lost his practice. As Wimsey investigates, the evidence piles up against Agatha’s charming heiress niece yet not the means of the murder. A witty, entertaining, exuberant mystery, by the best of the Golden Age Detective Novelists.

The Greeks by H. D. F. Kitto (1951) is a slightly dated but lively introduction to the ancient Greeks – and it is still in print. A few years ago, the TLS ran a piece which lauded clasics popularizer Edith Hamilton, but The Greek Way proved too sentimental and corny for me. And so I recently extracted a copy of Kitto’s The Greeks from my shelf. Perhaps this was a text for an ancient culture class for which I graded tests when I was a T.A.? Kitto writes elegant prose, and his intelligent examination of facets of Greek history and culture is enlightening. He explores and explicates the origins of the Greek people, their community-minded form of government (the polis), their literature, philosophy, the history of classical Greece in the fifth century and the less community-minded fourth century, several wars, and more. A whole chapter is devoted to Homer. This is a solid, unusually well-written book, though Kitto, like Hamilton, does romanticize the Greeks. Still, Kitto is more inspiring than sentimental, and overal, it remains an excellent introduction, though his analysis of Greek women did cause me to raise an eyebrow.