Two Depressing Novels: Dima Wannous’ “The Frightened Ones” & Doris Lessing’s “The Diary of a Good Neighbour”

I cannot identify my favorite critics: I barely seem to register their names. That astounds me, and yet it must be common for those who read many book reviews.

For instance, The New York Review of Books recently published a review of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a short, tragic Syrian novel which I would not otherwise have heard of – and yet I did not look at the name of the reviewer. In this delicate novel, two damaged people who have survived the Syrian revolution meet in a psychiatrist’s office. The sullen Naseem, a brooding writer who ought to have a DANGER warning on his lapel, wordlessly invites Suleima, a shy 40-year-old woman, out for drinks. Between drinks, they slice pills and pop them: these are prescription pills, not the recreational drugs of Bright Lights, Big City.

Identity becomes an urgent question for Suleima when she is unable to find Naseem’s books in a bookstore. He publishes under a pseudonym; his books are everywhere. He decides to leave Syria and gives her an unfinished manuscript of a novel – which is about her! If you’re depressed, like Suleima, you will soon descend into hell (and she’s already been there). In alternate chapters, we read Suleima’s narrative and Naseem’s book about her. The weight of history, her own, Naseem’s, and the country’s, is almost unbearable… And the two stories intertwine and get mixed up.

And so should I thank the critic, Lydia Wilson, a Research Associate at the Computer Laboratory and in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford? (I looked her up.) It is a tribute to her that I read The Frightened Ones, but I must stress that I was not the ideal reader.

Then, as if I were not depressed enough, I picked up Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour. This smart, realistic novel is one of two she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. It was an experiment: she wanted to see whether critics recognized her style without her name brand (they did not) and what reception they would give a “new” writer.

Lessing writes, “One of my aims has more than succeeded. It seems I am like Barbara Pym! The books are fastidious, well-written, well-crafted. Unsparing, unsentimental and deeply felt. Funny, too. On the other hand they are sentimental, and mawkish. Mere soap opera. Trendy.”

Lessing’s books are always remarkable, whether under her brand or not. So should I trust the critics? Apparently not!

Let me stress that I did not remember The Diary of a Good Neighbour was depressing until I embarked on it this week. It wasn’t depressing when I was younger! The Diary deals with the problems of old age, which became grim and apparent to me during my mother’s illnesses and at the end of her life. Lessing’s heroine, Janna, is a middle aged, glamorous assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her husband died, and she regrets she never really tried to talk to him. She keeps her relationships superficial. She did not take care of her mother or grandmother when they were dying: that task was her sister’s. Janna’s whole life is work.

By chance at the drugstore one night, she meets 90-year-old Maudie Fowler, a bent-over witch-like woman whose nose practically hooks down to her chin. Maudie wants aspirin, rather than the prescription pills that “deaden” her, and charming Janna expedites the transaction. Then Janna accompanies Maudie home to her rent-controlled basement flat – which is filthy, cold, and has treacherous old electric fixtures, a coal fire, and an outdoor lavatory.

Maudie refuses to go to a nursing home, or to welcome volunteers called “Good Neighbors.” Doing good has fallen into Janna’s hands. She brings groceries, calls an electrician, buys her new underwear, nad chats for hours to Maudie. Both women genuinely enjoy their conversation, but when Janna returns home, she spends hours washing the terrible smell off her body and clothes. Maudie’s flat reeks of urine, unwashed clothes, and worse. And yet Janna is now responsible for her.

Perhaps what interests me most this time round is Janna’s personal experiences. When her only friend, Joyce, the editor of the magazine, decides to follow her unfaithful husband to America, Janna understands that she has unwittingly been part of Joyce’s marriage for years: without Janna at the office, Joyce would never have had the flexible hours to work at home , save her marriage (though it is very bad), and raise her (horrible) two children. The loss of Joyce is more terrible for Janna than was her husband’s death. Poor Janna grieves.

I look forward to moving on to Jane Somers’s more cheerful second book, If the Old Could, in which Jane falls in love. Love is more sprightly somehow, though this is not a happy book, either.

But it’s Lessing. I mean Jane Somers! And so I must read it.

Do you ever come upon a book that is almost too depressing to read? This seldom happens to me, but when it does…

The Book Binge Conundrum: What Drives Us to Excess?

The twenty-first century is, well, different. So many books are available online – more than we could find at any physical bookstore. Now I have access to all of Thomas Hardy’s books, including The Dynasts: An Epic Drama of the War with Napoleon (a verse drama). Yes, the faded old hardcover copy sits on my shelf, very dingy and uninviting. My husband says, “You are never going to read that.” He is right, but I can’t weed it, either. I have read the rest of Thomas Hardy.

The question is: when did I decide I must read the complete works of favorite writers – even their worst? In general, it used to take a long time to find all their books. One read an author’s complete oeuvre over several months or years. Of course, I did binge on Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series. And over a period of years, I have read all of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Ovid, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, and Penelope Fitzgerald – and most, if not all, of multitudes of other beloved writers.

My fanciful theory: our brains clicked into binge mode at the beginning of the new millennium. The speed of Wifi gave us the capacity to trawl the internet faster and faster, and discover more books than ever. One friend at a small online provider wished publishers would take a year off from publishing so she could catch up! And then after we got Wifi, we found out about even MORE books. Too many, really.

Is this internet bounty the fount of bingeing? Today the word “binge” dominates popular culture. Books, films, and TV are lauded as “bingeable” or “binge-worthy.”

In 2016, NPR ran a three-part series, “Read, Watch, Binge!” In 2019 at Mashable, Chris Taylor wittily related his experience of binge-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours (“Lord of the Binge”). This is a common kind of internet whimsy. Naturally, I read with fascination, because I wanted to know how he kept awake.

At The New York Times in 2005, Julie Salamon wrote an excellent article about rediscovering Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels. (Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943). She had loved the series as a child, as had her mother, and in 2005 reread all 10 books over a period of several months. She inspired me to read them (not all ten, though). And Salamon’s rediscovery of the books was not a 24-hour binge; it was a labor of love, without a quick deadline.

At Goodreads, blogs, and other social media, avid readers plan the future. The groups list the books they plan to read months in advance. This isn’t my way, but in 2016, after Anita Brookner’s death, I decided to reread all her books. I perused four or five before realizing this is probably not the way we’re meant to read her. I admire her art and style, but best to space the books out. By all means, binge if you want to, though.

Are You an Influencer? The Kim Kardashians of Book Reviewers

I did not know who celebrity influencer Kim Kardashian was until I read the Style section of The New York Times this weekend. It seems that everything she wears or uses, from Barefoot Dreams blankets ($180) to Spanx shapewear, is sought by her excitable fans. I, too, wanted the soft-as-silk Barefoot Dreams blanket, until I realized it is just polyester!

And so I began to wonder: who are the Book Influencers? In addition to celebrity influencers Jenna Bush and Rhys Witherspoon, bibliophiles and amateur reviewers have a loud voice.

In my case, professional critics still have the most influence. Hence, I am reading a disturbing Syrian novel by Dima Wannous, The Frightened Ones, about two damaged people who meet at a psychiatrist’s office. This beautifully-written, spare novel about living in hell during the Syrian revolution is so depressing I mete out only a few pages a day. I do recommend it, but I will not review it.

The age of criticism is dead, or so they say, and certainly critics vie for assignments of fewer reviews squashed into a reduced number of pages. Perhaps blogs, Bookstagram, and Booktube have a greater influence on readers these days, though it may be a question of the kind of reader.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I loved the raw enthusiasm of blogging: my personal blogosphere was one big tea party of courteous postings on Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books. Bloggers filled a gap: they “reviewed” Viragos, Persephones, and other small-press reprints, books which were seldom noted in professional publications. And, not surprisingly, some of our own favorite out-of-print books eventually were rediscovered. I was ahead of the curve with Nancy Hale, whose books I discovered in 2011 after reading one of her stories in a New Yorker anthology. The Library of America recently published her selected stories, and I hope they will reissue her charming memoirs, A New England Girlhood and The Life in the Studio, and her best novel, Dear Beast. Thank God for Library of America!

Pictures mean more than words these days, I fear. It is a brutish, snarling, semi-literate Climate Change age: our brains are literally shrinking, according to Scientific American. Perhaps this explains the weird appeal of picture-oriented social media. Bookstagram/Instagram consists of photos of books, sometimes raw snapshots, others almost of professional quality, arranged against backdrops of lace, flowers, and teacups, or simply dropped on the floor. These pictures may be saying: I love this book! but the captions do not tell us much.

Booktube is even more mystifying. A bibliophile sits unselfconsciously in front of a camera for 30 minutes to an hour, methodically showing you his or her latest book haul, one book at a time, while reading aloud the jacket copy, or, if you’re lucky, saying why he/she wants to read them. These monotonous home movies are badly in need of editing. Nonetheless, I do not underestimate their influence: some Booktube channels have thousands of followers (perhaps hundreds of thousands!).

So here we all are, doing our bit, all for the sake of books.

Weekend Reading: What’s on the Shelf?

Some of you may know me as the Book Sibyl. Actually you do not, because I have never used that soubriquet, but I truly am sibylline, favored with the power to pluck the right book from the shelf. Whether you need to relax or challenge yourself, the right book can balance your mood, and provide solace from the muddle of a work week.

What do you need this weekend? These are on my shelf.

CAMBRIDGE AND CONSEQUENCES. In Christopher Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties, he charmingly mixes autobiography and fiction to describe his life in the ’20’s. Isherwood is very funny: he was bored at Cambridge, where he was determined to do no work, and schemed to get expelled. After his glorious, comical expulsion, he is qualified to do nothing but has many jobs. He is briefly a secretary to a charming but disorganized professional musician, misses out on the fun of the Great Strike, joins his bohemian friends on Romilly Road in what they sardonically call “the Romilly Group,” writes his first novel, and attends medical school. Isherwood advises us to read this as a novel, though some consider it autobiography. By the way, I do not consider it “autofiction.” Great fun to read!

ARE YOU A FAN OF “LOAM AND LOVECHILD” FICTION? If you enjoy Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Mary Webb, you will be smitten with The Hurly Burly and Other Stories by the neglected writer A. E. Coppard (1875-1957), published recently by Ecco. In my favorite story, “The Higgler,” Harvey Witlow drives his cart along country roads to buy whatever is for sale , eggs, bags of apples, odds and ends, and then he resells it. But times are hard, and he is thinking of quitting, when he comes upon a farm owned by a middle-aged woman who becomes his best client. Her beautiful daughter fascinates him, but she is completely silent. One day Mrs. Sadgrove proposes that Harvey marry her daughter, but Harvey shies away. What was the young woman’s secret? Should he or shouldn’t he marry her? Coppard’s lyrical, beautifully-crafted stories, set mostly in rural areas, are among the best of the 20th century.

POP WOMEN’S FICTION. Oh my God, I was so grateful on a truly awful day to kick off my shoes and get lost in Sarah Penner’s The Lost Apothecary. Set in London, this entertaining novel straddles two timelines and three points-of-view. Caroline, an amateur historian in the present, arrives in London on her anniversary trip without her husband because she has learned he had an affair. By chance, she discovers an old glass vial in the Thames, and a librarian at the British Library helps her trace it to the 18th century. In 1791, Nella, an apothecary, prepares poisons for women who want to kill abusive men and puts them in vials. As her life becomes intertwined with that of Eliza, a 12-year-old maid who collects the poison for her mistress to administer to her husband, Nella comes to terms with the good and the bad she has done. Although the three women are only loosely connected, Sarah Penner holds the threads together. A fun read.

HOW ABOUT A COUNTERCULTURE CLASSIC? Treat yourself to Nathaniel Hawthorne’ charming novel, The Blithedale Romance. A group of idealists move to the country, grow their own vegetables, and escape the capitalist grind. The narrator, Miles Coverdale, a poet, is skeptical about the commune, but expects to find time to write there. Naturally, there is way more farm work than he had anticipated. And it is galling that two attractive women, the dark lady, Zenobia, a professional storyteller, and the light lady, Priscilla, a wan blonde who has been ill, have no eyes for any man but Hollingsworth. Coverdale takes to spying on his friends from a tree (the bower is so lovely he’d like to spend his honeymoon there, he tells us). Hawthorne himself was painfully shy, so perhaps he too escaped communal life at Brook Farm by sitting in trees! This novel is loosely based on his brief experiences of the failed commune.

Happy Weekend Reading!

One Fell Swoop & Claire Fuller’s “Unsettled Ground”

Our book club met for the first time in a year. We discussed Claire Fuller’s superb novel, Unsettled Ground, which is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Perhaps Fuller will win: her style is lyrical, the plot is engrossing, and I ached for the characters, fifty-one-year-old twins, Jeanie and Julius, who are shattered when their mother dies. They have always lived in their childhood home – and now they are evicted. The mood is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though Unsettled Ground is not a horror novel. Fuller’s prose is hypnotic and sometimes devastating. A slightly surreal atmosphere permeates the pages due to the twins’ perplexity about the simplest actions in society.

The novel is so resonant that the group discussed a real-life problem, and thus broke all the rules of etiquette in one fell swoop.

“Lynn is on GoFundMe,” Sue said. “She needs a hot water heater.”

In a dim corner of my mind, I had realized Lynn might face poverty, but this flash of insight rarely visited. Lynn was Emily Dickinson-ish, a sweet woman who stayed home and wrote poetry. She was one of those intelligent but withdrawn people who cannot quite cope, so she lived with her parents. When they died, things must have been very hard for her. She was so secure she never wanted to leave – and so she never did.

Tears were in Sue’s eyes, Lori whispered,”Shit,” Janet distributed Kleenex, I blew my nose, and Megan demanded, “How did this happen?”

“I heard she wasn’t doing well, so I cyberstalked her,” Sue admitted.
We knew poverty could happen – and yet it is dizzyingly unreal. Lynn had become convinced that we all looked down on her, and hung up when we called. Only Sue broke through that barrier.

We decided to give some money, whatever we can.

We did not dwell on Lynn’s plight after we formed our plan of action, and so we did enjoy our book discussion. Illiteracy is Jeanie’s biggest problem, one that allows others to take advantage of her. Jeanie cannot read, and when she finds a job as a part-time gardener the checks pile up, because she does not know how to cash them. Julius does odd jobs for cash, but spends most of it at the pub.

But savvy Jeanie must solve their problems. She is appalled when Julius decides they should live in a dumpy trailer in a no man’s land. Hooligans stalk and victimize the twins in the woods. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as smart Jeanie learns how to navigate society, despite her learning disability.

This resonant novel will make you think about poverty and homelessness, you will find hope through Jeanie’s quick learning, and you will race through the well-written pages.

A Simpler Time: Bridge Clubs & Borges

We are, in a way, lucky to live in the U.S. this spring. According to the White House, approximately one-third of the U.S. population, 100 million American adults, are now fully vaccinated. The number of Covid cases has fallen to pre-October levels, except in a few hotspots like Oregon (a hip state – so there’s a surprise!) and Wisconsin.

It has been a dangerous time, with the U.S. suffering an unnecessary number of deaths, due to the lack of consistency in mask mandates and health precautions from state to state. Now we breathe a sigh of relief because we have been vaccinated. We wear masks in public, but not always double masks, and we feel relatively safe, as compared to always in danger.

The greatest problem here: to persuade anti-vaxxers and the too-hip-to-get-sick to get vaccinated (no appointment necessary at many sites). This negotiation process will apparently be slow. According to the Washington Post, about one-fourth of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine – and many of them are white Republican males.

Last year was disastrous. We knew little about the virus, we were afraid of library books (some people quarantined them), some states were under lockdown, others not, and, at the height of housewifely insanity, we disinfected doorknobs several times a day.

Maybe it is because of spring, but suddenly I have a more positive outlook. I try to appreciate the slower pace of life and match it to my mother’s: her favorite decade was the ’60’s, when she was home full-time, standing there ironing (like the woman in Tillie Olsen’s story) in front of her favorite soap, As the World Turns. With no internet and no constant connection of the cell phone, she had more time to be present with us, to sit on the back stoop with neighbors. (When she was old, she lamented that people didn’t “neighbor” anymore.) She and her friends, to an extent, made their own entertainment: she enjoyed hosting bridge clubs, fussing about the decorations and prizes, worrying about making coffee in the percolator (she didn’t drink it herself, and didn’t know whether it was good or bad, but it had to be served!).

Mind you, I will not join a bridge club: the only clubs I join are book clubs, since the Drones Club (in Wodehouse) is not open to women (ha ha). But it is calming to avoid the crowd at the mall, unplug the computer occasionally, and read the books on our shelves while we wait for the latest Jhumpa Lahira, which I long to read, but have decided to wait for the paperback instead.

I am not exactly trying to be “mindful,” because I doubt that I can be mindful – but slow time is not necessarily empty. Perhaps I am trying to say, We need boredom? That’s what they say.

Jorge Luis Borges à Biarritz le 27 septembre 1980, France.

My husband and I had a sad conversation the other night. “Do you remember when we attended literary readings in person?”

Yes, we even saw Borges, though we don’t remember what he said or read. We should have taken notes. Why didn’t someone tell us?

So very, very many opportunities. And that was normal life!

We do not know what the future holds, but it is too late to roll it back.

Carpe diem! Horace said it, and so do we.

May Day Musings & The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Such a lovely May Day! Almost too lovely – and too hot! I sweated in front of the fan as I mused on May-Day traditions. In the twentieth century, we used to rise at dawn to make paper cones, fill them with violets and flowering weeds, add tiny scrolls on which we had copied poems, and drop the “May baskets” on friends’ porches. A charming custom, which has faded into oblivion.

It was hot when I got up – much too hot to believe it was May: eighty-seven degrees. And so I devoted myself to sitting still and reading a remarkable book, At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Readers of this blog will already know my fondness for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who won the Booker Prize in 1975 for Heat and Dust. A writer of Polish and German descent, she married an Indian architect, Cyrus Jhabvala, and lived in India for many years; later she lived in New York and wrote screenplays for Merchant Ivory films. I am especially captivated by her exceptional short stories, some set in India, others in England and the U.S. They have the best features of her novels: a simple but percipient voice and style; a compassion for displaced characters; and perfectly-etched descriptions of scenery.

Jhabvala’s characters become our friends and relatives as we read. We understand the comic determination of Nalini, the homesick Indian girl in “A Course of English Studies,” who seduces her married professor at a Midlands college in England; and the exhilaration of Sofia, the depressed wife in “Desecration,” who falls in love with the corrupt Superintendent of Police.

Many of Jhabvala’s stories reflect aspects of Western masterpieces, as seen through a mirror of Indian culture. The first sentence of “Desecration” conjures the tragedy of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary: “It is more than ten years since Sofia committed suicide in the hotel room in Mohabbatur.” Sofia is a vibrant, pretty woman who comes from nowhere. No one knows her background or who she is – she looks to be part Afghan “with a dash of Russian”- and her only talent is for entertaining important guests at dinner parties. Her husband, Raja Sahib, is thirty years older, so we understand why she falls for the dynamic, much younger SP (Superintendent of Police). And then she blinds herself to the degradation of their meetings in a sleazy hotel. In this short pitch-perfect narrative, we feel both sympathetic and annoyed by Sofia on her downward path.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Sofia is not the only woman in Jhabvala’s stories to fall in love with a cad. In “A Spiritual Call,” Daphne meets an Indian swami in London. After traveling to his ashram in India, she becomes disillusioned with his hypocrisy and fakery, yet she cannot break away. And even I cannot help but be charmed by Swamiji when he says, “Can I talk to you? You won’t turn into a laurel tree?” (You know me, the Ovidian.)

Sometimes even female characters become spellbound by female dissemblers. In “Great Expectations,” the solitary, self-satisfied Pauline, a canny real estate agent, has shown many properties to Sylvie, a blond, wan, indecisive client, and her daughter Amy, but Sylvie never signs a lease. The two are kicked out of a friends’ apartment, so Pauline allows them grudgingly to stay at her house for a few days… which turn into many days. We cannot help but think of Daphne and Swamiji when Pauline becomes mesmerized by Sylvie and Amy and their dream of going to India.

The stories in At the End of the Century were chosen by Jhabvala’s family, and span the time from 1963 to 2013 (the year she died). I had read many of these stories before, but I found them mesmerizing a second time.

And that is the test of a great book, don’t you think? Good books are fine for one reading, but great books delight again and again.

Is the #MeToo Era too Proper for Ovid?

I would buy a ticket if Ovid gave a reading on Zoom. If he is resurrected from the dead let me know. I might even be persuaded to attend “Ovid in Conversation with a Modern Poet.”

Ovid is the wittiest, most elegant of Roman poets, but here is what translators conceal: he is extremely bawdy, positively filthy at times.

You would think Amores II.15, an elegy addressed to the ring he plans to give his mistress, would be simple and sweet. That would be too facile for Ovid, who glories in eroticism and jokes. I have translated a few lines to unveil the double entendres.

O ring, about to encircle my mistress’ finger…
May she put it on joyfully and rub it on her knuckles.
May you fit together as my cock fits her vagina,
and may you rub her finger – perfectly sized.

Did you know that Shakespeare used the word “ring” for “vagina” in The Merchant of Venice, V.1.307? Ovid was hugely influential.

Translators tone down the Amores, while scholars explicate the double entendres and argue over problems in the text. The sexual puns are Roman, understood by Roman readers.

Brilliant Ovid had his detractors. Augustus tried to legislate morality. He banished Ovid to an island for carmen et error, “a poem and an error,” and perhaps his poetry would raise hackles in the #MeToo era, too.

You know what I say: love the writing, but don’t bother about the writers’ personal lives. You don’t need to approve them as your best friends. You just need their words.

A Role Model for the 1960’s: “Harriet the Spy”

If you were a girl in the 1960’s, you were nine or ten when you read Harriet the Spy. The cover art was irresistible: a bespectacled girl in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans strolls through a run-down New York neighborhood carrying a notebook, with a flashlight hooked to her belt. You didn’t wonder why the gear: it seemed natural, especially for Harriet, an aspiring writer who spied on people and took notes. And when her writing got her into trouble, we empathized.

I read Harriet several times as a child – probably the last time was in seventh grade. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have cited it as a major influence. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about a reading one book a day for a year, Nina Sankovitch mentions that she so identified with Harriet that she insisted on carrying a notebook and a flashlight. Mystery writer Cara Black also read Harriet. “Of course, I ate tomato sandwiches and wanted to be a spy. They wouldn’t take me. So I turned to writing.” And Jonathan Franzen wrote a blurb on the cover of the anniversary edition (see picture at top of page).

Why am I thinking about Harriet the Spy? My husband alerted me to a review in The New York Review of Books of a new biography by Leslie Brody, Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Fitzhugh, I have read the opening chapters with fascination. Fitzhugh was primarily an artist,which makes sense, since her bold, witty illustrations are as important as the text. Her humorous depictions of the characters’ self-absorption and androgynous style underscored the growing resistance to traditional femininity. So many of us identified with Harriet, partly because of the freedom of her clothes. It was the boys’ sneakers we especially liked.

Illustration of Harriet by Louise Fitzhugh

Fitzhugh, raised in the South by wealthy parents, escaped from Memphis when she and her girlfriend Amelia hatched a plan to attend Bard College. She became an artist in New York, with varying degrees of success. In the photos, we see an impossibly tiny Louise who looks like a little boy. Though Fitzhugh was a known lesbian artist, her sexuality was kept under wraps in terms of author information available to the public: it would have ruined her children’s writing career to be known as gay.

Louise Fitzhugh and photographer Gina Jackson, about 1952.

I have always understood that Harriet the Spy is a classic, frequently compared to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I was astonished to learn that some reviewers disliked it when it was published in 1964.

Brody writes:

Some children’s books critics simply couldn’t get over how “nasty” they thought she was, and what “a horrid example” she set. … When Harriet says, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school,” she sends up a howl as staggering – in its way – as Allen Ginsberg’s poem by the same name.

Brody, a witty, compassionate writer, places Fitzhugh’s life and quirky work in the context of her times. She points out that Fitzhugh and Betty Friedan were writing breakthrough books the same year. Women’s lives were changing.

Long live Louise Fitzhugh’s books! By the way, she also wrote two sequels to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret and Sport. Harriet is the best of them, if I remember correctly, but perhaps the others are worth a second look. I lost my copies long, long ago.

A Sentient Country House: “China Court” by Rumer Godden

The copyright page of Rumer Godden’s brilliant 1960 novel, China Court, says: “A serial version of this book appeared in The Ladies’ Home Journal.”

Oh, my goodness! That means my grandma read it. She subscribed to McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. The magazines were neatly stacked on shelves in the sun room and sometimes we spent an afternoon reading them and eating peppermints. The serialization of China Court, however, would have been before my time.

China Court is one of Rumer Godden’s best novels – and one of my favorites – and must have given enormous pleasure to home-loving readers and aspiring homeowners who pored over the women’s magazines for decor suggestions. In this stunning novel, Godden tells the story of five generations of the smart, turbulent, often unhappy Quins at China Court, their beautiful country house.

Godden’s layered, generous prose and temporal flexibility make this a modernist masterpiece – says I, though critics often dismiss her. At China House, inanimate objects are as important, sometimes more important, than the animate. Books and houses are characters in their own right. And each chapter opens with a page from The Book of Hours, which Mrs. Quin reads daily, and the book defines recurring time, from Lauds to Matins, and is a piece in the puzzle of China Court’s survival. The narrative jumps back and forth in time, shifting from one century to the next and back again in successive stories. There is a family tree in the front of the book for when you lose track of the characters.

The house and Mrs. Quin/Ripsie are at the crux of the book. Ripsie is an outsider and a lifelong friend of the boys; she marries into the family and becomes Mrs. Quin, and loves China Court more than any of them. But she, too, suffered an early grief: she was in love with Borowis Quin, a charming ne’er-do-well who dumped her after their affair and married another woman for money. His brother, John Henry, the kind, hard-working businessman who kept everything together, stepped up and announced his engagement to Ripsie at a dance, out of pity and without asking her first. She accepted, and the marriage is happy enough. Long after his death – she outlives him by thirty years, dying in 1960 – she loves and takes care of the house, making sacrifices for it, putting it ahead of everything.

The book begins with a death. Let me quote the beginning, to give you a sense of Godden’s style, and the sense that the house is a living, breathing, sentient character, even through death. It starts with the death of the central character.

Old Mrs. Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning.

The sound of the bell came into the house, but did not disturb it; it was quite used to death, and birth, and life.

The usual house sounds went on, but muted: footsteps, upstairs, Dr. Taft’s, though he did not stay long – “Cause of death, stopped living,” wrote Dr. Taft on the certificate and said he would call in at Mrs. Abel’s on the way home; then Mrs. Abel’s steps, as, quietly, she did what she had to do and, downstairs, Cecily’s as she carried up the coal and made up the kitchen fire, hers and Bumble’s, the old spaniel’s, padding as he followed her backward and forward, forward and backward;…

Births, marriages, and death dominate China House; and the women, who must tend to the stages of life, tend to be unhappy. For instance, the sparkling Lady Patrick (Mrs. Quin’s mother-in-law) adores her sexy husband Jared, but upon returning a few days early from a retreat at a convent, she discovers him cheating on her in their own bed, and she is shattered and embittered. Then there is Jared’s sister, Eliza, a brilliant but bitter spinster who, after she takes over the housekeeping from Lady Pat, cheats on the housekeeping money so as to buy first editions of rare books. Later, she meets a terrible death after the children and villagers see her visiting the gravestone of the clerk who taught her about rare books. They decide she is a witch.

Ah, poor Eliza! Reading women are always in trouble!

The question after Mrs. Quin’s death is: will her granddaughter Tracy take over, or will Mrs. Quin’s conventional, stuffy adult children have their way and sell?

Are you a fan of Godden? And, if so, what is your favorite of her books?

Do you like her writing, or does it grate on you?

I love it, of course.

Happy Godden reading!