Memorial Day Weekend: Two Balzacs and a Mystery

Mary Cassatt’s “Woman Reading”

It’s Memorial Day Weekend!  And lest I forget, let me remind you that Memorial Day used to honor all the dead, not just the military.  Doctors, nurses, housewives, factory workers, construction workers, teachers, professors, writers, administrative assistants, bookstore clerks – any person once alive, of any or no profession.  My husband and I grew up in different parts of the country and heard nary a peep about the military on Memorial Day.  We accompanied our parents to visit the graves of their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. 

Memorial Day is also the unofficial beginning of summer. 

And here are three books I recommend –  great, but very different, reads.

Balzac’s Grand Illusions.  This magnificent novel, which centers on Lucien Chardon, a gorgeous young man and a talented poet,  traces his fall from grace – which involves bankrupting his family so he can live the high life in Paris. Balzac’s vivid portraits of dozens of characters, and the detailed description of the history of printing and the corrupt power of journalism, make this an incredibly fast, absorbing read.

Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty.  Romantic love ruins Julie d’Aiglemont, a beautiful young woman who, despite her father’s warnings, marries the first man with whom she falls in love, Colonel Victor d’Aiglemont. Julie and Victor prove to be sexually incompatible – though Victor doesn’t have a clue – and she becomes a semi-invalid, while Victor takes a mistress. Determined to retain her status as his wife, Julie attends salons and parties, dresses exquisitely, sings enchantingly, and exchanges witty repartee with the most brilliant men.

 But then, miraculously, she falls in love with an Englishman,  Lord Grenville, who is her match in every way.  But, as in so many 19th-century novels, adulterous women do not thrive, and Lord Grenville dies a peculiarly ridiculous death, leaving her grieving and guilty.  At thirty, a more sophisticated Julie falls in love again – but this more sophisticated love also ends in tragedy, from which her daughter, Helene, never recovers. Balzac wanders here and there and scrambles a bit in the second half of the book,  but continues to debunk romantic love, as he portrays its stages in flux. Unlike Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Julie survives:  Balzac does not employ the 19th-century formula, “the-sexually-active-woman must die. No, but Julie is devastated by her cruel losses of lovers and family.

 Who Is Simon Warwick? is one of Patricia Moyes’s best mysteries.  Published in 1978, it has a modern twist that may surprise you (as well as your Congressmen, Senators, state politicians, governors, and the Supreme Court, to whom you may not send the pertinent underlined pages). Inspector Henry  Tibbits of Scotland Yard must investigate the murder of Simon Warwick – one of two Simon Warwick wannabes who have answered an ad claiming to be the heir of a millionaire uncle. But which is the read Simon? And why did one of the Simons die?  This is a breathtaking whodunit, and, naturally, Henry’s wife Emmy, who knows quite a lot about detecting,  gets into the act.  A brilliant, absorbing crime classic, surely one of the best cozies of the 1970s.

By the way, is Patricia Moyes a neglected writer these days? I love her work!

Feeling Melancholy? What to Read in Inclement Weather

Are you feeling melancholy?  Perhaps because of inclement weather?

Here are mini-reviews of three very light books I recently read to lift my spirits.   And I’m including “pop” star ratings for the fun of it!

THE BEST:  Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages.

Rose Macaulay’s Towers of Trebizond is a masterpiece.  I wish I could say the same of her other books.

Dangerous Ages, however, is a moving, deftly-written novel, characterized by charming, meticulous sketches of four generations of women.  Macaulay observes that all ages are dangerous,  but some are more dangerous than others.

The main character is Neville, age 43, and my guess is you’ll identify with her whatever age you are.  She is a lovely, generous, sensitive, thoughtful woman,  whom Macaulay compares to “an ageless wood-dryad.”  When Neville wakes up on her forty-third birthday, she thinks, “Another year gone, and nothing done yet.  Soon all the years will be gone, and nothing ever will be done.”

That’s the mid-life crisis.

Macaulay’s writing is plain but smooth.  The book is mostly a novel of ideas, a kind of philosophical fable about ages.  Now that Neville’s two children, Kay and Gerda (yes, The Snow Queen), who were raised during the Great War and are readers of Freud, are in their twenties, Neville is determined to become a doctor.  In her twenties, she dropped out of medical school to marry Rodney, a politician, and have children.

Alas, she has trouble concentrating on her medical books.  She envies her children’s absorption in writing and drawing.  Macaulay, who was forty in 1921 when Dangerous Ages was published, clearly feels this is the wrong age to pursue such a demanding profession.  (We women have different attitudes toward age now. Modern medicine?)

Neville is in the middle of four generations.  She is not only a mother but the favorite daughter of 63-year old Mrs. Hilary, a malcontent who wants to be the center of attention.  Mrs. Hilary lives with her 84-year-old mother, known as Grandmother, a serene, intelligent, religious woman who laments her daughter’s lack of interests.  And it is Neville who must soothe Mrs. Hilary when she sulks on her sixty-third birthday because her children swim out  and leave her in the shallows.

Mrs. Hilary resents her other daughters.  Thirty-nine-year-old  Pamela,  a lesbian who lives with an old friend from Cambridge, seems the happiest of the bunch.  Needless to say, Mrs. Hilary finds Pamela’s devotion to her partner “annoying” and “immoral.”  But Mrs. Hilary’s least favorite daughter is 33-year-old Nan, an unmarried bohemian novelist.  Nan has just decided  that she will let her lover know she is finally ready to marry after she finishes her book.  But then 20-year-old Gerda gets in the way, falling in love with Nan’s boyfriend.  And  Neville is appalled as she watches this romance between her seductive daughter and a thirtyish man unfold.

Mrs. Hilary is also at a dangerous age, and maliciously meddles with Nan when she hears gossip about her sexuality.  One sees some appalling similarities between the selfish beauty in her twenties and the idle woman in her sixties.

All the women must come to terms with their dangerous ages.

Fascinating, but out of print. It is available as an e-book, though .


AN ENTERTAINING BOOK CLUB-TYPE NOVEL,  The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter.  This charming, feather-light Japanese novel centers on lexicography.   Three generations of dedicated eccentrics work  passionately on a new dictionary that will be “the great passage” between words of the past and present.  My favorite character, Mitsuya Majime, is a social misfit who loves old books and has a hint of OCD when it comes to asking the right questions about words.  You’ll love his “dictionary camp,” a camp-out in the office with 40 temporary employees to finish the dictionary.  Yes, everyone sleeps over for many night, and some are assigned to laundromat duty.  There is much proofreading, editing, and other joys!


A COZY QUASI-GOLDEN AGE MYSTERY, Patricia Moyes’s Black Widower.   This mystery, published in 1985, is too late for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but Moyes’s Inspector Henry Tibbett bears a striking resemblance to detectives of the past.  When Mavis, the beautiful, promiscuous wife of ambassador Sir Edward Ironmonger, is murdered at an embassy party in Washington, D.C., Henry Tibbett of Scotland Yard is called in.  That’s because Sir Edward of Tampica, a newly independent island country, does not want the American police involved–it might ruin the country’s reputation.  Loved the details:  there is even a dangerous garden tour. It’s spring!


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