Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

Translated by Irene Ash

Our last day in Paris and I spent it reading Bonjour Tristesse –  a very stylish little novella that was published when Francoise Sagan was just 18 years old. The main character, Cecile, is about the same age as the author and this story chronicles the dramatic summer she spends in the South of France with her father and his fiancee.

Cecile is a spoiled and willful girl and she makes a choice, against her conscience, that causes tragedy and heartbreak. The bulk of the novella examines Cecile’s inner battle and her refusal to acknowledge that horrible consequences could result from her plans. We see the action from Cecile’s point of view, which helps the reader to sympathize with her, because otherwise we might think she is a monster. The tone of the novel is very light so I thought it was going to be a comedy. It does have moments of humor, but ultimately it mirrors the title in that it is quite sad. As I read I despised the selfish creature telling the story, but there was no way I could have stopped reading. It was just too compelling.

The author herself sounds very like Cecile as I learned from reading her obituary here.

Have you read Bonjour Tristesse? What did you think?

Oh my…this pie.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

The third Barbara Pym I chose to read this year is Some Tame Gazelle. I’ve seen a few bloggers claim this as their second favorite Pym, after Excellent Women of course, but I liked Jane and Prudence better. However, this novel does have its strong points and is another quietly charming and droll little Pym that is very enjoyable and thought provoking.

Some Tame Gazelle takes place in recognizable Pym territory – a small English village centered around the church. Belinda and Harriet are two spinster sisters who live together next door to the vicarage. Belinda has always been in love with the Archdeacon and Harriet has a “thing” for curates. Though she has many admirers and marriage proposals Harriet prefers to dote on the young curates who serve in the village to the point of becoming possessive of them. The plot ambles along describing the comings and goings in the village, the surprising couplings of some of the villagers, Belinda’s quiet devotion to the Archdeacon and Harriet’s more unrestrained passion for her curates.

As always, Pym is funny and her characters are outstanding, but I think this is an unsettling novel. It  has an underlying sadness that I did not feel from the other two Pym’s I’ve read. Belinda is a lovely person, but her constant devotion to a man who is a narcissistic jerk made her almost too pathetic to like. Her sister’s preference for curates over having a real relationship frustrated me. Is Pym trying to convey that fantasy relationships are better than actual ones? That it is easier to love someone you know will not love you back rather than accept a flawed and complex person to have a partnership with? After all, her male characters are not ones I would want to marry.

Barbara Pym’s novels seem like frothy, humorous confections that you wouldn’t think deserved a second thought. But I have given them much thought after reading each of the three I’ve finished so far. Her novels constantly challenge the idea of womanhood, wifehood and what it really means to be a single woman in a marriage-based society.

I am so glad that I started reading Barbara Pym. Her novels are deeply satisfying on many levels. I think that A Glass of Blessings will be my next one. Have you tried her yet?

Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym

 

 

After reading Excellent Women I knew, just knew, that I had to read more of Pym’s novels. Jane and Prudence was the second one I read and I did love it, not as much as Excellent Women, but love it I did.

The two women of the title are old friends from Oxford. Jane is older and was Prudence’s tutor at college. She’s now married to a vicar and still has a fondness for her specialty, 18th century poetry.  Prudence is 29, single, works at a mysterious office in London, has a crush on her boss and is undeniably beautiful and tries to be glamorous. The two women’s lives intersect again when Jane decides to set Prudence up with her new neighbor Fabian Driver, a handsome widower.

The story is told with Pym’s signature wit and gentle handling of the absurdity of human beings and their quirks. Jane is not your typical vicar’s wife; she can’ t cook to save her life, her housekeeping skills are extremely below average and she always looks a mess. Yet she is very interested in people and likes the interaction with them that a vicar’s wife is privileged with. She feels her inadequacies keenly, but after 20 years of marriage she has learned not to let her lack of traditional skills bother her.

Prudence is an altogether different sort of woman. She relishes the domestic arts, dresses beautifully and is always well turned out, has a comfortable and inviting home and is a good cook. She’s not completely unhappy about being unmarried as she enjoys being courted and spoiled by men. She and Jane seem like a mismatched pair of friends, but something in each of them complements the other and they find each others’ lives fascinating.

The question of women’s roles are the foundation of this novel. I love how Pym gives the vicar’s wife absolutely no domestic talents yet the aging single woman is a wonderful homemaker and really isn’t all that interested in entering into a conventional union. It is all cloaked in Pym’s lovely, light humor and great characterizations.

The more I read Pym, the more I am impressed. Achieving such a buoyant style with complex undertones is much harder than it looks. I really admire her writing and I look forward to reading many more (if not all) of her novels.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

 

Excellent Women is Barbara Pym’s subtly witty and charming domestic novel centered around the wonderful and wise Mildred Lathbury. Mildred is an unmarried, thirty-something woman who leads a fairly predictable life in 1950’s London. She works part-time for an impoverished gentlewomen’s organization and spends the rest of her time serving at church and associating with her acquaintances from church, including Father Malory and his sister Winifred. When her dramatic new neighbors Rocky and Helena Napier befriend her she becomes their sounding board and adviser as their marriage starts to wilt. Mildred is attracted to the handsome and charismatic Rocky yet doesn’t really understand Helena, who is an anthropologist and has few domestic skills. Mildred has the single person’s natural curiosity about how marriage works and the Napiers are Mildred’s opportunity to observe the reality of a complicated marriage while trying to help them stay together.

Mildred also becomes entangled in the affairs of the Vicar and his new lodger Mrs. Gray and Everard Bone, a colleague of Helena’s. She seems to inadvertently take on the role of counselor to all the distressed people who surround her. Her ingrained good sense, lack of malice and true desire to assist people generate trust among her acquaintances. She does not openly seek this role or consequently enjoy it or feel comfortable in it, but she is one of those excellent women whom everyone relies on because she never lets them down and never expects much in return.

The great thing about Mildred is that she is so self-effacing and finds humor in her situation. She’s not perfect and she doesn’t always give the best advice, but she wants to be a good person and tries to quell her irritation and selfish tendencies. She’s also very aware of others’ imperfections and doesn’t judge them for their defects (except for maybe Helena’s inability to cook). I really absolutely love Mildred and now see her as an example and a role model (which I’m sure she would be baffled by) and am smitten with the little comforts she takes in life – her tea, her knitting, her small collection of cookbooks by the bedside.

Excellent Women is an excellent book! I am so glad that I finally read it and now I am committed to reading all of Pym’s novels. I love that Pym writes about spinsters who I can identify with. As an old-fashioned girl I’ve never felt like I’ve really recognized myself in any contemporary literary women, but I think there just might be a tiny piece of Mildred Lathbury in me and I’m happy about that.

What do other bloggers think?

Book Snob

Books & Chocolate

The Captive Reader

Ciao Domenica

Have you read any Rosamond Lehmann novels? Last year I read Invitation to the Waltz and really enjoyed it. So, I am thrilled that Florence from Miss Darcy’s Library is going to host a Rosamond Lehmann reading week sometime in the summer. I would love a chance to read more of her novels. Watch Florence’s blog for more information coming soon!

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

 

 

I’ll always be grateful to Simon and Harriet for proposing and promoting Muriel Spark Reading Week. Because of the event I got the chance to read a fantastic, funny and invigorating novel. So, thanks, guys!

Memento Mori is set in London in the ’50’s and the plot centers around a group of elderly friends and rivals. They’re all in varying states of mental and physical health. Shortly after one of their group dies Dame Lettie begins to receive phone calls from a mysterious man who tells her ” Remember you must die”. Incensed and shocked at these morbid messages, she contacts the police and demands an investigation. Meanwhile, her brother Godfrey and his wife Charmian and being swindled out of their money by an unscrupulous housekeeper and Charmian’s ex-companion, Jean Taylor, valiantly suffers in a nursing home. Soon, most of the members reveal that they’ve received the same phone call that has so upset Dame Lettie. However, they can’t agree on just who is making the calls. For some it is a young man, others think it is a woman, some get calls from older people, some insist it is a child. Their reactions to this caller are also varied. Dame Lettie becomes obsessed, Godfrey becomes agitated, Charmian quietly ignores it, but it is Jean Taylor (who strangely doesn’t receive the calls) who really knows what is going on.

I love Spark because she makes fun of things that we’re not supposed to make fun of. In this novel it is death and mortality. The serious subject of this book would never lead you to believe that it is hilariously funny. Spark’s subtle, sneaky, deadly humor is a wicked treat. It is not the kind of humor that had me howling, but I did smirk and snort quite a few times.

Spark’s characters, though nearing the end of their earthly lives, like to think about death about as much as the rest of us do. Their lives continue just as they always have with their petty jealousies, bitter rivalries, romantic entanglements, money foibles and family clashes. They let past transgressions and feuds cloud the last years of their lives. One of the group, Alec Warner, even records his observations and opinions on the behavior of his ‘elderly’ colleagues, intensely interested in the way they react and behave almost as a way of warding off his own aged status.  When the mysterious phone calls invade the routine of their lives the characters simply refuse to believe it is a serious message, though deep down it unsettles them. Is Spark saying that we should live to the fullest without giving heed to thoughts of death or that we should always keep in mind that we will someday die? I think the answer falls somewhere in the middle – live it up while you can, but know that it won’t last forever. What do you think?

I was really impressed by this refreshingly mischievous novel and I am now a big fan of Muriel Spark. Are all of her novels this funny? If so, I will definitely be reading more. If you haven’t ever read Spark I highly recommend her writing. She is extraordinarily clever.

 

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Last month, I went on a little spending spree and bought five of the new vintage-looking Mary Stewart editions published by Hodder & Stoughton last year. I just love the way these colorful covers look. They do Mary Stewart proud and make her novels a tad more enticing to today’s readers (I hope).

Thunder On the Right, my third Mary Stewart, was part of my spoils and has a lovely pale green cover that is just perfect. The background I used in the photo is a piece of fabric that Katrina from Pining for the West sent me and I think it is a great compliment. Thanks again, Katrina!

This book is the first Stewart I’ve read that takes place outside of England. It is set in the Pyrenees, the mountains that divide France and Spain. The plot involves a case of identity theft and the struggle to uncover the truth behind the switch.

Jennifer Silver, a young Englishwoman, travels to France to meet her cousin Gillian, but when she arrives she’s told that Gillian died in a convent after a horrible car crash. Not quite believing the nuns who tell her the news, she decides to stick around and investigate the accident to find out exactly what happened. Joined in her endeavors by a former boyfriend, she uncovers a sinister smuggling operation that somehow involves Gillian.

This novel is the least favorite of the Stewart novels I’ve read. The plot is pretty feeble and the evil characters are comically drawn. There is too much melodrama and not enough backstory to make it as interesting as the others I’ve read. And there is zero character development. Other reviews I’ve read online concede that this is perhaps Stewart’s weakest novel.

That being said, I gobbled it up and did not want to stop. I usually read Mary Stewart in the bath and they are so riveting, this one included, that I end up all pruney by the time I can pull myself away.

If you’re new to Stewart I wouldn’t recommend this as your first experience of her writing. It is probably best to read it when you are already addicted to her and can’t be discouraged from thinking she’s wonderful.