Just Read Elizabeth Taylor

ET

I don’t know what it is about Elizabeth Taylor, but her books completely hypnotize me. I should always turn to her when I am in a reading slump because her writing jolts me right out of the funk. I started The Soul of Kindness a couple of Saturdays ago, finished it the following Monday and could barely put it down between chores and eating and sleeping and work. Since then, I’ve been reading steadily. This summer I’ve also inhaled Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont and Blaming.

Of the three, Mrs. Palfrey was my favorite. It is set almost entirely in a London hotel that caters to elderly patrons who have no where else to go. Mrs. Palfrey is a somewhat genteel and proper woman who doesn’t quite approve of her fellow inhabitants yet maintains a tense friendship with them. Her life is routine, boring and lacking in close connections (her daughter and grandson really don’t want much to do with her) until she unexpectedly meets a young writer, Ludo, who tentatively agrees to pose as Mrs. Palfrey’s grandson in order to allow her to save face with her new friends at the hotel. They develop an awkward relationship – Mrs. Palfrey clearly adores him, but Ludo mostly feels curiosity about this elderly woman and observes her closely in order to use his knowledge in his writing. A heartbreaking ending had me in tears.

To me, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont captures the signature Elizabeth Taylor trait of seeing people through unsentimental eyes yet soliciting from the reader a sympathy and a tenderness toward them nevertheless. Mrs. Palfrey is not an entirely loveable character, as are none of the people in her novels, yet they’re real, they’re flawed and they’re familiar. She really knows how to portray the pain and disappointment of human relationships to an almost depressing degree but also shows that most people are redeemable and deserve a break, even some of her more monstrous characters like Angel Deverell.

I’m now reading Palladian and will make my way down the line of all her novels as I’ve now collected her entire oeuvre. I think she is a brilliant author and I hope you will try her if you haven’t already. She writes with a poise and remoteness that might be hard to connect with at first, but please persevere – you won’t be disappointed.

*Some members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group have started a thread for Mary Stewart Reading Week – pop over if you have a chance!*

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Happy, Happy New Year

new year

Best wishes for the new year!

I was going to write a post yesterday on my best books of 2013, but the company who hosts my blog had a server outage and I couldn’t access my blog for the majority of the day and then…I became obsessed with a knitting project.  So, in lieu of doing a best books list this year I’ll share six books, three classics and three contemporary titles, that provided me with a superior reading experience in 2013 and that I highly recommend to you.

The classics: Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

The contemporaries: Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

Here’s to lots of fabulous books and wonderful conversations in 2014!

Last Mini Thoughts of the Year

angel

These are the last three books I’ve read, but hopefully not the last of the year – I’m determined to finish The Goldfinch by Wednesday.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer – The premise of this book could have been brilliant – three different women in different years, 1985, 1942, and 1918 all switch places after having electric shock therapy. Every time one of them gets a treatment they move to one of the different eras. We see the story from the viewpoint of Greta, who originally lives in 1985.  I read this book in two days and I would call it a ‘throw away’ novel. Entertaining, yet ultimately forgettable and not at all brilliant.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey – This short Persephone Classic, which is the length of a novella, takes place in one setting and in one day – the home of the Thatcham’s on daughter Dolly’s wedding day. It is really a small series of sketches that give us a glimpse into the family, but only that – the reader is left to assume an awful lot. This vagueness is made up for with cutting humor and a sense of chaos and urgency that propels you to the end. I liked this book, wanted more and think I will probably read it again some time to pick up on the subtle details I’m sure I missed on my first read.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – I’ve saved the best for last. Angel is my third book by Elizabeth Taylor this year and cemented my devotion to her writing. I completely adored this story about a delusional, narcissistic girl who becomes a famous and quite wealthy romance author at the beginning of the 20th century. Once you encounter her, you will never forget Angel Deverell – she epitomizes the terms ‘living in her own little world’ and ‘blind to reality’. Everything revolves around her, everyone exists to satisfy her needs and wants and she’s completely oblivious to how her actions affect those around her, not that she has many friends as you can imagine. Reading this felt almost like a fairy tale to me as Angel has created her own version of the perfect world and blithely refuses to let reality creep in. Her gowns, her houses and her relationships all conform to the notions she’s created in her head from childhood. The last third of the book is especially beautiful as Angel confronts aging and poverty and the reader is allowed to pity her. This is a spectacular book and a great place to start with Elizabeth Taylor if you’ve never read her.

More about these novels:

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding at The Captive Reader

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding at The Worm Hole

Angel at A Work in Progress

Angel at Stuck in a Book

And here is a short essay about Elizabeth Taylor in the NYT Book Review.

Enjoy the last Sunday of the year!

At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs. Lippincote's

“Did the old man die here? What do you think?” Julia asked, as her husband began to come upstairs.

One Christmas break when I was in college I house sat for a neighbor while she was on vacation. For two weeks I slept in her bed, cooked in her kitchen, watched her tv,  read on her porch and snuggled with her dogs. It was nice to be on my own and to have a break from my roommates, but it was also a bit uncomfortable to inhabit a relative stranger’s home and unsettling to live among objects that were not my own. In Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel At Mrs. Lippincote’s the Davenant family experiences much the same uneasiness.

Towards the end of the second world war Roddy Davenant is transferred to a new town (he’s in the RAF) and moves his wife Julia, son Oliver and cousin Eleanor into a rented home that belongs to Mrs. Lippincote. All of her furniture and belongings are left behind in the house and Julia and Eleanor set about setting up a home in these borrowed surroundings. The plot follows the characters as they question their lives and learn things about each other that change their relationships and family dynamic, mostly not for the good.

Julia is a remarkable character, a woman who is private, harsh and blunt yet a romantic. She doesn’t suffer fools, but she has a soft heart that leads her to connect with unlikely people. Roddy is your typical husband and soldier of this era and, though she loves him, she has no interest in playing the role of the typical wife and conflict ensues. Add to this mix Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, a single middle-aged woman who takes up with a band of Communists and conceals the friendship from Roddy who will not approve. Basically, the women in this novel rebel, perhaps because they don’t feel comfortable or in control of their own home.

Julia’s relationship with her young son Oliver is also rocky as he is precocious and sickly with a huge appetite for books (he’s seven and has read Jane Eyre) and causes her much worry and resentment. Their relationship, though, is really charming and I loved reading about Oliver’s favorite books and their conversations about his reading. It is one of the most delightful parts of the novel especially when Roddy’s boss, the Wing Commander, joins in the discussion.

Taylor’s writing continues to feel stiff to me and not easy to read, but reading her short stories alerted me to her style so I was ready for this novel. If you don’t like short stories and want to read her I would suggest this as a first try because it is short and not as hard to get into as some of her other novels that I’ve tried.

From what I’ve read to this point I’d say that her books are full of subversive women. They may not march down the middle of main street to protest the mistreatment, disrespect and boredom they endure, but they certainly act out in small ways within their own spheres. I am intrigued by them and will continue to read Taylor to meet more of these interesting women.

Other thoughts:

The Captive Reader

Harriet Devine

Heavenali

Stuck in a Book

Will you try Elizabeth Taylor?

The Secret History + The Blush

secret history

The Secret History by Donna Tartt – I don’t know how to describe my experience of The Secret History. It is about an elite group of college students who primarily study Classics under a dynamic mentor named Julian. They have special status at their college and are seen by the other students as odd and mysterious. For reasons that are very logical to themselves (and, disturbingly, to the reader) they murder one of their members, Bunny, and the rest of the novel unravels the mystery of why he is murdered and explores the aftermath of their decision. I started out absolutely adoring this novel. The first half is a brilliant piece of atmospheric writing, placing the reader straight into beautiful and rural Vermont at a small, elite college with wealthy, eccentric and  intelligent students. But the second half…oh, brother. I hated it. I hated reading about their endless drunken binges, drug fests and rotten, selfish antics. I wished all of them had been murdered. I only suffered through the mess because of the hope that things would magically right themselves by the end. And there was redemption. The ending was unexpected yet beautiful and right. So, I had very strong feelings about this book and I can’t decide if I really think it is gorgeous or silly or a big mash of both, but it is worth reading.

The Blush by Elizabeth Taylor – The Blush is a collection of stories by Taylor, a much admired author among bloggers. I have tried to read several of Taylor’s novels and could not connect with them at all so I bought this volume hoping that her stories would be a better introduction to her writing. And they were. To me, her writing is cold and hard to embrace, but it is worth giving her prickly prose a shot because there is lots of humor, truth and spark in her characters and her writing. I like that her stories are all very different, focusing on different settings, classes, and time periods. This lady is harsh on her characters and spares no embarrassing detail of their lives. I cringed through quite a few of the stories because I just felt so sorry for the characters and I was uncomfortable for them. She really has no pity at times. My favorite story of the bunch is called ‘Poor Girl’ and is a ghost story, though an ambiguous one. It is quite sensual and impressively dark Victorianish – it somewhat reminded me of Sarah Waters. I’m glad I read The Blush because I no longer fear Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, I am currently reading At Mrs. Lippincote’s and think it is fantastic.

Have you read either of these books? Are there any authors that you can’t connect with?