I decided to take a break from my pile of new books and re-read something I had previously enjoyed, written by Philippa Gregory.
I have to confess that most of her historical fiction featuring the Tudors has bored me silly for some reason—I have tried two different ones, and they just didn’t spark to life for me, despite being obsessed with this period of history and these characters back in my teen years. But the series I had in mind predated all of her “hits” and in fact was the first thing she ever wrote: The Wideacre trilogy, consisting of Wideacre, The Favored Child, and Meridon.
Together, they are the story of one small but perfect estate in Sussex—Wideacre—and the family who had title to and hold over it—the Laceys—in the time period of Georgian England. The trilogy spans three generations and marks massive changes in England, in the land, and in the family, which was steered badly astray by the obsession of one woman—Beatrice Lacey—for the land on which she grew up and which she is determined to have for her own, laws and rights of primogeniture notwithstanding. Her longing for the possession and control of Wideacre makes Scarlet O’Hara’s passion for Tara look like a tepid fancy.
I have actually read the third book, Meridon, several times, because it has elements I like: Travelers, a circus, horses, and a stubborn, suspicious, untrusting lost girl protagonist who immediately captured my imagination. But I decided to return to the first book instead, to refresh my memory of why I liked the entire trilogy so much.
After having finished Wideacre for a second time, I don’t think I will read through the subsequent books. Although I enjoyed it, it also made me a little weary, on two counts, the first being that it is 556 pages long, and the second that the protagonist got to me this time in a particular way that I think I didn’t entirely take in the first time through.
The thing I connected with most powerfully with the first read was the scene-setting. Wideacre is a palpable and powerful character in this book, as much as any of the humans depicted, and the descriptions and varieties of its beauty made me long to have the experiences Beatrice Lacey had, of riding the path up to the Downs to see the greater vista of the estate from their hilltops, of smelling the sweet scents of hay and wild poppies in the fields, of lying in a hollow in the shady woods or dangling my feet in the Fenny river. In that first read,
I could almost understand Beatrice’s obsession for her surroundings—we have all of us had some moment in our lives when our passions were invoked by a particular setting and we longed to be a part of it forever. But with my second read, I saw the sickness the single-minded pursuit of this one thing above all others brought with it to her life and the lives of all around her, despoiling the beauty she could have enjoyed freely, had she let go the need to possess it. This story is not for the squeamish—there are truly dark passages depicting the twisted relationships Beatrice creates to try to manipulate her way into the Squire’s role.
What struck me, however, with this re-read was a relevant passage that I reached almost at the end of the book. Beatrice has mortgaged the estate up to its eyebrows in order to break the entail and gift it to her heirs, and in doing so has bankrupted it, with the result that the people who live on her land, who were once important to her because they were part of her world, are now out in the cold while she rakes in every penny for herself. She is having a conversation with her tender-hearted and clear-eyed sister-in-law, who sees how she has wrecked the relationship with the cottagers and has challenged her on it. Beatrice tries to excuse her actions by saying that this is the new way of farming in England, that the investors must needs make a profit from the money they have provided. Celia’s response hit me right between the eyes.
“All of the people who write about the need for a man to have a profit are rich people. All they wish to prove is that their profits are justified. They will not accept the answer which is there before their eyes: that there is no justification.
“Why should the man who invests his money have his profit guaranteed, while the man who invests his labour, even his life, has no guaranteed wage?” she said. “And why should the man who has money to invest earn so very much more with his capital than a man could earn working at the very top of his strength, all day? If they were both to be rewarded equally, then after the debts had been paid and the new equipment bought, miners would live in houses and eat the food of the mine owners. And they clearly do not. They live like animals in dirt and squalor and they starve, while the mine owners live like princes in houses far away from the ugly mines.
“It is as bad here,” she said baldly. “The labourers work all day and earn less than a shilling. I do not work at all and yet I have an allowance of two hundred pounds a quarter. I have taken no risks with capital. I replace no machinery. I am paid simply because I am a member of the Quality and we are all wealthy. There is no justice in that, Beatrice. There is no logic. It is not even a very efficient way
“Celia,” [Beatrice] said again, “you simply do not understand. The less we pay the labourers the more profit we make. Every landowner wants to make as much profit as possible. Every landowner, every merchant, every businessman, tries to pay as little as possible to his workers.”
[And then Beatrice taunts Celia about her allowance and her dowry lands, and Celia reveals that she has been spending all her allowance on food and clothes for the village.]
“When the landlords are against the tenants as you are, Beatrice,” Celia said dully, “and when the employers have decided to pay the least they can, charity has no chance. All we are doing is prolonging the pain of people who are dying of want.”
“It is an ugly world you and your political economists defend, Beatrice. We all know it should be different and yet you will not do it. You and all the rich people. It is an ugly world you are building.”
Reading this in a time when the United States government is handing out windfalls right and left to big business—banks, airlines—while refusing to supplement all those out of work due to the pandemic whose severity has been exacerbated by its negligence; reading this when, in the face of massive unemployment across our nation, the CEOs of the biggest companies are adding millions or billions a day to their personal fortunes, on which they pay no taxes and for which they apparently suffer not a moment’s guilt, showed me the depth and breadth of the evil that has overwhelmed our land. Yes, I am calling it evil, for I can think of no other word to describe the potential effect of the Republicans finally, after all these years of aspiring, to actually have the cancellation of Social Security and Medicare within their grasp, to surrender our national parks to oil drillers, to decimate our school systems, to pack our courts with toadies, to perpetuate lies, calumny and outright treason to keep a man in office who will facilitate their soulless predations, and then make up reasons why we should see it as a good thing.
I think my impulse to read this book at this time brought me to a place I needed to go, and this is also why I don’t intend to re-read the other two books, although they are gripping stories and worth your consideration. I’m afraid they will just make me too sad. I don’t bring politics to this blog, normally, but these are not normal times. If you have any empathy in your heart for the less fortunate who are falling through the widening cracks in this version of our America, please use your voice and your vote to change things to a world where we can all do better, together.
One thing you have to do as a reader, if you are not to be eternally disgruntled with life, is to try not to have outsize expectations of authors. That’s tough sometimes, particularly if an author has never disappointed you with a single one of her books until the one you are reading right now, which you cannot believe came from the same person’s formerly fertile brain. Sometimes it’s not a matter of your icon having written a bad book, simply that she has written one that doesn’t resonate with you, or is directed to a different age group than you expected, or was written earlier in her career before she developed the amazing story-telling abilities that hooked you later on.
There are several authors I have run across who have surprised me in this way: One of them is Elizabeth George, whose masterful mysteries featuring the unlikely detective team of Thomas Lynley, son of the peerage, and Barbara Havers, woman of the people, cause me much excitement whenever they emerge. When I found out she was also trying her hand at young adult books, I was excited to see what she would produce, particularly because, as a teen librarian, I was always looking for a gifted “new” author to pitch to my YA book clubs. I read the first one the minute it hit the library shelf, and was both amazed and dismayed; where was the intricate plotting of her adult mysteries? This pseudo-paranormal mish-mash couldn’t be a product of the same sharp, incisive wit! I’m told that they did improve as she wrote more of them, but I never found out, I stopped at number one. I am still a dedicated fan of Lynley/Havers, and steadfastly ignore the rest.
Another author where the contrast isn’t so wide but nonetheless exists is V. E. (Victoria) Schwab. Her book Vicious is among my top 10 favorite books of all time, and I tout her Shades of Magic series to all and sundry, from 12-year-olds to the elderly. But her two series for young adults—The Archived and Monsters of Verity—left me feeling not exactly disappointed but certainly underwhelmed. I did enjoy the first of her Cassidy Blake books (City of Ghosts) for slightly younger readers, and I am looking forward to reading her new, long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which Schwab has spent 10 years bringing forth and of which she says, “I’ve put my heart and soul, my teeth and blood and bones into this one.” I’m really hoping that it falls into the “I want a copy so I can reread it multiple times” category and not into the “I’m wishing I had read something else this weekend” pile.
Anyway…that’s a long preface to say that I have experienced something similar this week with the book I chose. A few years back I read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, an historical fiction novel of World War II, set in Nazi-occupied France, with an American and a British protagonist, both women, one a pilot and the other a spy. To say the book captured my imagination as thoroughly as one of its protagonists is held hostage by the Germans is an understatement. I read it straight through in one sitting, and wept profusely several times, the first occasion on which a book has caused tears since I was a teenager. The story, and the specific way it was recounted, simply bowled me over, and I actually couldn’t read anything else for a couple of days while I thought about and recovered from the book.
I remember, when I read it, thinking, “I do not understand why this has been marketed and sold as a YA book. Will some teens love this book? Definitely. Is it a teen book? Not in the least.” I followed up by telling blog readers, “I find myself sad that [CNV] has been marginalized in any way from finding its full audience, because this book deserves to be widely read. Adults out there, recommend this to your teens, and then read it yourselves, and give it to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus.”
As you can imagine, this set up high expectations for all the rest of Wein’s oeuvre, and when I saw one of them for a discounted price from bookoutlet.com, I snapped it up and prepared to be wowed.
The book is The Pearl Thief, and it is as different as night and day or, to be specifically British about it, as chalk and cheese, to her previous work, even though its protagonist is one of the women from CNV, at age 15. And it is definitely written for a younger teenage audience. Before you expect me to pan it, let me say that it was a completely enjoyable read. But I was unconsciously expecting a level of drama and pathos, based on Code Name Verity, that simply didn’t manifest in this story.
If I hadn’t had specific expectations of this author, I still think I would have been intrigued by the book and its subject matter. It takes place in Scotland in 1938, and drops in at the end of an era for one family whose “perfect little Scottish estate, with a ruined castle and a baronial manor, nestled in woodland just where the River Fearn meets the River Tay” will no longer belong to the family, now that the death of Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s grandfather has triggered a reckoning. Lord Streathfern did all he could to save the house and the land for his heirs, but the combination of a lingering illness and a downturn in the economy made it necessary to sell up to a boys’ school, and the family are now inhabiting a small section of the house while the school administrators oversee the renovations and conversions necessary to turn it into the institution it will become. This will be Julie’s last summer on her grandfather’s land, with her brothers, her mother and grandmother, and the few servants left, and then they will move back to their own Craig Castle near Aberdeen, taking her widowed grandmother with them.
By broad contrast with Julie’s sheltered and privileged upbringing, the other vital characters in this story are the two teenagers, Ellen and Euan, in a family of Travelers who have spent seasons on Streathfern land time out of mind, helping harvest “tatties,” beating the bushes and collecting the downed birds during shooting holidays and, in between, collecting tin from the townsfolk and weaving baskets from the withies in the marshy land near the river. This land was ceded to them by right for the past 300 years in exchange for a small fortune in river pearls (which play a vital role in the story), but now the changing fortunes of the laird will mean change for them all.
As the story begins, Julie has just arrived home for the summer three days before she is expected. When no one is around up at the house, she changes out of her traveling outfit into a T-shirt and an old kilt and goes out hiking around the estate, reacquainting herself with her favorite haunts. One moment she is lying on the bank of the river with one arm immersed, tickling for trout in the deep, cold water, and the next she is awaking in a hospital ward with a splitting headache from a lump on her head, being treated with disrespect and disdain as the “tinker” girl they believe her to be. She discovers that she was found, unconscious, on a path in the woods, and brought into the hospital by two of the Travelers; once her mistaken identity is resolved, her mother is called, and she returns home, feeling battered and wondering about how it all happened.
It soon becomes clear that the thump on her head was no accident, and that it is probably directly related to a missing employee of the estate, who disappeared on the same day she landed in the hospital. Along with the two travelers, Euan and Ellen, she seeks out the reason why anyone would have sought to hurt her or the missing man and, in the process, must stand up for her Traveller friends as local bias against them starts framing Euan up for murder.
This book is a delightful combination of murder mystery, coming of age story, and a serious depiction of prejudice, as exhibited by many of the “regular” people towards the Travelers they hold in suspicion and distrust for their alternate lifestyle. Although it wasn’t quite what I expected in terms of drama and emotional engagement, it surprised me (in a good way) with its exposition of the themes Wein did choose to explore. I think adults could enjoy the book, but it is definitely written with teens in mind, and is one of those books one could recommend that promotes empathy to its young readers. The book would be appropriate for anyone 12 and up, although probably a lower age of 14 would find it more relateable.
This review is also to say, placing expectations on your favorite authors and holding them to some rigid ideal may make you miss out on books they wrote that are different but nonetheless effective and providing of considerable enjoyment.
ADDENDUM: Today (according to a post on Facebook) is National Book Lovers Day. I’m not making a special post like for the cats, because EVERY day is book lovers’ day here @TheBookAdept!
Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…
Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:
The Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.
The Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.
NEW FEATURE: I have so many years of eclectic reading in my past that several friends have suggested I go back and dredge up the memory of books that bowled me over when I read them first, and briefly share them here. I agreed that the chance to revisit some old favorites would be a pleasure. Also, in the context of giving good readers’ advisory services in the library, the truth is that the new books at the top of the bestseller list are checked out, with multiple (or hundreds of) holds, so it’s good to have backup in an old book that might fulfill the same desires as the new one. So here goes…
M. M. Kaye wrote a series of murder mystery/romances called Death in [fill in the blank], from Berlin to Zanzibar, as well as some straight-up romances set in exotic locales and involving typical male leads such as pirates and slave traders. But one of her books stands out far above the rest: The Far Pavilions. Even though she wrote some of them before and some of them after, I feel like all her other books were rehearsals so she could get everything right in this one.
It’s a long and complicated epic with lots of historical context, and it paints such a vivid picture of India under the British Raj and Britain’s incursions into Afghanistan that you can almost smell the dust and hear the bullets whistling past your ears. The hero and heroine are the products of two separate cultures, and their status as misfits in both societies draws them together as children and reunites them as adults in a poignant love story that plays out against a volatile background of war and empire-building. The book is 958 pages long, and I have read it three times; I’m sure I’ll read it again someday! If you are a fan of historical fiction but are looking for something with a different setting to the ordinary, this book will fulfill those desires.
Just as there are “crossover” books written for adults but both suitable for and interesting to teens (see “Alex Awards“), there are also some teen books that are equally readable by adults. In fact, for some of them, it’s a shame that they have been marketed and sold as a Young Adult title, because they deserve to be widely read.
One of these is the historical fiction book Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein.
The book starts out a little confusingly: It’s about two young women in World War II England, mostly before America has entered the war. One of the women is a spy; the other is a pilot. Together, they make a great team. But the team has been split up: One of them has fallen into Nazi custody, and is being tortured to write down every detail she can dredge up about the British War Effort. She decides to write it down not from her own point of view but from that of her friend’s. It took me a while to get comfortable with the way the narrative has been switched around, but once I did, I was riveted.
I can say almost nothing about this book without giving away significant details that you should be allowed to discover on your own. I will say that the first half of the book is heart-breaking, but by the time you get to the twist in the middle, you are no longer reading the story, you are living it. I am not an emotional reader, but this book made me weep, both with sorrow and with joy. This story is among the best historical fiction I have read.
Nation, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, creator of Disc World, is a stand-alone story of apocalyptic adventure in an alternate world much like ours. Its protagonist, Mau, is woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that changes everything; he has been living alone on the Boys’ Island, preparing to leave his boy soul there and make his transition to manhood in the ways of his tribe. But on the morning he sets out in his canoe to return to the island and people he knows as the Nation, everything there is destroyed by a giant tidal wave. The wave does wash something up on his shore, though—a ship with a sole survivor, a girl from an empire halfway around the globe, who will help him work through both shattering doubts and confidence-building certainties about the new life they both must create.
This book is deeply philosophical, examining complex religious and cultural concepts, but Pratchett dresses the philosophy in a wardrobe of ghosts and gods, talking parrots and mutineers, cannibals and secret treasures, forming a seamless story that keeps you enthralled to the very last page. While this was an honor book in 2009 for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and will certainly appeal to teens, it is a wonderful story for all ages. And, as with all Pratchett novels, it has many funny moments as well.
Although Meg Rosoff is best known for her post-apocalyptic teen book, Where I Live Now, one of her lesser known titles sticks in my mind as a great read for both older teens and adults. In The Bride’s Farewell, set in 1850s rural England and with a Hardyesque feel, Pell Ridley leaves her home in the middle of the night to avoid marrying her childhood beau; she can’t bear the thought of repeating her mother’s life of domestic drudgery and constant child-bearing. Her mute little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind, so the two ride her white horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Horse Fair, hoping to find work. When she loses everything dear to her, Pell must discover her own resources—both inner and outer—and decide what’s worth fighting for, clinging to, or surrendering.
I couldn’t put this book down—I started it at 7:00 p.m. one night, and finished it at midnight. It contains wonderful scene-setting as well as compelling characters and situations. Rosoff’s language is spare, but deeply emotional.
So…adults out there—by all means recommend these to your teens, but read them yourselves as well! And mention them to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus!