Between my inclination to read almost any book that’s about an artist and my steadfast desire to visit Venice someday, I could hardly resist a book with this title. I have read books by Rhys Bowen before (mostly from her Molly Murphy mysteries) and found them pleasant and entertaining without being particularly compelling; this one, while not written to a formula as is the mystery series, had a little more going for it, but its content didn’t quite meet its potential.
This is historical fiction, which is Ms. Bowen’s specialty, but the historical context suffered a bit by her putting the personal stories first and not sufficiently researching some of her background material, which surprised me. And while she tries to set a vibrant scene in Venice, some of her prose felt like generic descriptions from not very original guidebooks.
Part of the problem with the scene-setting may be that both of her characters are so melancholy most of the time that anything they describe carries a pall of personal gloom with it. The story is told from two perspectives—Juliet’s primarily from the war years (1938-45), and Caroline’s from 2001. Juliet Browning was an aspiring artist who attended art school for one year in her youth and then had to drop out and get a job to support the family when her father lost everything on the Stock Exchange in 1928. The story revolves around three separate trips that Juliet makes to Venice: One, when she is just out of school, a cultural pilgrimage chaperoned by her Aunt Hortensia; one, 10 years later, when she is chaperone herself to a group of girls from the school at which she is the art mistress; and a third a year after that, when she is granted a bursary through her school to spend a year in Venice studying at the Art Academie.
In the contemporary story, Caroline Grant is struggling to accept the end of her marriage when she receives an unexpected bequest. Her beloved great-aunt Lettie (Juliet) dies and leaves her a sketchbook, three keys, and a few final words that include a prompt to go to Venice. Caroline’s son is in New York City with his father, too traumatized (according to his dad, anyway) to fly back to England after the events of 9/11; Caroline decides to take her mind off her troubles by making a pilgrimage to Venice to scatter Juliet’s ashes in the city she loved. She also hopes to find out exactly what happened to Juliet there more than 60 years ago. Until Lettie passed away, Caroline assumed that she had been the same stolid, pleasant spinster her whole life, but perhaps there is a past there.
The plot line hinges on romance: On her first trip to Venice, Juliet meets Leonardo da Rossi, the attractive and charismatic son of one of the ruling families of Venice, and they have a “moment” that is repeated on her second visit. But Leo is destined to marry to suit his family’s business interests, and by the time Juliet returns in 1939, he has been married for some time to Bianca.
Connections that Caroline makes once in Venice lead (somewhat too fortuitously) to her own encounter with a descendent of Leo’s, and with some assistance from and discussion with him, Caroline begins to put together a timeline and a story of her aunt’s days in Venice. A lot of the revelations about Juliet come from a diary that she kept and Caroline discovers, although gaps in it lead to some confusion and false leads until additional clues are acquired. It’s all rather serendipitous.
As I said at the beginning, although this is supposedly a romance about an artist and a beautiful city that steals her heart, the melancholy nature of both the personal and global stories bogs it down. Juliet is first frustrated by the truncated nature of her visit to Venice with her strict aunt; then she is wistful as she conducts her young art school charges around the city, because they don’t seem to appreciate what she would have given anything to experience in their places; and when she finally arrives to stay for a year, living there and studying art, although she does make some friends and have some positive experiences, she is self-conscious about being so much older than the other art students, and she is depressed by the fact that Leo da Rossi is off limits.
Overlaid on Juliet’s story is, of course, the progress of World War II as it relates to Italy and specifically to Venice, and it begins as a constant menace that fails over and over to turn into something concrete, a hovering cloud that never actually rains (so the narrative seems like it contains a lot of false alarms); and then when things finally change for the worse, the story is so relentlessly focused on how it is affecting Juliet and her immediate circle that it’s hard to get an idea of the actual historical facts. I won’t go so far as to say it’s clichéd, but it’s a bit one-dimensional and shallow.
Meanwhile, Caroline is bitter that her husband has left her (after she has supported his career at the expense of hers) to hook up with a famous musician and make good with his fashion designs. She reluctantly agrees to joint custody with Josh of their son, Teddy, six, who stays with her in England during the school year and goes to his father in New York City for the summer and winter holidays. She complains a fair bit about all of it, but doesn’t take any action (like getting a lawyer), and then the outside world intrudes as the planes crash into the World Trade Center, separating her from her son for an extended period. Her impulse is to fly to New York as soon as that becomes possible and take Teddy back, but instead she embarks on this quest to Venice, with all of this hanging over her head.
It’s not all depression and despair—there are fun and funny moments here and there, and some genuine feelings are expressed—but it’s not a happy story, not a traditional romance with a HEA, but also not an achievement for historical fiction. I think that if the background events had been more compellingly and immediately presented, it would have been a better book. I’m not panning it, but it wasn’t a five-star read for me; maybe a three.
It’s been many years since I read a Stephen King book; not because I haven’t liked some of them, but for a combination of reasons including a dislike of most horror and a prevailing impulse to call his editor and tell him to automatically edit out 300 pages from everything King writes. There was a time, in my youth, when I gravitated towards gigantic tomes—the longer the better!—and managed to immerse myself until the deed was done. I find these days that I am a bit more impatient, and it takes some really good writing, story-telling, and character/world building to keep my attention.
But…as I have mentioned before, I am a sucker for time travel. Also, for all children of the ’60s, the biggest conundrum was and remains the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, that new, young, charismatic leader whose death was variously chalked up to Lone Gunman Lee Oswald or a mysterious shooter from the grassy knoll, and attributed to J. Edgar Hoover, Lyndon Johnson (impatient to succeed), or the CIA for some reason having to do with Cuba. Put those elements together, and it was inevitable that I would get around to reading 11-22-63 by Stephen King.
The idea of going back in time to kill Hitler or witness the birth of Jesus or whatever has always been out there; but most time travel writers find some unbeatable reason why it can’t be done—like simply stating, “If something happened, then it happened.” otherwise known as the Novikov self-consistency principle. Even if you allow for the possibility of paradox, the problem with changing something in the past is, of course, that it has the potential to alter all future outcomes, so even if it were possible, people might hesitate to do it—unless there was a really good reason. This is the idea upon which King’s book is built—that if JFK hadn’t died, everything would have turned out differently—presumably better (for instance, no war in Vietnam)—and that’s a really good reason to go back and thwart the assassination.
The method of time travel in this book is vague. It’s not even loosely based in science or invention—there’s no time machine, no De Lorean or Tardis, no black hole in space, it’s more like a version of Narnia, reached via a portal at the back of a wardrobe or, in this case, the pantry of a local diner. And it leads to only one place and time, a small town in Maine in 1958. It is from this place and time that Jake Epping, aka George Amberson departs 2011 and takes up residence in the ’50s, making a living as a substitute teacher while he scopes out Oswald, his associates, his various addresses, and his ultimate destination—Dallas, the Texas School Book Depository, and November 22nd, 1963, when JFK drives through town in an open car to meet his fate.
In the process of taking on this quest, “George” will also meet and change the lives of a bunch of other people, and fall for the love of “his” life, small-town school librarian Sadie Dunhill, thereby endlessly complicating what was already nigh impossible to achieve.
All the potential for a roller-coaster ride of a story is built right in, and King provides a lot of exciting moments…and a lot of sitting and waiting. Since the only entry point to the past is 1958, and returning to 2011 means the time on the “other side” resets to 1958, Jake has no other choice but to take on an identity that will allow him to live in the past for five years while waiting for the right moment to take out Lee Harvey Oswald. Even though there is research involved, and even though we are provided with such distractions as a rescue mission for an unrelated family and Jake’s romance with the beautiful but ungainly Sadie, it’s about 700 pages of waiting before we get to the ultimate climax, which then goes by quickly and with much less explanation than this reader would have liked.
Also, you have to keep in mind that even though this is presented as an alternate history, Stephen King is, when all is said and done, a horror writer. He can’t resist adding in sinister bits involving characters or even whole towns that give him the willies; he makes the hero the target of various ill-intentioned people or groups, leading to a fair amount of violence and uncertainty; and history itself is cast as the “monster” of the tale. Jake comments (more than 60 times, as another Goodreads reviewer helpfully provided) on the immutability of the past and its obduracy, and this irrevocable tendency manifests as a series of catastrophes that intervene between Jake and his goal. No, it’s not a clown, but it’s still creepy.
The part I found most disap-pointing is the many oppor-tunities King misses to comment on the time and place as it was; instead, he does a virtual whitewash. Despite some of the threatening characters, questionable neighborhoods, and ominous events, the 1950s are primarily presented as a place where the “real” food tastes so much better (butter, root beer, deep-fried lobster), people in the ideal small town are trusting (leaving their doors unlocked and greeting one another as they walk down the street), and the automobiles are an aficionado’s dream (tailfins). He mentions the ever-present smoking of cigarettes and the bad smells of unregulated industry and diesel-belching transport, yet fails to find them particularly offensive; he gives (and then repeats) exactly one example of the separate-and-unequal state of bathrooms for whites vs. “colored people” but neglects to further notice or comment upon any inequities he sees, whether they be race-related or examples of rampant sexism. I think I could have forgiven this aspect of the book more easily had it been a fast-paced thriller; but there are at least (the aforementioned) 300-400 pages where we wander from New Orleans to Dallas to Fort Worth and back again, pondering what little is known about Oswald, attempting to observe he and his family and his associates, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Some of that waiting could have been more profitably spent.
Ultimately, I did enjoy more than half of this flash to the past…but for all the reasons cited above, I could have loved it better.
I suppose it’s slightly ironic, given that my last post was an enthusiastic recommendation for half a dozen Regency romances, that I don’t normally care for books with blatantly happy endings. Given that statement, it’s even more unlikely that I would bother to pick up a book actually titled The Keeper of Happy Endings. But Barbara Davis combined several elements that lured me in, including the presence of Paris as one backdrop for the story, an artist whose dream was to open a gallery, a seamstress who created couture wedding gowns (yet another form of art), and historical elements set in World War II.
The basic set-up for the story is that it takes place partly in the present day, which in this book is 1985 Boston, and partly (in flashback) during the middle years of World War II, in German-occupied France. It brings together two women who share a similar tragedy in their lives: Soline Roussel, whose fiancé drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in France, and went missing, presumed captured and killed by the Germans; and Rory Grant, whose fiancé is kidnapped, presumably for ransom, while working in the Sudan for Doctors Without Borders.
When the story opens in 1985, Rory’s fiancé, Hux, has been gone for about six months with no word of his fate. Her life has become a waiting game, and she has dropped all pretense of continuing without him; although she is supposed to be preparing for a return to college in the fall, followed by an internship in Paris, she sits at home and reads romance novels, for the distraction and also because she hopes for her own happy ending.
In flashback, Soline Roussel is a young woman working with her mother in their bridal salon. Generations of the women of her family have created “lucky” wedding gowns: a “wish” or charm is embroidered into the dress, and so many of the brides who marry in a Roussel gown end up with good relationships and generally lucky lives that the women (and gowns) have gained a reputation for magic. But the onset of World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Germans has put an end to the business and, after her mother dies of cancer, Soline is at loose ends. She ends up volunteering at a hospital, where she meets Anson Purcell, a Yale man from Boston who drives an ambulance, and he soon becomes the love of her life. Fearful that the Germans will capture Soline and use her against him so that he will reveal details of the Resistance work in which he is secretly involved, Anson sends her off to America
Back in the present day, the two women come together when Rory decides that she will revisit a dream (in which Hux encouraged her) to open an art gallery to exhibit previously unknown artists, and discovers the perfect location for it, the former bridal shop (in Boston) belonging to Soline Roussel. The building was decimated by a fire four years previously, and was partially rebuilt but remains empty. Rory persuades the reclusive Soline to lease it to her and, in the process, Soline recognizes a kinship between herself and the heartbroken girl, and a friendship is born.
This book has a lot going for it. There is a nice balance between the story in the past and the one in the present. There are complex relationships, notably Rory’s with her mother, Camilla, and Soline’s with her own mother and also with Anson. The historical details of the flashback portions of the book feel real and explore some uncommon details about World War II . I wished for more information about Soline’s career in couture as well as the methodology behind Rory’s chosen art form, but both were adequate to the story. The romance was satisfying. There were interesting twists and turns that kept me reading until far later than prudent into the early morning hours.
Are you sensing a “but”? Well…in many ways this was a beautiful and complex story that I wanted to love. But at a certain point, things became too predictable and certainly too coincidental to suspend disbelief, and I know, I know, I should have seen it coming from the title of the book, but the wrap-ups and happy endings for so many of the characters set my teeth on edge. Yes, there is a part of me that thrilled to the fulfillment of everyone’s dreams; but there is a reason I don’t read much romance, and it’s this: There is also a cynic in me that flat-out doesn’t believe it, and wants the complexity of a partial fail or, at least, a tiny bit of the unknown to remain.
I will, therefore, give a qualified recommendation for this book, which is, if you are fond of the perfect ending, especially after a lot of intervening suspense about what will happen, you will adore it. But if you are like me, with an inbred cynic who sits on the sidelines and scoffs, then you will like it, but not nearly as much.
I am sure that I have enthused on here about the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer far too much for most people’s taste, so I’m going to just plant a teaser and let you do what you will: I did a re-read of The Convenient Marriage this week, in between other books, and it made me think about which are my favorites of hers and why, and it all has to do with the protagonist. I’m sure you could say that about many books, but with these, in particular, if the main character doesn’t shine, it’s going to fall flat, no matter how beloved the genre, period, scene-setting, etc. So here are mine (and some double as the name of the book):
The Grand Sophy)
HORATIA (HORRY) (from
The Convenient Marriage)
NELL (from April Lady)
KITTY (from Cotillion)
And yes, upon reviewing these, it has also to do with the male leads: Mr. Beaumaris, the Marquis of Alverstoke, Viscount Sheringham, the Earl of Rule, Lord Giles Cardross, and Freddy Stanton from Cotillion, who is the best anti-hero ever.
So I guess, if pressed, these would be my favorites out of the 28 (?) she wrote (in no particular order, except that the one I’m currently reading is always the favorite!). If you’re not a complete ninnyhammer, you will read them and see for yourself!
As I have previously mentioned here, sometimes I take a break between what I would consider more “significant” works (or at least the works of writers unknown to me) to read something lighthearted, whether that is a book written with juveniles as its audience, or a “bit of fluff” characterized by chick lit or Regency romance. This past week or so, I did both, with some surprising results.
The first book I picked up was The Extraordinaries, by T. J. Klune. Given that Vicious, by V. E. Schwab, is one of my favorite books ever, I had high expectations for a book in which ordinary people have the potential to become extraordinary, and the extraordinaries have complicated relationships with their ordinary contemporaries (and with one another). What can I say? First, I have to face that there is no comparing any book with the brilliance that is Vicious. It stands alone (well, except for its sequels). Second, I read Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea first, absolutely fell in love with that, and then read this. Who could not be a little disappointed?
The Extraordinaries is exactly as billed: A YA novel about a kid with ADHD who wants to be a superhero or, alternatively, wants to be beloved of a superhero. It’s cute, it’s inclusive, it’s frank and matter-of-fact about sexuality, it has some great characters, and teens will love it. Me? Not as much. I see its worth and its value without being able to immerse myself in its story. Also, I feel like the (ultra-serious) post-er who decried the glorification of the police (always the good guys, regardless of bad behavior) in this had a point. Not to the extent he carried it, but still…yeah. But for kids who like comics and graphic novels, this is a next step, and a fun one. I had planned to read the sequel, Flash Fire, but after the first couple of chapters I put it aside. It’s not that it’s not good, it’s just not for me. But like I said, teens (especially lgbtq etc. teens) will be enthused. (I do, however, look forward to the sequel to Cerulean Sea with unabated hope.)
I decided instead to move on to my reliable go-to author for light relief, the inimitable Georgette Heyer, writer of the quintessential Regency romance. But I ended up being surprised by a book that was not quite like most others she has written. A Civil Contract is surprisingly serious in tone compared to her light, frothy stories of witty, clever people, and owes much to Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility.
It has a common theme of star-crossed lovers who may or may not prevail, and who probably appreciate the person with whom they end up more than the one they initially desired. But in this case there is no blinding realization that they have come to love that person, but rather a quiet acceptance that the relationship they have created will in the long run suit better, regardless of their feelings.
Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, an officer in the Peninsular War, is called home upon his father’s demise to discover that his family’s fortune has been decimated by his happy-go-lucky, completely improvident parent, and that he is on the verge of ruin. He has a mother and two sisters to support, and the youngest is not yet “out” (presented to society); without a dowry or indeed any basic support, her fate at least will be grim if he can’t figure out their financial situation in a hurry.
Before he left for the war, Adam had an understanding with Julia Oversley, for whom he has conceived what he believes to be a lasting passion, and which is returned by the beautiful Julia. But he knows that her father is not so unworldly as to agree to a marriage between his daughter and a man who can’t support her. While he is steeling himself to sell significant parts of the family’s estate, including the country seat, Julia’s father approaches him with the idea that he make a marriage of convenience with the daughter of a fabulously wealthy but admittedly vulgar merchant, Jonathan Chawleigh, to whom Mr. Oversley owes a favor. In exchange for his daughter Jenny achieving the social status that comes with marriage into an aristocratic family, Chawleigh will pay the myriad bills accrued to the estate and buy back all of Adam’s mortgages on the country home. Jenny, a school friend of Julia’s, goes into the marriage knowing that Adam still loves Julia. And the rest of the book details the emotions still held by the two parties in the doomed love match, as well as the new wife’s adaptation to being married to a man who not only doesn’t love her, but holds her father in revulsion, despite his own resolve, for being who he is and wielding power over Adam’s every decision.
This book, rather than a recounting of the making of a marriage, is an exploration of what constitutes a successful one once the deed is done. It incorporates the many sacrifices one has to make by tolerating the baggage of relatives and friends that come with a partner; it reveals the necessity of kindness, tolerance, patience and, above all, a sense of humor. It showcases, in fact, that the significant parts of married life are the ordinary, everyday events rather than the moments of exaltation or grand passion.
Julia Oversley is the Marianne Dashwood of the story—beautiful, impulsive, sensitive, willful, and somewhat selfish—while Jenny is Elinor—practical, somewhat shy and retiring, and more concerned for the feelings of others (specifically Adam’s) than for her own. Jenny’s father, Jonathan Chawleigh, is somewhat reminiscent of Sir John Middleton, in that he speaks his mind in an embarrassing manner without thought for what he is saying or how it will affect his listeners. But he goes far beyond that character in both coarseness and good-heartedness, and steals the show whenever he appears on the page.
There was rather too much historical narrative for my taste regarding the various engagements between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, but it’s well written and definitely pivotal to the plot. This is one of the few books of Heyer’s that has a quiet, satisfying ending rather than an “Ahah!” moment, but it doesn’t suffer for that. While it was an unexpected read in the midst of Heyer’s others, I still both enjoyed and appreciated it.
When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.
I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.
Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.
The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.
The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.
The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.
Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.