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Edith Wharton – The Age Of Innocence

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Everything is awesome (caveat: when you’re part of the team)1.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51128-1)
First Published: 1920
Date Reviewed: 23rd February 2018
Rating: 5/5

1870s New York and young Newland Archer is excited at the prospect of marrying May Welland, looking forward to making their engagement official. But as he watches the opera in his club box, he spies a newcomer with his fiancée’s family; May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska has separated from her European husband and has come to stay in America. Ellen is rather different to the rest, her European ways at odds with New York society and everyone hopes she’ll reunite with her husband… everyone except Newland who is strangely attracted to her.

The Age Of Innocence is a marvellous novel with a highly ironic title. Set at a time of change, it looks at the way a society that does not favour the arts, or anything even one step away from their etiquette and mores, responds when they are confronted with a person who is slightly associated with it.

Wharton speaks of a society she was a member of and uses Newland to examine it as well. There is a lot of characterisation in the book but most of it is by rights and by design set aside for Newland. As the main character (the book is written in the third person) Wharton spends most of her time in his head. Her relative lack of characterisation of the other characters, barring Madame Olenska, is almost a theme in itself, with the society members effectively rendered as stereotypes as befitting Newland’s opinions of them, which, let’s just say, aren’t always correct (and can be frustrating at times). It’s an interesting sort of character-driven novel – there’s actually more plot than characterisation aside from Newland yet it remains character-driven.

In many ways everyone is a device for Wharton but none more so than the unsuspecting Newland who is used by Wharton to look at the perceived lack of female agency in society, as well as his own thoughts as to teaching his wife what he deems appropriate for her to know.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of arguement – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them.

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his bethrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidence. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)… But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.

So the story is very clever. It’s a man’s world – is it? (You might expect a woman writer in those years to question that – Wharton and Kate Chopin would have got on well – but Wharton’s craftiness will have you wondering what’s on the next page constantly and she is a master of red herrings, nay, pre red herrings.) The author gives a lot of time to Ellen Olenska, ensuring that the woman shines in characterisation away from her role as Newland’s social interest, and allows a second interpretation to take hold in Ellen’s story. The execution of the story is flawless and the ending an absolute triumph.

At once a simple story with little embellishment, The Age Of Innocence is well worth the fairly short investment of time it requires, both for enjoyment and because it’s a worthy classic. You will not regret reading this book.

1 The main line of The Lego Movie theme song seemed too appropriate not to use, however irrelevant it is otherwise.

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Irène Némirovsky – The Misunderstanding

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Because communication isn’t always the problem.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 160
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-56384-6
First Published: 1926
Date Reviewed: 26th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding)
Translated by: Sandra Smith

Yves spots Denise when her child throws sand over him; he is entranced from that moment. The two begin an affair as Denise’s husband leaves for work and continue seeing each other for the remainder of their holidays. Back in Paris, it’s not the same. Yves, once rich, has to work for a living, whilst Denise lives in luxury; and that is just the start.

The Misunderstanding is one of those novellas in which the reader is privy to the issues at hand and will see that the couple have a lot to work on if they’re going to be in with a chance. It was Némirovsky’s first book, so it’s not as polished as others – the language is overly detailed, romantic, and the author favours angst for angst’s sake – but nevertheless it’s exquisite – even as a twenty-one year old this writer knew her stuff.

In the foreword, Sandra Smith states that the French version of ‘misunderstanding’ Némirovsky uses means three different things: a specific event; ‘the person who is misunderstood’; ‘incompatibility’. It’s a good thing to note because it is indeed that way in the story. There are a couple of events, one in particular, that cause the couple problems. Neither Yves nor Denise understand each other, understand the other’s life and where they’re coming from. And this, perhaps more so than their respective rank in life, causes their incompatibility.

This incompatibility has to be explored. In a past life, or, rather, if Yves had remained rich (he lost his parents’ fortune during the war) the two would be very compatible. The main thing that gets in the way is the financial distance, the difference between luxury and necessity. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a problem if Yves didn’t feel so hard done by (he is constantly in debt because he lives above his means, trying to emulate his childhood) but Denise’s relative obliviousness to her lover’s situation creates distance all by itself. Yves can’t go out in the evenings, he needs to sleep – something Denise cannot understand on a fundamental level. So Yves resents Denise, resents the way she’s overbearing in her love, and in pushing her away as he starts to do, Denise resents him in turn. She listens to her mother’s advice and applies it to her relationship, and it works up to a point, but she pushes it too far.

In some respects The Misunderstanding can be compared to The Great Gatsby – the love of a once penniless soldier compared to the once rich man. A topic often discussed is whether Jay Gatsby would ultimately be happy if he had Daisy, and this is something we could ask of Yves. Does Yves love Denise because she represents what he was and would like to be? Doubtless he believes they would’ve had an easier time were he still rich, but then things would have been different across the board.

Yves’s feelings on the divide are summed up by this line:

“When I’m with her… I always have to be mentally wearing a dinner jacket.”

Would Denise accept him if he were poor and didn’t proffer to pay for expensive luxuries as he does? The chapters written from Denise’s point of view suggest that she would, but then if she is unable, as Némirovsky notes, to understand his relative poverty, she is surely living a sort of fantasy.

Yves cannot see what is in front of him any more than Denise can. It would take the reader breaking the forth wall from their side and stepping into the novella themselves to patch things up to a good level. Denise’s mother has it right; she knows what’s going on and has good advice, but there is a level of pain, hurt, that has been somewhat manufactured by Yves and Denise that stops them breaking the barriers between them. Self-loathing runs smoothly in this book, informing everything.

So The Misunderstanding is not on the same page as Suite Française, nor, even, Fire In The Blood (a book with content that’s not as complex or as likely to bowl you over as this one), but it’s incredible nonetheless. It’s quite obviously the work of a new, young, fearless writer who has yet to learn that flowery language doesn’t make a good book, but at the same time it’s also the work of someone with an immense understanding of her subject and the knowledge and empathy to write it well.

Should you read it? Oh, but you must!

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Elizabeth von Arnim – The Enchanted April

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Just one day out of life. It would be, it would be so nice1.

Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
Pages: 219
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-19182-9
First Published: 1922
Date Reviewed: 9th May 2014
Rating: 4/5

Mrs Wilkins likes the sound of a castle in Italy, a month’s holiday, and after much badgering enlists a relative stranger, Mrs Arbuthnot, to join her. Deciding they should make it cheaper, they interview and then invite two others. Away from society, away from routine, away from their husbands, the castle is great idea. But from the start things don’t go quite to plan. Caroline got there before the initial two holidaymakers, and has planned the meal times. Mrs Fisher has taken over the nicest sitting room. Mrs Arbuthnot’s a little disheartened by the change in roles, but Mrs Wilkins is adamant it doesn’t matter. They should all enjoy the holiday and use it to make their lives happier. She’s the only one who thinks that way.

The Enchanted April is a novella that focuses on the changes in four women that occur over the course of their holiday. Some changes are sudden and big, others take a long time and are smaller, but by the end everyone has changed in some way. There might even be others who change, too.

The book is very much character-driven. The plot remains simple – a holiday in Italy – and the characters never leave the castle grounds, excepting one who goes only a little further afield and whom the reader is not invited to join. The emphasis is on transformation, the castle simply a pretty backdrop – it’s as though it’s there so that you as a reader can also go on holiday and in your relaxed state can be more aware of the women you read about.

The characters are as follows: Mrs Wilkins is determined, perhaps a little flighty, and sees the good in everyone. Mrs Arbuthnot is more down to earth, but it’s interesting to see the change in her – she sounds very set in her ways, traditional, perhaps old before her time. Caroline is a Lady, and very pretty, so pretty that she has trouble getting away from leering men. She also has an issue with her voice making everything she says sound wonderful. And Mrs Fisher is a grumpy older woman who you know has the potential to enjoy the holiday if she’d just let herself go.

Whilst the book is a simple then-contemporary story, quite a lot rests on Mrs Wilkin’s ‘seeing’ things happening in the future. It’s not magical realism and nowhere near being paranormal, but it does leave you to consider the power of suggestion, even if it’s just that Mrs Wilkins is incredibly optimistic. Whichever it is, Mrs Wilkins puts everything in motion, and the fact that she may not, at first, seem as grounded as the others, means little.

There is a twist in the tale, about half-way through, where the dynamics change. Depending on how well ensconced you were with the book by that time and depending on how you viewed the women (their holiday and the resulting freedom) this twist may come as an unwelcome shock. It does make you rethink the initial suggestion that these women need and deserve a break, and that they are only now able to remember who they are as individuals, but at the same time von Arnim shows how that this twist could be just as important in the long run. It may be good to focus on the women, but how much of their lives back home would be altered for the good if it’s only them who are different?

Yet it could be argued that the real reason the twist exists is to show that at the end of the day the women are no longer truly their own people. One situation in particular may leave a bad taste in your mouth for its secrets, and the twist is the very thing one of the characters had come to the castle to avoid. The ending is also somewhat convenient and not quite believable – it’s as though von Arnim suddenly read what she’d written and decided that it wouldn’t do at all as it was.

For the most part the characters are developed, even Mrs Fisher and her very sudden change that seems tacked on the end of the story, but in regards to Caroline there could have been more time spent on description. ‘They hadn’t reckoned on Scrap [Caroline]’ is a constant statement made by von Arnim, but whilst on some occasions, and luckily on the most important occasion, this is explained, on the whole ‘Scrap’ could’ve been afforded more time.

The Enchanted April offers a short reprieve from life, for all involved, and much promise for their future. And it offers a holiday for you, too, for there is surely an unmarked fifth invitation from Mrs Wilkins waiting for you in the pages.

1 Lyric from Holiday by Madonna.

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F Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

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The okay Gatsby. The great writer.

Publisher: N/A (I read the version by Alma Books)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
First Published: 1925
Date Reviewed: 17th April 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

When Nick Carraway moves home, he finds his neighbour to be the host of many all-night parties. Having met his (Nick’s) cousin and her friend, he is encouraged to join the friend, Jordan, in attending one of them, and finally meets his allusive neighbour. What he doesn’t know is that his new acquaintances are familiar with each other.

The Great Gatsby is a novel of money and aiming high for innocent reasons. It’s relatively short with enough characters to get the messages across but not too many that you lose track of them, and at once both lives up to its reputation and falls short of it.

The story itself is basic – written before, written since, without much to recommend it. Gatsby himself isn’t as great as described, but then that could be the point, and therefore the statement at the beginning of this review refers primarily to the book as a whole. It is therefore in the writing that the success of the book can be found. Fitzgerald’s writing style is literary, political, satirical, and spot on for the time. Indeed so woven into the era his book is, it can seem dated today in ways that many classics aren’t – references to political events that have not stood the test of time (in other words are not particularly well known today) inevitably mean that whilst the sentiment may be obvious, in order to fully appreciate what Fitzgerald is saying some research may need to be conducted. For this reason a version of the novel with notes included is recommended.

Whilst Fitzgerald was reported to be nonchalant about the title of the book, the name undoubtedly fits well in both a potentially sarcastic manner and in the feelings of the crowds of people who supposedly know Gatsby himself. Gatsby is both a well-developed character in his own right, and a representative of all those who try their best to make something of themselves for whatever reason.

None of the characters are particularly likeable except, perhaps, Nick, who is simply a bystander who becomes exploited whilst trying to do the right thing. Here there are innocent aims, together with snobbery, material wealth above all else, and a distinct lack of care for anyone.

Fitzgerald portrays the romances in an intriguing way. He uses the word ‘love’ many times, but whilst reading it may be hard for the reader not to wonder where this referenced love is. Certainly there is love of money, as a particularly poignant line imparts, but of romantic love there is little. If Nick is to be believed, then the love was mostly in the past, and perhaps it’s the money itself that causes the physical separations, in terms of the space between two people on a sofa, for example. Yet there is an interesting contrast in the book between those who separated because of money, and those who have come together despite it, even if those who transcend money do not truly transcend it. And the subtext that money makes the world go round – money causes separation, which causes poor choices, which causes situational conflicts between characters, which causes a look to someone of less money – is ironic and exploited to great effect.

The story is average – it is the message that is to be taken away; the warnings for those who dream without considering the reality, the alerts to the fact that some people are not genuine or will move on if their pretentious needs are not met. These messages are presented in books often, so it is Fitzgerald’s writing that makes the book one of those you ought to read.

On many levels it’s the fact that it’s anything but great that makes The Great Gatsby worthy of your time.

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L M Montgomery – The Blue Castle

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We all have our idea of perfection, but how many of us achieve it?

Publisher: Seal Books
Pages: 218
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-553-28051-7
First Published: 1926
Date Reviewed: 9th May 2012
Rating: 5/5

Please note that this book is very hard to get hold of in print and your best bet, unless you have a relative who owns a copy, is to find the ebook versions, in plain text and HTML at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Valancy Stirling has led a miserable and depressingly dull life, treated like a bad person when she isn’t, mocked by her family for being a reader, for not being pretty, and for being twenty-nine and not married. On her first day of the last year of her twenties, she starts to really accept just how much control she has let her family exercise over her, and how much that control has in fact stopped her from reading as much as she would like, from being pretty and married, and instead always being ill. Learning from a doctor, of her choosing, that she only has a year left to live, she decides to throw caution to the wind and be who she wants to be and say what she wants to say. It will shock her family, but it is likely to shock Valancy the most.

The Blue Castle is a somewhat short, hilarious, and sometimes frustrating book that while not exactly an example of fantastic writing, never fails to delight. It is, it must be said, incredibly predictable, to the point that everything you think will happen, will indeed happen, but for the story it doesn’t matter, and knowing what will happen in advance, coupled with the overall narrative, makes continuing all the more appealing. And while it should be noted that the book is very much set in its era, with all the trappings, the idea is that Valancy gives this up, and whether Montgomery planned for the future or not, Valancy becomes as relevant today as ever.

The plot is good, but it’s the characters that make the book a success. Each is given enough time for you to get to know them and their eccentricities, or lack thereof, and to learn how they would react to the situations Montgomery puts them in. This is perhaps best shown in the differences between the Stirlings – the family as a whole are obsessive about the smallest issues but each have their own quirks. And Montgomery “goes to town” with Roaring Abel, who incidentally doesn’t live in the town, giving him four different stages of drunkenness that really shows off her talent for humour.

“Fear is the original sin,” wrote John Foster. “Almost all the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something. It is a cold, slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.

As for Valancy she starts the book being an irritation, not helping herself, being passive, and thinking back over and over to the past instead of making new memories – before changing to become her own person, and a person unconcerned with all the issues she had previously. There are definitely limitations placed on her, but the feeling Montgomery gives her readers is one of a person who would do anything.

“Doss, dear,” said Cousin Georgiana mournfully, “some day you will discover that blood is thicker than water.”
“Of course it is. But who wants water to be thick?” parried Valancy. “We want water to be thin – sparkling – crystal-clear.”

The definition of “normal” is one of the ideas explored in the book. The Stirlings are boring and dull and melodramatic, but in their closeted world they are normal and everyone else is not. And in the way that they are completely imperfect, they truly are normal, for as the saying goes, nobody is perfect. Then there is everyone else in the town, or at least those focused on the most. They are the characters that modern society, and indeed Montgomery, would call normal, yet there are of course also imperfections and secrets surrounding them too. It is from the Stirlings to the rest of the town, Deerwood, that Valancy moves to, changing from the perfect imperfect to the imperfect perfect.

And if Valancy’s fantasy of a blue castle is her version of that special place that we each turn to in our heads for peace, then it is as much a mental and emotional concept as it is realistic. Montgomery ensures that both mental and physical worlds meet to blend together but never lets the mental image get too far in the physical world – the concept remains realistic. Of course the castle also represents freedom, whatever that freedom may be.

The romance balances chasteness with forwardness. Montgomery has fun laughing at society’s unnecessary hang-ups whilst guaranteeing that the story will be accessible and appealing to all. Indeed the concepts of difference and balance are the overriding themes of the story throughout.

The tale brings each character to reflect upon who they are, and later who they might want to become. It shows that even when we decide to do something big, we may later realise that it was the wrong decision.

She was so tired she wished she could borrow a pair of legs from the cat.

The Blue Castle is worth a read for anyone who wishes for a comedic classic without all the expectations, old language, academic criticism, and difficulties that come with reading your average older book. It is hardly the best piece of fiction ever written, but it’s worth its weight in the heap of roses that have bloomed because of it.

Bloomed because of it, you say? You’ll have to find that out for yourself.

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