Saturday, November 6, 2010
Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons
I really enjoyed this book. The only other book I'd heard of by the author, Stella Gibbons, is Cold Comfort Farm, which is a charming satire of British pastoral fiction, full of quirky characters and a rather know-it-all heroine. Nightingale Wood isn't really like that -- yes, Gibbons does poke fun at some literary archetypes like the stodgy English lord-of-the-manor, and the rich playboy-type, but this is more of a Cinderella story.
So here's the setup. The book is set about the 1930s, I'm guessing after the stock market crash. In her early twenties, Viola Withers is newly widowed and broke. She was briefly married to the only son of a somewhat wealthy family, and is forced to move in with her in-laws due to her reduced circumstances. So she leaves London to live in the country with her stodgy, money-obsessed father-in-law, her rather bland mother-in-law, and her two sisters-in-law; one of whom is secretly in love with the handsome young chauffeur, and the other who wants nothing more than to play golf and raise dogs. There's another wealthy family nearby, with a handsome son Victor, who's all but engaged to a bitchy socialite. Viola, a former shopgirl, is pretty, sweet, and not terribly intelligent, but her presence in the dull countryside shakes things up a bit, especially when she meets her Prince Charming at the annual charity ball.
Since this is sort of a twist on a fairy tale, some people might consider this chick lit. However, I found it so much more original and joyful than most of the chick lit available these days. Yes, it has romance, a young single woman, and a happy ending, but it's much more than that. Viola isn't terribly bright, but we're still rooting for her and for all most of the other single women in the story, her sister-in-law Tina and Victor's bookish bohemian cousin Hetty. Gibbons also puts a little twist on some of the other typical characters, like the village hermit and the hot young chauffeur. Nightingale Wood lacks some of the biting satire of Cold Comfort Farm, but Gibbons gets some good digs in, particularly about readers and writers. Here's a description of Victor's cousin Hetty:
"Hetty had taken after her father's side, the unsuccessful (that is, poor) Franklins who were all teachers and parsons and librarians, and as dull as ditch-water, with their noses in books, their socks in holes and their finances in muddles. Hetty was a disappointment. All that Mrs. Spring [her aunt] could do with Hetty was to let Victor see that her investments did not go down, while she herself chose her clothes and tried to marry her off."
I suppose I found that amusing (instead of being offended) because I'm both a bookworm and a librarian! Of course, most of the librarians I know are extremely interesting people. And here's what Viola's sister-in-law Tina is thinking when she takes her first driving lesson from the family chauffeur:
"She was not a fuzzy person like Viola; had she been, she might have married, for the distressing truth is that the fuzzies usually do; men like them. She had kept her brain exercised by reading heavyish books, which might not always be truly wise but at least were not those meringues of the intellect, those mental brandies-and-sodas -- novels."
Oh, shocking, the reading of novels! I hope my fellow book-bloggers are giggling over this instead of snorting in disgust. I prefer to think that Gibbons is actually poking fun at people who don't read novels, since she wrote 25 novels in her lifetime, plus short stories and poems. Oddly enough, she's best known for her Cold Comfort Farm, her very first novel, and that which is most widely available. Nightingale Wood was only just reprinted here in the U.S., and sadly, I don't think any of her other books are still in print here. Like the works of Winifred Watson, author of Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day, it seems Gibbons' novels have fallen out of favor. Hopefully publishers will start reprinting more of her books.