Monday, December 6, 2010

Mariana by Monica Dickens

I first encountered this book at BookPeople in Austin, Texas (probably the world's best independent bookstore).  One of the coolest things about this store is that it has an entire section just for classics.  Joy of joys!  Well, whilst browsing several months ago, I came across this volume shelved next to (gasp!) books by Charles Dickens.  Who was this upstart Dickens, with her book on the shelf next to my beloved Bleak House and Oliver Twist? Who had the nerve to call herself Dickens???

Um, actually, his great-granddaughter, that's who.  And a darn good writer in her own right, though nothing like the wordy, flowery prose of the beloved (and sometimes reviled) Charles.  After purchasing it, I soon realized it was the second book from the marvelous Persephone imprint -- I already owned Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which was waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.

Sadly, Mariana languished on the shelves for several months until a few weeks ago when I needed something comforting during a nasty ear infection.   And it was an excellent comfort read, but despite the beautiful cover, this isn't the chick lit I was expecting.  The story begins with a young woman, Mary, who is alone in a country cottage during World War II.  She's just heard on the wireless that a British ship has been sunk -- the ship on which her beloved husband is sailing.  She is in a state of complete panic because there's a terrible storm and all the phone lines are down, and she can't even walk into the village to try and contact anyone.  She is utterly alone in her terror and misery, with no company but a little dog until the following morning.

The book then begins to flash back to Mary's childhood.  She's never known her father, who died in the Great War, but she spends idyllic summer's at the family home in the country, surrounded by her loving grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins.  She has an incredible crush on her cousin Denys, her first great love.  The book then follows Mary through her childhood, adolescence, and life as a young woman growing up in London with her mother, a dressmaker, and her hilarious uncle Gerald, a somewhat ne'er-do-well actor.  Mary struggles in school, flunks out of drama college, and learns dressmaking in Paris.  We also follow Mary's love life -- the prologue never gives the husband's name, so I breathlessly followed the story to figure out which of her men could be lost at sea.

This is a really nice coming-of-age-story set during the inter-war years, one of my very favorite periods.  It's touching and sometimes absolutely hilarious -- Mary gets into some really amusing scrapes.  Her time at drama school is particularly funny.  This book is loosely based on Monica Dickens' life, and what I also find very interesting is that Mariana was first published in 1940 when she was only 24!  She never set out to become a writer, but sort of fell into it -- her first published work is One Pair of Hands, which is the story of her life working as a domestic (after she'd been a debutante!).  I was so intrigued by this, having worked as both a professional pastry cook and a writer, that I instantly requested One Pair of Hands from my library. (Review to follow soon).

For all you Persphone fans, and for those who are just intrigued, please do yourself a favor and find this book.  It's one of the Persephone Classics that are readily available here in the US, so if you can't find it in your local bookstore, it's easy to find online.

15 comments:

  1. This was already on my wishlist simply because it's a Persephone, but you've made me want to bump it up! I also love the Interwar period, so I really think I'd enjoy this one.

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  2. The funny thing about this is that I have a Colette book that uses the EXACT same cover art :D.

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  3. I have this one on my wish list as well -- and am so excited to read this one! Your review is even more enticing -- I can't wait!

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  4. Okay this is going to make me sound really stupid, but exactly what is the interwar period? I'm assuming it's the 20s and 30s?

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  5. Nymeth -- it is so good, one of those books that makes you annoyed that you waited so long to read it. It's one of my favorite Persephones so far.

    Jason -- I've seen that cover art elsewhere as well. I've never read Colette, I'll have to look for it.

    Coffee & a Book Chick -- it's really good, you'll be so glad you did.

    Amanda -- Yes, that's it exactly, between WWI and WWII. It's my favorite literary time period at the moment.

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  6. Mariana was my first Persephone and it remains one of my favourites!

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  7. I loved Monica Dickens' Follyfoot books as a child, and now that I am grown-up I love her writing for adults even more. I have yet to get to this one, but you have definitely pushed it up the queue.

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  8. This book is high on my vacation reads list for June. And I have _One Pair of Hanes_ on my list too! Glad to hear you enjoyed Dickens so much.

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  9. Captive Reader -- I liked it so much I got annoyed that I had left it unread for so long. I'm hoping to get The Winds of Heaven for Christmas.

    Fleurfisher -- I hadn't heard of the Follyfoot books, I'll have to look for them. Though I'm sure they'll be hard to find on this side of the pond. I was born on the wrong continent. Sigh.

    LifetimeReader -- you've already planned out your books that far? Wow. I'm not even sure what I'm reading the rest of the month! But it would be a great vacation read.

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  10. I loved Monica Dickens way back in the year 1970 something, but I can't remember if I've read Mariana. Thanks for reminding me of the other Dickens.

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  11. This was actually on the top of my TBR but now I am bying it today. It sounds delicious!

    Btw. love your blog! am your newest follower!

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  12. Katrina -- Isn't it cool to rediscover an author you loved years ago? I started rereading Joan Aiken recently; her children's books were some of my favorites and now I've discovered her adult fiction

    Willa -- I hope you love it as much as I did. And thank you so much -- I'll be reading your blog too.

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  13. :-) I'm looking forward to reading this soon!

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  14. This sounds so wonderful. I'm starting to suspect that I'll enjoy whichever Persephone I find myself reading next!

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  15. Another of my favourite Persephones. I think I may have to have a year of rereading favourite Persephones. Every time I read a review I immediatly want to pick up whatever it is & read it again. I'm looking forward to reading Winds of Heaven very soon.

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