|The beautiful endpapers
from Making Conversation
Anyhoo. I put this on my Christmas wish list back in December, and now I can't remember why. The description in the Persphone catalog says it's a comic novel, in the vein of Cold Comfort Farm. Well, I don't know if it's because I'm not British, or because I'm not educated enough, but I just did not get this novel. It's about a young woman's education just after WWI, and about conversations in general (which you might have gathered from the title). The book is full of Martha's conversations. In fact, the whole book is mostly conversations, and not much action.
The novel begins in the 1910s, when Martha Freke is a young teen. She's being raised by her single mother, since her father, a former military officer, has done a runner. Her mother has been forced to take in lodgers (it is NOT a boarding house!) who are mostly students, so Martha gets an unconventional education from the interesting people who seem to drift through her life. It certainly seems better than the school in which she's enrolled which sounds just horrible. She's forever putting her foot in her mouth and there are lots of misunderstandings, one of which ends up getting her kicked out of school. Nevertheless, Martha is bright enough to get a scholarship to Oxford, where she has lots of other conversations, mostly with female students since they appear to be quite segregated from the men.
I suppose this is supposed to be satirical in some way, but I just didn't get it. I know that Cold Comfort Farm was poking fun at the pastoral novels of the era, and I really enjoyed it, even though I didn't get all the references. I also loved Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (and if you've read Brideshead Revisited, this is nothing like it. Brideshead has its great moments, but Decline and Fall is just a hoot). Maybe the humor in this is too subtle for me, or too specific, or maybe I would have gotten much more out of it if I'd read classics or history at an elite British university (for the record, I majored in journalism and history at a well-respected university in the Midwest, so I'm not a complete moron). I was hoping the introduction would give more insight, but it's mostly biographical information about the author.
Anyhow, I'm not saying this is a bad novel. I just didn't really connect with Martha or her friends, most of whom I couldn't keep straight, and I didn't find her story particularly interesting or compelling. It was an easy read, but I wasn't at all excited about it the way I have been with most Persephones. I'm mostly just disappointed because I've really liked most of them so far. If anyone has read this novel and can help explain it to me, please do.