Monday, April 30, 2018

Zoladdiction: A Love Story by Emile Zola (And a Giveaway!)

The trouble with polyreading is that when I jump around from book to book, it takes me forever to finish anything -- and then I have a pile of books to review! I finally finished another book by Emile Zola -- A Love Episode, the eighth book in his Rougon-Macquart series. I know it's the very end of the month, but I definitely wanted to finish this for the Zoladdiction readalong hosted by Fanda.

It's the story of Helene Grandjean, a young widow who is about thirty in the start of the novel. After the death of her husband, Helene and her young daughter Jeanne move to Passy (which is now part of the 16th Arrondissment of Paris, on the northwest side of the city). In the beginning of the novel, the sickly Jeanne has a life-threatening seizure, and the frantic Helene bangs on the door of her neighbor who is also her new landlord. Luckily, her new landlord is a physician, the handsome Dr. Deberle. He attends Jeanne and pulls her through the crisis, sitting by her bedside for hours with her mother.

During Jeanne's recovery, Helene and her daughter are often invited to the home of the Deberles and to spend time in their beautiful garden. Helene also spends time with some of the poor parishioners in the area, including a crafty old woman called Madame Fetu, who is also attended by Dr. Deberle. Helene and the doctor spend several days together after Mme Fetu falls ill, and they begin to form a bond.

Portrait of Emile Zola by Felix Vallotton

This becomes awkward as Helene is also friendly with Deberle's wife, the kind if somewhat flighty socialite Juliette. Helene struggles with her growing feelings for Deberle, and meanwhile her friend Abbe Jouve, the priest, is pressuring her to marry his brother, the faithful and patient Monsieur Rambaud. Meanwhile, her daughter Jeanne can sense something is happening between her mother and the doctor.

It's a good story, though not my favorite of the series. It's one of Zola's slower novels, and it's definitely a domestic drama. There are some lighter moments that I really enjoyed, especially with Helene's servant Rosalie, and her fiance, Zephyrin, who provide most of the comic relief of the novel. They were actually my favorite characters and I wish Zola had written more about them. 

A Love Episode is also a love letter to Paris. Helene spends a lot of time gazing at the view of the Paris from her apartment -- apparently she could see all of Paris, including the Seine, Les Invalides, and the Pantheon. It must have been a spectacular view, especially at night: 

In the dormant sea of blackness before them, there was a glimmer of light. It was below them, somewhere in the abyss, in a place they could not precisely identify. And one after the other the different lights started winking. They came to life at night with a sudden start, all at once, and remained there glittering like stars. It seemed as though there was a new rising of heavenly bodies on the surface of a dark lake. Soon there was a double row of them making a pattern which led from the Trocadero towards Paris in little leaps of light. Then other lines of luminous dots cut into that line, you could make out curves, a whole constellation that was getting larger, strange and magnificent. 

A Love Episode is the twelfth book I've completed in the Rougon-Macquart series -- so far I've read fourteen of his works altogether (the other two are Therese Raquin and The Attack on the Mill and Other Stories.) Compared to the rest of the series, it's pretty good, though not quite up to the quality of Germinal, L'Assommoir, or La Bete Humaine. However, I'd say it's definitely a good introduction to his work if you're looking for something shorter and slightly less intense.

And now for the giveaway! A couple of years ago, the nice people at Oxford World's Classics starting sending me copies of some of their new releases, mostly Zola (and thanks to Simon at Stuck in a Book for passing my name along.) Somehow I received two copies of A Love Story and so I'm going to share my good fortune and give away my extra copy! All you need to do is leave a comment below telling me why you want to read this book. The winner will be chosen in a completely unscientific manner -- I'm going to pick my favorite response, so be creative!

Guidelines for the drawing are as follows:

  • Winner must live in the United States or Europe (due to postage costs)
  • If your blog doesn't have an email link so I contact you, include an email in your comment 
  • The deadline to enter is 11:59 p.m. Western Europe Time Zone (GMT +1) on Monday, May 7.
I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

. . . she still kept to her rules -- one did not drink sherry before the evening, just as one did not read a novel in the morning, this last being a left-over dictum of a headmistress of forty years ago.

The 1970s is kind of a dead zone for my reading -- I was pretty young back then and I hadn't really read any adult novels written in that decade except some fairly trashy mainstream books when I reached high school (Stephen King, the John Jakes historical novels, and dare I say it, some Danielle Steel!) When Simon announced that next readalong was The 1977 Club, my heart sank a little -- I was afraid I'd end up reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull (wrong year!) or something by John Le Carre. 

I was delighted to realize that one of my favorite authors, Barbara Pym, had published a novel in 1977 -- and it was sitting on my shelves unread! Eureka -- my choice was made, Quartet in Autumn.

The book -- a novella, really, at just 218 pages -- follows approximately a year in the life of four co-workers, most likely aged in their late fifties or early sixties. Letty, Marcia, Norman, and Edwin all work together at an amorphous office, where their work is never really defined. None of them are exactly friends, but what they have in common is that each of them is essentially alone. Edwin is a widower and spends a lot of time with vicar and his church; Norman lives in a bed-sit and has brother-in-law, his late sister's husband; Letty has a friend in the country, Marjorie, and they plan to retire together to Marjorie's cottage; and Marcia, a breast-cancer survivor, seems to have nobody since her cat Snowball died. The only thing she seems to look forward to is her regular check-ups. 

There isn't really much of a plot in this book, just vignettes about the characters and their interactions.  You couldn't describe the four as friends, and after Marcia and Letty retire, there's a very awkward lunch reunion for the four of them. Yet, they're somehow connected -- I suppose these four are almost like a vague sort of family. 

This is rather different than the other Pym novels I've read, in that the characters are all much older than the usual protagonists in Pym's novels, and there isn't really a romantic element plot among any of the main characters. It's rather bittersweet compared to some of the earlier novels I remember. Quartet in Autumn was the first novel Pym published since 1961 when No Fond Return of Love was published; her published dropped her after that novel and she was rejected by other publishers. She was rediscovered in 1977 after two influential writers named her "the most underrated writer of the 20th century" in the Times Literary Supplement. Quartet in Autumn was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and Pym was able to publish two more novels before she died in 1980. (Several of her unpublished works were published posthumously. 

I think I have all the Moyer-Bell editions of Pym's novels except this one. It's a little pricey.
I did like this book but it took a little while to warm up to the characters. The story didn't really grab me right away but the characters were really well drawn, though the plot is a little sad. It does rather make sense given the circumstances regarding Pym's publishing career, and the fact that she did die of breast cancer just three years after this book was published.

I have just one more of Pym's novels unread, A Few Green Leaves, and I also a copy of A Very Private Eye, a collection of her diaries, letters, and notebooks. I'm very happy to have completed this one for the 1977 Club. Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for organizing it!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau: A WWII Love Triangle

I really like the cover of this paperback -- it's Table Devant Une Fenetre
(Table Under a Window) by Henri Le Sidaner.
I really cannot resist going into a used bookstore -- for the past few years I've been really disappointed by most of the newer fiction and I always find myself much more satisfied with backlist titles, especially from the mid-century. It's always really nice to scan the shelves at a used bookstore and see a green-spined Virago Modern Classic, which I would normally snatch up immediately. A few years ago I was lucky and found quite a pile of VMCs at John King Books in Detroit, and one of my finds was The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau.

Published in 1949, this is the story of a young actress named Caroline Seward and her love affair with a surgeon, Michael Knowle, from the late 1930s until after the war. Caroline has a promising future on the stage until she meets Michael, who is separated from his wife Mercedes, an artist and set designer. Caroline struggles whether to give up her career and devote her life to Michael, and the complicated relationship between Michael and Mercedes casts a shadow over their relationship, before and during the war.

I mostly liked this book though it did take some time to get into it. I thought it was going to have a lot more about Caroline's theater career, but it's really mostly about her relationship with Michael with some sub-plots about the peripheral characters, like Caroline's childhood friend June; Vera, Mercedes' former secretary who becomes obsessed with finding her former employer during the war; and the Aynsteys, American friends of Michael and Mercedes who eventually tie all the characters together. I liked all the secondary characters and thought they were really well drawn. 

The book is divided into three sections: before, during, and after the war. I think the best section by far was set during the war, when Michael is working as a military surgeon and Caroline has signed up to do her bit. I'm really fascinated by how WWII affected people still in England, much more than battle scenes and that sort of thing. I also really like that this book was written pretty close to the end of the war -- it must have been very fresh in Frankau's mind and as much as I love historical fiction, I think it would be really difficult to recreate it if you haven't experienced it.

I also think the writing in The Willow Cabin was really good. Just after I finished it I started reading a novel for my upcoming book discussion group, a fairly recent historical novel about three women in WWII. I couldn't even get through the first 50 pages because I think it was utter crap, the writing was really weak and the characters so poorly developed I put the book aside in disgust. 

Anyway, here's a bit I found really poignant and insightful: 

He could see nothing ahead for any of them, the tight little circle of temporarily-favoured persons to whom all this was important. "It is the last spring; the guillotine is coming down. And after that it won't matter who loves and who is unloved; we are for the dark." How foolish not to be happy now, when there was so little time left. (p.75)

It's short, but I really feel like it captures the essence of what people must have been feeling when it was so obvious another massive war was inevitable. 

There were several plot twists in this book that I wasn't expecting, but unfortunately the VMC edition has a massive spoiler for a big plot element in the description on the back. (If you're interested in reading this, I would advise against reading the back cover and the desciption on Goodreads). My least favorite part of the book was the aftermath of the war, when the setting shifts to America. I don't want to go into any more detail for fear of spoiling it for anyone else. 

Overall I really did like this and I've heard other good things about Frankau's novels. Apparently she was quite a prolific novelist and published more than 30 works from the end of the 1920s until her death in 1967. A Wreath for the Enemy is her best-known novel and is also a Virago Modern Classic. I'll definitely look for it after I've made some more progress on the TBR shelves. 

This is my sixth book this year for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- I'm halfway through my list!