Owned and Unread Project

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Long View: A Marriage in Reverse

Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles is one of my favorite discoveries since I began book blogging.  I knew she'd written other books, so I was really pleased to find one a couple of years ago while on a trip to London (I think I bought ten books on a that trip in less than seven days). I was determined to read it this year, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list for this year. 

Though I didn't love it as much as the Cazalets, The Light Years is still engrossing and the story is ultimately heartbreaking. Published in 1956, it's the tale of the marriage between Antonia and Conrad Fleming. The interesting twist of the story is that it's told in reverse. The book begins about 1950, on the evening of a dinner party held in honor of their son Julian's engagement, to a sweet but rather silly twenty-ish girl named June. 

Just as Antonia and Conrad's marriage is breaking down, Julian and June's marriage is about to begin, and Antonia suspects that history will ultimately repeat itself. As the book progresses, we go back through different periods of Conrad and Antonia's marriage, where we learn about love, jealousy, infidelity, and betrayal. The book traces Antonia's life with Conrad and we see how she developed from a shy young girl to the sophisticated yet jaded woman she becomes. 

I really liked this book thought it was harder to get into than the Cazalet series, which has a much more straightforward narrative. There's a lot more psychological insights into characters in this book; also, the characters aren't quite as likable, though they're very realistic. Conrad in particular is quite horrible -- basically, he only marries Antonia so he can mold her into someone he can admire and show off. I realize this is the first half of the 20th century when most wives were considered possessions, but he is particularly condescending to women. 

Here is an exchange between Antonia and Conrad about books and reading: 

"You do not want a well informed wife?"

"I am not an information addict. No. I want you to be informed about your pleasures. I do not like the people who read fifteen books by a man who was written three worth reading."

"But if one enjoys reading, one must be resigned to many disappointments."

"Disappointments -- certainly. But if you read a book and are disappointed, it is because you intended to be pleased." (pp. 262-263)

OK, not sure about this last statement -- frankly, I always intend to be pleased by a book, Even if I don't necessarily enjoy them overall, I usually appreciate them for some reason. I suppose that's not necessarily the same as being pleased, but at least I don't feel like I've wasted my time. But I digress.

I really like this cover from the Italian edition. 
Here is another insight that Antonia has about Conrad soon after their marriage: 

The trouble was that they were not now leading a married life. She was not certain what she meant by this, but essentially she felt that Conrad was not treating her as an equally responsible person. . . . He was kind, he was charming, but she felt like a child, or like that song that her mother's friends had hummed and whistled while they marked the tennis court, or prepared the bridge tables: a great big beautiful doll. He was deliberately preventing her from taking on those responsibilities which she felt should be hers -- or even discovering what those responsibilities were. . . (p. 270)

So, we learn eventually that Conrad isn't really interested in Antonia so much for herself, as much as he's just looking for a trophy. This section of the book is set nearly 90 years ago and clearly times have changed, but I still found it horribly offensive. Conrad is just toxic and I'm sorry Antonia put up with it for more than 20 years. However, it is an interesting character study, and I liked the reverse time structure. I have since bought another one of Howard's earlier novels called The Sea Change, and her memoir, Slipstream. Apparently she had a very interesting life -- she was an actress and model before she became an author, and was married three times; one of her husbands was Kingsley Amis and she ran in literary circles. 

This is my eleventh book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018 -- only one left to go and I'm finished!


  1. isn;t it interesting how one might not really like a character yet find it fun to read about him/her. This Conrad sounds pretty annoying but the book seems interesting. I wish I'd found out about the TBR Pile Challenge. I have a huge one to get through and yet I go on buying new ones. Oh well...next year perhaps.

  2. I felt exactly the same as you about this book. In fact I mentioned in my blogpost on it that all the time I was reading the book I couldn't get the Rolling Stones song Under My Thumb out of my head. I rarely re-read books but I intend to read the Cazalet series at some point in the future as I loved it so much.

  3. I've already read my "new to you author" for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge, but if you use it again, I MUST try the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles. So many raves from you, from Rachel at BookSnob. I have to give it a try and see what I think.

  4. I remember wishing I could give Conrad a slap. Glad you enjoyed this, Karen...EJH has been a favourite since getting the push to try her books from you and Book Snob. I picked up a copy of Sea Change at a charity shop while in Highgate last summer. It keeps calling to me but it's that thing of saving something for down the road.

  5. I didn't realise it was told in reverse - what a fun idea!


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