I'm always happy to join in one of Kaggsy and Simon's biannual reading clubs, and when I found out they had selected 1965 for this round, I was delighted to discover that Dodie Smith's The Town in Bloom fit the bill perfectly -- especially since I'd just bought a copy a few months ago! Win-win! It's also fairly short, just over 300 pages in a mass-market paperback, so it was the perfect read for a short road trip this week.
Set mostly about 1925, this story begins with a woman, oddly nicknamed Mouse, receiving an invitation to small reunion of four old friends at a swanky London hotel restaurant. We don't know at first how old they are, nor how long since they first met. We do find out that one of the four, nicknamed Zelle, is unlikely to show up. Mouse spies a homeless-looking woman out the window of the restaurant and ends up following her in a taxi.
Later, the book flashes back to Mouse first arriving in London from Manchester at the tender age of eighteen, where she takes up residence in a women's club, a sort of dormitory. She's just lost her only living relative, an aunt who was a regional actress, who has given mouse a letter of introduction to a very famous actor named Rex Crossway. Mouse makes two new friends at the Club, Molly and Lillian, who are slightly older and are working as chorus girls.
Mouse then crashes an audition at the Crossway theater, and though she doesn't get a part, manages to snag a secretarial job, where she learns the ins and outs of the theater, doing secretarial work, prompting, and so on. Dodie Smith was also a playwright and her knowledge of the London theater world gives the story wonderful background and insider's details.
Mouse and her two friends get into some madcap adventures and wind up meeting the mysterious Zelle, who isn't longing for a theater career, but tags along. Mouse and her friends all wind up having rather torrid affairs which I found quite surprising given the 1920s setting. Of course it was published in 1965 during the sexual revolution. I don't know much about the social history of 1920s London but it felt a bit more sixties than twenties to me.
The original cover -- those flowers seem very 1960s!
This was a light, quick read, though I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I Capture the Castle. I liked Mouse but I just didn't get her fascination for the man who is the object of her affection; also, I didn't much care for her two friends Molly and Lillian, who I just found rather condescending. And I found the ending so abrupt that I wonder if there is actually a page missing (especially since there are no blank pages in the book in my edition). The best parts of the book are set in the theater -- I've been lucky enough to see several West End shows since I've been living in Germany and I've loved all of them. I did a bit of theater in high school and I was absolutely terrible, but I can understand the fascination.
I've now read nearly all of Smith's adult novels, and none of them quite measure up to I Capture the Castle, which is clearly her best novel -- I imagine that's why her other novels don't get much attention. (I Capture the Castle has nearly 80,000 ratings on Goodreads, compared to less than 1000 for all her other novels). I still need to track down A Tale of Two Families to complete her oeuvre.
I still may try to read two other books for the 1965 Club -- Frederica by Georgette Heyer, or The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier. Thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting The 1965 Club, I'm already looking forward to the next reading club. You can find links to other reviews on Simon's blog here.
I loved I Capture the Castle too. One of the few books I've read twice (and could read again).ReplyDelete
I almost picked this for the 1965 Club but didn't make it to the library in time. I think for sure I will read it one of these days even if it isn't her best work. I'll go in with tempered expectations. :D
The movie version of I Capture the Castle is also excellent!Delete
I think I may have been too old when I read I Capture the Castle as it just didn't hit the spot for me. I liked The New Moon with the Old and It Ends with Revelations more - as well as this one.ReplyDelete
Actually there was a lot of promiscuity in the 1920s with 'The Bright Young Things' who had seen and experienced what had happened to the WW1 generation being determined to live for the day. I know of one woman whose husband was killed in 1914 at The Front and she went on to have five illegitimate kids after that - dropping them off at her aristocratic parent's home for a nanny to bring up, then going off to London to have more fun. A very old friend of mine was one of the kids.
I was wondering if they could be considered Bright Young Things. I wasn't sure if that term was specific to a group or could apply to anyone of that age group.Delete
It was the time of 'flappers' too and they were seen as being very fast.Delete
I read this in the original edition (borrowed from the library) and it is even more garish in real life! I agree - not as good as I Capture the Castle, but really enjoyable.ReplyDelete
I would love to see that cover in real life!Delete
Someone gave me that nice new edition and I am glad of the reminder to read it! I am not sure I would have liked living in 1925 but the clothes really would have suited me!ReplyDelete
The clothes would have definitely suited me in my 20s, but sadly now, not so much.Delete
I also read this book for the 1965 read, and I reviewed it on Goodreads. My reaction was similar to yours in many ways - definitely not as good as I Capture the Castle (which I only read as an adult and absolutely adored), but worth reading for the insights into 1920s theatre life. I was also fascinated by the ladies’ residential club, something that had more or less disappeared by the end of the Second World War. When I started to think about the book I realised that Dodie Smith was also investigating issues like illegitimacy, adultery, and women’s lot in general. Sadly I don’t think much has changed. And as for promiscuity - one of my grandmothers was also widowed shortly after WWI and went on to have another child ‘out of wedlock’. The men in the story are of course never called promiscuous - like so many other things, there are one set of rules for men and quite another for women. I also found the ending of the story very abrupt, and Mouse’s adult life unsatisfactory and unconvincing (how could she afford a cottage in the country, for one thing?)ReplyDelete
Absolutely a different set of standards for men and women that still exists, sadly. I also found the whole reunion rather awkward -- I can't imagine everyone being so cozy after 40 years on!Delete