Monday, October 19, 2020

1956 Club: Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington, and some book covers

A first edition dust jacket. 
Those bare shoulders seem more 1950s than Edwardian.

I was really ambitious for Simon and Kaggsy's recent #1956 Club -- I had a stack of books published that year that I was determined to read, mostly from my own shelves. I did finish four of the five, though I only had time to blog about two of them. I had also started another, a Persephone called Madame Solario. However, it was a bit of a slow read and 493 pages long, I knew I wouldn't finish it during the specified period. But I finally finished it last week and thought I'd review it anyway. 

Published anonymously in 1956, Madame Solario is set in the fashionable resort town of Cadenabbia on Lake Como in northern Italy, in the summer of 1906. The book, which is divided into three parts, begins with the arrival of a young Englishman, Bernard Middleton, who is spending the summer on the continent before settling down in a banking career chosen for him by his family. He is supposed to meet friends who have been delayed, but decides to stay when he is drawn into the society of other expats vacationing in the same hotel. At first he is drawn to the beautiful young Ilona, whose heart is being broken by a Russian soldier, Kovanski. Bernard is disappointed by Ilona's sudden departure, but is soon enamored of the mysterious Madame Natalia Solario, a beautiful English woman with an absent husband. Her arrival turns the hotel into a bit of a turmoil. It seems there is some unfinished business with the jealously glowering Kovanski, and Bernard also learns of some scandals in Madame Solario's past. 

Beautiful endpapers in the Persephone edition

Bernard begins a tentative friendship with Madame Solario, but the viewpoint of the book shifts in the second part with the arrival of Madame Solario's brother, Eugene Harden, who is apparently the source of the mystery in his sister's past. The hotel guests become suspicious of their close relationship, and rumors begin to spread. Bernard is hardly mentioned and it's very focused on Natalia (nicknamed "Nelly" by her brother) and Eugene. A lot of it is just mostly conversations between the two, or rather, just long rants by Eugene. The third part then shifts the focus back to Bernard and the pace really picks up before a very dramatic finish that left me gobsmacked.

According to the Persephone website, reviews of the novel compared to it Henry James crossed with Ivy Compton-Burnett or with Daphne du Maurier. I haven't tackled much by James but I am a fan of his contemporary Edith Wharton, and this feels a bit like a Wharton novel to me -- dissatisfied upper-crust people in Italian resorts are definitely an Edith Wharton setting, though the malevolent brother isn't typical of her work. 

Those people . . . they have the superiority of owing their good fortune to something they themselves had nothing to do with. And that is the superiority I envy! To be born with a sort of super-self, for that's what rank is, a super-self that planes over frontiers -- to be born thinking one has the right to look down -- hasn't that got more charm than anything one can do for oneself? (pp 198-199)

I liked this book, though the middle section, the longest, dragged somewhat. I found the relationship between Natalia and her brother disturbing. I don't want to give anything away but after reading it I'm not surprised that the author was anonymous for a long time. And the ending was . . . wow. I really, really wish I knew someone else who had read this so I could discuss it with them. Not a typical Persephone at all, but definitely worth reading. 

And lots of interesting book covers! 

A first edition, not very exciting. 

A Polish edition


Nice cover on this French edition, I think it's my favorite of the bunch.

Trashy paperback cover! Looks very 1970s but internet searches say 1950s paperback edition. 

 A Penguin reprint from 1956. She looks more like Eliza Doolittle here --
the correct time period, but not glamorous enough.

A Spanish edition, meh

An Italian edition, nice photo of Lake Como on the cover.

In 2012 Madame Solario was adapted into a French movie, currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime. I haven't watched it yet but I'm curious to know how they'll adapt this 500 page novel into a 90 minute film. I imagine just cutting out Eugene's tirades will save a lot of time. 

There was even an entire book published on the mystery of the anonymous author. Sadly it's only available in French.  

I'm counting this as my book set in Italy for the European Reading Challenge

Sunday, October 11, 2020

1956 Club: French Leave By P. G. Wodehouse


I've been reading a lot of P. G. Wodehouse lately and it occurred to me that it was very likely that he had published a book in 1956 that I could read for Simon and Kaggsy's 1956 Club! I depend on Wodehouse to cheer me up whenever I need a light read, and once again he came through with French Leave, a slight and amusing novel. 

This one digresses from the normal Wodehouse setting of London or the English countryside -- it's mostly set along the French coast, in fictional resort towns of Picardy and Brittany. The characters are primarily American and French and I don't think there's even a single English character which is very unusual for Wodehouse. 

But here's the setup. The book starts in America, on Long Island. The three Trent sisters, Kate, Jo and Teresa (known as Terry), are trying to make a go of a farm, selling eggs, milk, and honey, and having a pretty hard time of it. Conveniently, they have a windfall of $2000 each, and the two younger sisters, Jo and Terry, decide to risk it all on a trip to France, in search of millionaire husbands. Eldest sister Kate is aghast and is determined to go along as a chaperone. Jo and Terry will each pose as a wealthy American, with her sister playing her maid, for a month each. Jo goes first in Picardy but is unsuccessful and returns home; Terry continues to try her luck in St. Rocque.

Terry does meet up with some genuine millionaires, but she also meets the slightly shady and very broke Nicolas Jules St. Xavier Auguste, the Marquis de Maufringneuse et Valerie Mauberanne, also known as Old Nick. Old Nick is an impoverished French nobleman who prefers living off wealthy wives (he's had at least three), questionable business deals, and his son Jefferson, from his first marriage to a wealthy American. Jeff mostly lived with his mother in America but fought with the maquis, the French resistance, and has a dashing scar on his face to show for it. He's now a struggling writer who refuses to marry for money but is willing to help his father out of a tight spot. In return, Old Nick decides to set up his son with the delightful Terry Trent, whom he believes is loaded with American cash. 

Unfortunately this plot also includes spending time on a yacht with some other wealthy Americans, including Old Nick's second ex-wife Hermione Pegler, who believes that Terry is an adventuress (technically, she is) who will mess up her plans to marry off her niece Mavis. Mrs. Pegler wants to pair Mavis, a fizzy-water heiress, with Freddie Carpenter, another fizzy water millionaire (Mrs. Pegler owns considerable stock in both water companies, and hopes that a marriage between the two would be of financial and personal benefit). She thinks that Terry is after Fred's money, but Terry and Jeff are instantly smitten. The fact that neither of them has any money and assume the other one does leads to misunderstandings, tears, and a lot of physical comedic moments. This being a Wodehouse novel, everything comes right in the end. I can absolutely imagine adapted as a classic screwball comedy from the early 1950s. I recently watched Some Like it Hot and there are some elements that are similar -- wealthy Americans on yachts, husband-hunting, and characters climbing out of hotel windows.)

Not French, it's the historic Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, California. It was the filming location for Some Like It Hot (which is actually set in Florida). 

I enjoyed French Leave, though it isn't a classic Wodehouse -- I think I've read 17 books by him so far, and I wouldn't count it among his best. There are some characters that seem superfluous, and some definite loose ends that are never resolved. However, it's a fun, short novel, and can easily be finished a day or maybe even one sitting (it would be perfect for a vacation read) -- preferably in a resort town on the coast of France. 

Thanks again to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting this event, can't wait to do it again next time! 

Thursday, October 8, 2020

#1956 Club: Every Eye by Isobel English; and some bonus photos of Spain

I had a lot of choices this year for Simon and Kaggsy's 1956 Reading Club -- three from my own shelves, plus a Persephone I'd never gotten around to reading, and even a P. G. Wodehouse available from the library (you have to love those prolific authors!) I've got one halfway done on audio and decided to tackle the Persphone, simply because it was the shortest and I'd be guaranteed to finish it in time.

I don't know why I'd put off reading Every Eye by Isobel English for so long -- it's very short, set in Spain, and a Persephone mid-century book by a woman author, all things I normally love. It was also available in another edition from the library for free (a definite plus since international shipping has risen sky-high recently). I was very pleasantly rewarded by how much I liked this book, possibly one of my favorite reads this year.

The eighteenth book published by Persephone, it's only 144 pages in their edition and 155 in mine (pictured below), in a tiny little book not more than five by seven inches. But what is in the book is powerful and beautifully written. It's the story of Hatty Latterly, who at 37 is taking a delayed honeymoon to Ibiza with her younger husband. The book alternates between their journey from London to the Balearic island, via multiple boats and trains -- and her memories of an aunt by marriage who has recently died. It is through this Aunt Cynthia that Hatty meets her first love Jasper Lomax, a much older man who had known her uncle and late father, and Cynthia is also the reason that Hatty has selected Ibiza for her honeymoon. 

Aunt Cynthia didn't enter Hatty's life until she was 14, when she began a relationship with Hatty's Uncle Otway, her closest male relative after the death of her father. Eventually she marries Hatty's uncle, and when Hatty is about 20 she meets Lomax at a party hosted by her aunt. They begin a friendship which becomes something more (and to modern readers, something pretty icky). Eventually the relationship ends and we also learn, in flashback, the story of Hatty meeting her husband. In the last paragraph of the book there is a twist ending that made me want to go back to the beginning and read the entire book all over again. 

However, the story is much more than this. It's fully of beautiful observations about human nature, about traveling, and family dynamics and relationships. The writing is really beautiful. I'm generally a fast reader and I have the terrible habit of speeding through passages to find out what happens next. This book is short and I took my time so I could really enjoy the quality of the writing. I really wish it had been longer so I could have spent more time with Hatty. 

There must be a great emptying of the mind when one is about to start on a long journey. It is no good clinging to the shreds of last night's anxiety, nor to its comforts; everything must be fresh and completely hared at the edges to withstand the future movement and buffeting. 

I loved this quote, it really is the essence of the feeling of travel. In the book, there is a lot of travel description, all of it wonderful. Hatty and her husband take a train from London, a ferry to France, another train to Paris, where they spend a day before taking another very long train journey south to Barcelona, where they get on another boat to Ibiza. I did a lot of traveling the last few years while I lived in Germany so much of this really resonated with me. Though I was lucky enough to get cheap flights most of the time, I love train travel, and I would take another boat trip someday though heaven knows when it will be safe.

I was lucky enough to visit Spain three times while I lived in Germany, and though I didn't make it to Ibiza, I did spend a week in Mallorca, which is the largest of Spain's Balearic islands (fun fact: Spain's second most popular tourist destination). I spent a couple of days in Palma, the capital city, before heading to the little town of Sóller on the island's west coast. We took a historic wooden train, which was delightful, and stayed in a wonderful B&B. It's a pretty little town and we could walk or take the tram to the Port of Sóller. It was April, and though it wasn't quite warm enough to swim the days were beautiful and sunny enough to sit on the beach, and there were lemons growing everywhere. 

The vintage narrow-gauge train from Palma to Sóller. It's more than 100 years old. There's also a vintage tram from Sóller to the Port. 

View of the mountain from the street, our B&B was on the left, restored from 1902. 

I loved the grillwork on all the buildings. I think this was opposite our hotel room. 

View from the tram stop towards the square in Sóller.

View from the walk from our B&B to the port.

Port de Sóller

I also made a day trip to the town of Deiá, a pretty town in the mountains with beautiful views. It was also the home of the writer Robert Graves who moved there in 1929 and lived there until his death. The house is now a museum, and you can visit the house and surrounding garden for a small fee. It was a bit of a walk outside the town but was worth seeing. 

View from the walk to Robert Graves' home, that's Deiá in the distance. I love the terraced hills.

Robert Graves' home

Robert Graves' study

Another day I walked a few miles through some lemon groves to the town of Fornalutx. It was beautiful and tranquil and then I had a glass of wine and some tapas while sitting in the square, watching bicyclists whizzing by on the mountain roads. 

View along the walk to Fornaluxt

There were lemon and orange trees everywhere.
There were signs posted all over for local marmalade and I'm sorry I didn't buy any. 

I was so tempted to reach through the fence and pick one of these lemons! 

I made a slight detour on the walk which turned into a hike and I went the back way into town.
Great view though.

I loved this reading girl on a terrace. That would be me, everyday, if I lived there!

Lots of stairs in Fornaluxt! 

The square in Fornaluxt. I sat at one of the restaurants on the right and had a snack.

Mallorca is know somewhat for being a party island but I skipped all that and just enjoyed the stunning scenery. It was beautiful and relaxing and I would love so much to go back to Spain someday. 

Thanks again to Kaggsy and Simon for hosting this event! I hope to read at least one more book published in 1956, and hopefully more in the coming weeks. 

I'm also counting this as my book set in Spain for the European Reading Challenge