Effie Gray was only twelve when she met the celebrated young art critic John Ruskin in 1841. A friendship developed, and within a few years, he proposed; the two married when Effie was nineteen, Ruskin 29. Effie imagined the two of them as the perfect couple, her social charm as asset to his brilliance. But on their wedding night, something went terribly wrong. Despite her innocence, Effie knew that there had to be more to marriage than taking walks along the riverbank: Ruskin either would not or could not consummate their union. In a letter to her parents, she wrote:
"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April 1848."
Ashamed, Effie remained in the marriage for six years before formally filing for an annulment. She was subjected to a physical examination to verify her chastity and humiliated by Ruskin's testimony that "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." The doctor who examined her declared that she was normal in every way; it has been speculated that Ruskin might have been repelled by his wife's pubic hair, or that she was menstruating. As one would expect, the case created a scandal in Victorian England.
Fortunately, a happier future was in store. Effie had posed for Ruskin's friend, the artist John Everett Millais, who accompanied the couple on a trip to Scotland. The two fell in love and were married a year after the annulment was granted. Fagence devotes the first half of her biography to the scandal, but the second details Effie's 42-year marriage, which, despite some losses and difficulties, was a happy one. Effie continued to model for Millais (as did her siblings, her eight children, and later their grandchildren), and "Everett," as she called him, eventually earned great success as a painter, as well as a baronetcy. But her one disappointment was that the queen would not receive "a divorced person" at court. It seemed she would never quite shake the scandal of NOT being a wife to Ruskin. And Ruskin, who apparently never learned when not to speak, publicly blamed Effie for 'ruining' Millais's potential as an artist, the necessity of feeding a family turning him to a more lucrative style.
Cooper does an admirable job of presenting this slice of Victorian scandal and a peek into the world of art. We learn not only about the three persons mentioned in her lengthy title, but also about her travels in Italy, the elder Ruskins, Effie's family in Scotland, the Millais children, and the friends who stood by her. I did find the second half a bit confusing at times, partly because of the profusion of Johns, Georges, Sophias and Effies, but also because of the author's tendency to jump back and forth through time.
I am a big fan of Vikas Swarup's 'Q & A', the book upon which the movie 'Slumdog Millionaire' is very loosely based; in fact, I will be teaching it again this fall in a gen ed lit course. So, naturally, I was eager to read his latest novel. Sadly, it did not live up to his first.
Like 'Q & A,' Swarup has created a frame around which to build his story. In the former, it was a series of questions the protagonist is asked on a game show; here, it is seven tests that the protagonist must pass in order to be named CEO of a huge company, a prize that will enable her to leave her boring, low-paying job in an electronics store and to provide for her widowed mother and younger sister. Both story lines are a bit fantastic, but this one lacks the delight in coincidence that figured into Q & A. Instead, Sapna is put to a series of grueling tests--without ever knowing until they are over that they actually were tests. Some of them border on downright cruelty. Sapna is warned that the final test will be the most difficult. It certainly is--but it is also way over the top and unbelievable, as is the final resolution.
I was very interested in the main subject of this book, Mary Todd Lincoln's confinement to Belleview Hospital for the Insane, which was granted by her son Robert's petition to the court. I wondered if being present at her husband's assassination had driven her mad, and I had heard that much of Robert's motivation was to get his hands on her money.
Newman does a good job of depicting life in the asylum, and, as a reader, I was frustrated by the restrictions put upon Mary. She could not spend a penny, move a foot, have a single visitor, or send a letter without Robert's express permission--a situation that must have been hard on the former first lady. The author takes us back through events in Mary's life that strongly influenced her: the death of her mother and her father's remarriage to an unaffectionate stepmother who sent her off to boarding school; family resistance to her engagement to Lincoln; the death of her sons; newspaper attacks; the assassination; etc. But on the whole, Mary does not come off sympathetically. She's depicted mainly as somewhat of a nymphomaniac; Lincoln complains that her passion is too strong and makes her promise to withhold it, and he is often so repelled by it that he avoids her bed (which of course only makes her more sexually frustrated). Mary later concludes that this suppression is the reason her son Robert is so unaffectionate. In addition, she's a neurotic shopaholic. During the war, when thousands are suffering and dying, she wracks up bills that her husband simply cannot pay, squandering tens of thousands of dollars on jewelry and silver tea services "because they will last." She stashes the goods in the attic and visits them as totems that will keep her husband and sons alive. If that isn't crazy, I don't know what is!
The thing I hated most about the book was the sex scenes. Don't get me wrong: sex can be good, and I don't mind it in most novels, as long as it's appropriate. But I really, REALLY did not want those detailed graphic descriptions of sex between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, both in younger days and their middle age. Some things you just do NOT need to visualize! Newman also details a one-night stand Mary has with a New York escort; whether this has any basis in fact, I do not know, but I could have done without it.
If, like me, you'd like to know more about the subject matter, I'd advise you to skip this one and find a credible biography. It raised a lot of questions for me about Mary's political influence and her confinement that really weren't satisfactorily answered for me here. I'm giving the novel three stars, mainly because it did raise questions, and because the first half or so did keep me engaged.
The reader was fine enough, but there are a number of glitches in this recording--at least six instances where a line is flubbed and repeated. Very annoying!
This collection of short stories by Australian Olga Masters left me very frustrated. I didn't care for the way many of them started by throwing the reader into the middle of the story, and I cared even less for the abrupt, unresolved endings (the stories just stopped, as if the writer had fallen asleep at her desk). Worse still was the overall tone and subject matter. Nearly every story involved child or wife beating, intended, I suppose, the show how tough life was for people trying to scrape a living in small towns and the outback. I just can't get into a father beating his son bloody at the dinner table while all his wife does is offer him brownies in an attempt to distract him, and one of the daughters keeps throwing out more suggestions for why her brother needs to be beaten to ramp up the violence. I got about 2/3 through this one and just couldn't take any more.
I know that I am part of a very small minority, but I am not an Alice Munro fan. Her stories aren't bad, but to me, they are just incredibly boring. I will give her credit for writing realistic contemporary dialogue, and I guess it's a talent to be able to write a long story about ordinary people in fairly ordinary situations. And there are brief moments of insight into human nature. But that's about all I have to say. I've now read several of her collections, and I've felt the same way about each. It's never a good sign when you are about halfway through a story and just want it to end . . . For the last 100 pages, I kept thinking about what I will read next. (Hint: It won't be by Alice Munro.) The reader is OK; she has that quiet monotone that is typical of readers of "important" literature that supposedly speaks for itself--the Poetry Reading Voice.
Sorry to say that, in the end, I'm rather disappointed with this one. Gardam uses an epistolary framework--although it's hard to remember that midway, when the letters become so lengthy and self-absorbed that the reader forgets there is a supposed recipient. The writer/narrator, Eliza Peabody, is a middle-aged know-it-all who initially feels compelled to proffer her superior wisdom--gained a s a hospice volunteer--to her neighbor, Joan, who apparently suffers from debilitating pain in one leg. Eliza has decided that Joan's pain is psychosomatic and advises her to just get over it, offering her own help as an amateur psychotherapist. Surprisingly, after a few more letters, it is discovered that Joan has run off, leaving her leg brace in the marital bed. Although Joan never replies to Eliza's letters, we learn that she has embarked on a new life, travelling to exotic locations and having affairs with much younger foreign men. Periodically, gifts from Joan arrive--but never a letter. In the meantime, Eliza's own life takes a turn for the worst as her husband moves out to take a flat with Joan's abandoned husband. The letters continue, with Eliza portraying herself, narcissistically, as the abandoned spouse, now abandoned as well by any borderline friends she might have had, and making herself out to be the heroine of everyone's lives, from Joan's university-student daughter to Barry, a young man dying of AIDS in the hospice.
Initially, I was intrigued by Eliza's voice, which Gardam conveyed with much humor. But as the letters dragged on and the descriptions of her own escapades and musings became longer and more self-pitying, I got bored. Yes, I do understand that what Gardam was trying to portray was the sadness and near-madness of a woman who has isolated herself from everyone; it just didn't particularly interest me, and I found the one-sided epistolary device tedious.
Three stars for the writing and the creation of a complete character, plus the initial humor is Eliza's self-deceptive letters to Joan. But Gardam has written much better novels.
This was my first experience reading Edward St. Aubyn, and I quite enjoyed the ride. Lost for Words is a send-up of the British literary scene--in particular, the Man Booker Prize and all the hubbub surrounding it. St. Aubyn clearly took his inspiration from the controversy of a few years back, when a semi-qualified panel decided to invoke popularity over literary quality. Several of the judges for the Elysian Prize for Literature have spurious qualifications; others unabashedly admit to not planning to read all the submitted books, and each is promoting a particular book because of preference (e.g., one likes nothing better than Scottish historical novels). The hopeful authors have their quirks as well. (My favorite was an Indian writer whose publisher mistakenly submits his aunt's cookbook instead of his own novel, The Mulberry Elephant.) St. Aubyn provides subtle humor in the behind-the-scenes rivalries and passions as well as the public debates. I saw the ending coming, but it was still fun getting there.
This is the second adaptation of a Shakespearean play by Hartley and Hewson that I've listened to on audio, and it was just as much fun as the first. In part, this is due to the excellent choice of readers: Alan Cumming for Macbeth and Richard Armitage for Hamlet. If you are a Shakespearean purist who can't abide embellishments to the 1623 Folio, best skip these novelized versions. In the H & H Hamlet, for example, a key character is added: young Yorick, son of the old jester, who tries to knock Hamlet out of his melancholy with more wisdom than foolery and is a constant companion to the prince throughout the novel. You might also be put off by the cruelty of both Old Hamlet and Polonius, the portrait of Fortinbras as a rather bumbling and brooding braggart, the details offered regarding the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia,and the fact that Ophelia's death is not depicted as a suicide here. But if you are willing to suspend what you already know about this cultural icon, you're in for quite an entertaining ride.
I had not read any of Sue Monk Kidd's previous books--they sounded too much like the kind of schmaltzy Southern women's fiction that I really do not enjoy.. But this one sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. The main character is based on a real person, Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston judge and plantation owner. In the nineteenth-century, she shocked her family and community by becoming a Quaker and a noted abolitionist. Coming from a slave-holding family, she was the perfect spokesperson--once she overcame a stammer that she had had since childhood. She was also one of the first to speak in favor of women's rights. Her younger sister Angelina also became a renowned proponent of these causes.
The story is told in alternating chapters by Sarah and Handful, a slave she was given as a present on her 11th birthday and with whom the author imagines her forging a friendship. Both young women face struggles, Sarah to conform to social expectations that go against her core values, and Handful to survive the brutal realities of slavery.
At times predictable and also a bit longer than it needed to be, 'The Invention of Wings' is nevertheless an engaging read, particularly because of the unique and realistic voices Kidd creates for her two protagonists and the parallel events in their lives. The two readers are excellent.
While I did not appreciate this collection quite as much as I have others by Trevor, his usual skill in storytelling and style prevail. The twelve stories here are, if not exactly sad, wistful or regretful. Nearly all involve characters who have experienced the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, or some other form of longing or loss, and the thin Irish melancholy pervades them all. Trevor is best writing about the 1960s and '70s, and the contemporary stories seem a bit lacking in truth. But, as always, Trevor is well worth the time. The various readers here are all quite good, however.
I have to begin by saying that I am not a Dickens fan, and as I read this book, I began to like him even less. Tomalin focuses on Dickens's relationship with the Ternan family, in particular his presumed affair with the youngest daughter, Ellen, best known as Nelly. She was only 18 at the time their affair began, Dickens 45. The Ternans were an acting family, and Dickens used his prestige first to persuade Mrs. Ternan and the girls to perform in his play 'The Frozen Deep,' then to secure various roles for her with his theatrical friends. Before long, he abandoned his wife (the mother of his 10 children), spreading rumors about her mental health and the ingratitude of her family members for all his assistance. (Wikipedia notes, "Matters came to a head in 1858 when Catherine Dickens opened a packet delivered by a London jeweller which contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband.") Dickens began to lead a double life, leasing and purchasing a series of homes for Nelly, her sisters and her widowed mother--homes deliberately located further and further from the public eye. After all, the man whose works were supposed to be the moral compass of England couldn't be caught with a mistress! His financial and personal arrangements were handled through coded letters to friends who acted as go-betweens, including Wilkie Collins. Nelly was kept such a deep, dark secret that her identity was even hidden when she suffered a serious injury in a train derailment while traveling with Dickens. Tomalin posits that she had at least one, and perhaps two, pregnancies by Dickens but lost both babies shortly after birth. Later in life, long after Dickens's death, Nelly supposedly confessed the affair to her pastor, saying that she greatly regretted it and loathed Dickens in those last years but could not, financially, break away.
The last section of the book addresses Nelly's life post-Dickens and the history of both the coverup and revelation of the affair.
I felt sorry for both Catherine, Dickens's long-suffering wife, and for Nelly, a young woman pressured by poverty and impressed by celebrity. As for Dickens, what a pompous, self-righteous hypocrite!
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