Review Fridays: The First Violin

The details:

Title: The First Violin
Author: Jessie Fothergill
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1877)
Pages: 580
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Our heroine, May Wedderburn, is the first narrator of Jessie Fothergill’s The First Violin. Her wealthy neighbor, Sir Peter Le Marchant, wants to marry her. Even though her family is poor and the marriage would be advantageous, it is the last thing May wants. She refuses him. May is miserable in her small town life and feels that, if she had a bit of training in music, she could become a teacher and earn her own living. Luck offers May an opportunity to escape. Her blind neighbor, Miss Hallam, is going to the fictional town of Elberthal, Germany, for eye treatments to try to regain some of her sight. She offers to bring May along, both as a companion and so that May can take singing lessons.

At the train station in Cologne, May loses track of Miss Hallam and misses the train to Elberthal. Unable to speak German and lacking money, she feels despondent until she meets a handsome gentleman who happens to be going to Elberthal. They spend a magical afternoon together in Cologne, having lunch and listening to music in the cathedral, before catching the next train to Elberthal. But it turns out that everything was not on the up-and-up with him. He lied about there not being any earlier trains.

May finds him performing in the local orchestra as the first violin. In some embarrassment, May looks down instead of returning his greeting. She lives to regret this decision many times over as the man, Eugen Courvoisier, with his strict moral code, takes this as a sign that May would rather not know him and acts accordingly. He pretends not to know her even when May offers apologies and tries to pay him back the money he spent on her lunch and train ticket. This, to be honest, is the part of the book that strains credulity with me. There are other reasons why Eugen keeps his distance from May, but, for three-quarters of the novel, it seems cruel and makes it difficult to fully like Eugen. As May hopelessly falls in love with the proud Eugen, she finds some consolation in her exceptional talent for singing and her friendship with her singing coach, the town’s musical director, Max von Francius.

Our other narrator is Eugen’s friend and roommate, Friedhelm Helfen. It becomes apparent that Eugen is hiding a past, but Friedel is not the type to ask questions. All he knows is that Eugen has been a great friend to him in a time when he needed one. He also dotes upon Sigmund, Eugen’s stoic, precocious son. The dual narrative brings a different perspective on the inhabitants of Elberthal. I enjoyed reading the quiet moments between the characters. However, drama must win out, and their happy existence cannot last. Friedel and May both make excellent narrators. Friedel is almost too good to be true: loyal and kind to a fault. May’s enthusiasm for life brightens a sometimes depressing story.

My favorite part of the book is an utterly charming scene that takes place on a bridge on the Rhine during a storm. Like other Victorian novels, much of the plotting is left to coincidence and chance. This is one of those rare books that, even though my edition was over 500 pages, I wished there had been an extra 100 pages at the end to wrap up the story. Everything felt rushed in the final few chapters. This was all due to how well the characters were developed; I cared so much about them all that I wanted more. Overall, I enjoyed this Victorian novel set partially in Germany, which showed such a vast appreciation of music.

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Review Fridays: The Vagabond

The details:

Title: The Vagabond
Author: Colette
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1910)
Pages: 208
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Renée Néré, the protagonist of Colette’s The Vagabond, wants you to know that she is perfectly fine being alone. She left her husband, a philandering artist whom she loved deeply, and decided to earn her living on the stage. She dances in Vaudeville acts in early 20th-century Paris, living with her bulldog, Fossette, and determinedly avoiding entangling herself in a new relationship. Though it’s not always glamorous, she enjoys her life. Her mentor and dance partner, Brague, is supportive but tough. She describes everyone around her in colorful language. For instance, she says that one of her fellow performers has “a heart like that of a dog without an owner, prepared to love anyone who’ll adopt him.”

Renée is the exact opposite of that. She enjoys spending time with her friend, Hamond, and together they bemoan the tragedies of their failed marriages. But love is forcing its way into her life as, after a performance, Maxime Dufferein-Chautel invades her dressing room. She shoos him away as best she can and dismissively nicknames him the Big Ninny. (I read a newer translation and found out that in the previous translation he was the Big-Noodle, which I think I might prefer.) As time goes on, aided by Hamond, the Big Ninny starts to work his way into Renée’s reluctant heart.

Just as Renée and the Big Ninny seem to be getting closer, Brague tells Renée that he planned a six-week working tour around France for them for a large sum of money, if she’s interested. She decides to go, convincing the Big Ninny not to go along with them, as travelling is not romantic and would not be the best way to test a new relationship. From each stop, she writes the Big Ninny letters, punctuating them with her own thoughts told solely to the reader. By this point, it’s hard not to feel close to Renée, to want what’s best for her, and both the reader and our narrator slowly come to the realization of that future, the only future possible for her. Is that future giving love a second chance with the Big Ninny? Or is it another working tour, this time in South America, with Brague? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Colette wrote The Vagabond in a chatty style that makes Renée feel like a friend, someone you made tea for and who is sitting at your kitchen table, commiserating with you about life without being overly sentimental. It also presents an unflinching account of what life was like for a dancer living in Paris at the time. It’s charming and doesn’t show it’s age one bit, much like Renée. I’ve read some of Colette’s more famous work, but this one is my favorite. It’s a story about what it’s like to be a 30-something woman, long before Bridget Jones, but seeming as current today as when it was first published over 100 years ago.

Review Fridays: Swing Time

The details:

Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 464
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

It’s hard to be impartial about an author you love. I preordered Swing Time once it was available and have been putting off reviewing it largely because I felt I needed time to digest it. In my opinion, Zadie Smith is one of the best modern authors. I loved White Teeth and On Beauty and NW. Swing Time is different, in tone and style. It doesn’t have the sly humor of White Teeth or the literary homage of On Beauty. Instead, it’s a meditation on music and dance and how to deal with one’s past, one’s own and the past of one’s ancestors.

The first thing that struck me about Swing Time was the difference in point-of-view. Smith’s other novels have a detached third-person perspective, but Swing Time is told in the first-person by an unnamed narrator. The narrator is a bit bland, particularly when compared to all of the other women populating this novel. She forms a sense of self through those around her, always looking up to them, not thinking she can equal them, and her realization of that is heart-breaking.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

This is a novel about relationships between women. There’s a very minor romantic subplot, but that never seemed to matter, never seemed like the point. Instead, Swing Time is divided between the two main relationships in the narrator’s life: her childhood friendship with Tracey and her all-consuming job as assistant to an international pop star named Aimee. Also figuring into her life is her unnamed mother, a strong, self-educated woman, an aspiring politician, whom the narrator does not want to be like.

It begins with the story of Tracey and the narrator. They live on an estate in London and both take dance classes. Tracey is a natural talent. The narrator has flat feet, but persists in dancing, taking an interest in the history of dance and focusing on her ability to sing. They usually do what Tracey wants them to do. They play with Barbie, getting “that tiny white woman’s life in order.” They bond over their similar background and skin color: the narrator has a Black mother and White father, Tracey a White mother and Black father. As Tracey and the narrator grow older, they grow apart. Tracey gets the narrator a job backstage at a theatre, but the narrator leaves once she receives an opportunity to work for an MTV-like company. It is there that the narrator meets Aimee.

The narrator idolized Aimee as a child, so when she hears that she will be escorting Aimee around the studio, she puts on an act. Aimee’s favorite color is green, so she buys a green outfit and adds a nose-ring to give her look an edge. But Aimee sees straight through her. Aimee pulls out the fake nose-ring and says, “Don’t believe you.” That’s the narrator’s life summed up in one neat phrase; she tries to be something she’s not, and no one around her buys it anyway. The narrator thinks the whole thing went badly, but a few months later, Aimee’s people call her and offer her a job.

Aimee is repeatedly described as a tiny, white woman, and so it felt like a throw-back to the narrator’s youth that, as an adult, her literal job is getting Aimee’s life in order. She spends all of her time working and being on the look-out for people Aimee calls customers, those who only want to get close to the narrator in order to meet Aimee. From that point, the narrator’s life seems to revolve around Aimee. When Aimee plans for a school in Africa, the narrator spends months at a time there. The Africa subplot offers more things to think about: what right Aimee has to appropriate the culture of others, the problems with dealing with a despotic government to do good, and how involved Aimee would actually be with the school. Good for immediate publicity, the school not seem to interest Aimee after a few months.

There’s so much going on with this novel that it is hard to summarize succinctly. Even a few months removed from reading it, I feel overwhelmed by all of the themes and issues the book raises. Most of the reviews I read cry against the narrator, say how much they disliked her, but I felt for her. Throughout the novel, she is on a journey to self-discovery, and by the end, it seems like she might have reached a point where she will have the time and maturity to finally find a sense of self. The narrator told us a story where she is a shadow. And, just as the book is ending, there is hope for something more for her.

This is the type of book that, while grappling with serious issues, still manages to be excellent entertainment. I feel like this is the sort of book that would hold up well to re-readings, finding something new to think about each time. Overall, I highly recommend it.

Review Fridays: The Lathe of Heaven

The details:

Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 192
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

What right do we have to change the world, even for the better? And what is better, anyway? That’s the question George Orr asks himself in The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. When he dreams very vividly, or “effectively” as he calls it, he wakes to find that his dreams came true. The world has moved into an alternate reality. No one but George can remember what the world was like before his dream.

Any other person might love that power, but George finds the burden too great to bear. He lives in Portland, Oregon, but his world isn’t the same as ours. It is somewhat recognizable, but contains some very bleak changes. His Portland features food rationing, overpopulation, and global disasters. In an attempt to stop dreaming effectively, he overdoses on drugs. A doctor who treats him assigns him to voluntary therapy. The alternative, if he refuses, is involuntary incarceration. And so there isn’t really a choice at all; George decides to go to therapy, hoping that the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, can cure him.

Haber specializes in dreams and uses a machine he has spent years developing, combined with hypnosis, to treat George. He puts George into a deep sleep state and suggests what he should dream about. After a couple of test dreams, where the mural in Haber’s office changes from a mountain to a horse and back again, Haber can’t resist the power George gives him. He uses George’s dreams to give himself a better office with a nice window view, to secure a prestigious job, and to “solve” the world’s problems. At first, George isn’t sure if Haber knows that he is telling the truth about his dreams, but, as time progresses, it becomes clear that Haber is manipulating George to change the world.

Wanting to know what his rights are, George visits a lawyer, Heather Lelache, who dubs the tentative, slight man “Mr. Either Orr.” Heather thinks that George is insane, but agrees to visit one of his therapy sessions, and, by experiencing it in person, she can remember the division between what was and what is now. The world keeps changing with Haber’s subsequent “improvements,” however, from one dream to another, and in some realities, George doesn’t even know Heather. She isn’t a lawyer; she doesn’t exist; she isn’t the same fierce woman he has come to admire.

I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, which is usually a necessity for me to like a book, but the philosophical issues kept me interested. What right do we have to change the world? What is progress? Haber’s ideal world doesn’t sit right with George. When Haber orders George to solve issues of racial prejudice, everyone ends up with gray skin. The problem of overpopulation is solved through a devastating plague. Sick people are euthanized. The constant, world-wide war comes to an end with the introduction of a new enemy: aliens, turtle-like creatures who speak from their elbows.

The message is that there are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. Dr. Haber reaches a point where he has the power, with his important government job, to change the world himself. But he won’t do that. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of a quick and easy fix that he completely overlooks what he can do by himself, through his own agency. Haber is an adherent to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, might sincerely believe that he is acting from altruistic motives, but he is flawed. Le Guin reminds readers that so-called easy solutions can have disastrous consequences, even if meant well.

Review Fridays: The Bottle Factory Outing

The details:

Title: The Bottle Factory Outing
Author: Beryl Bainbridge
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 200
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

What a strange book!

I mean that in the best way possible. I absolutely adored it. Dame Beryl Bainbridge used a slight, understated writing style that enhanced the comedic elements of The Bottle Factory Outing, first published in 1974. This is my second book by her, and both managed to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout tragedy. By all accounts, she was an original character herself, and this novel pulls semi-autobiographical aspects of her life into the plot.

Brenda and Freda share a bedsit and work together in a wine bottling factory. The factory is owned by Mr. Paganotti, who is revered by the myriad of Italian workers. Most of the workers don’t speak much English and treat Brenda and Freda with a ridiculous level of deferential respect.

The factory manager, Rossi, pursues Brenda in a cringe-worthy way. He corners her in rooms and chases her around dusty furniture in storage at the factory; she is too polite to tell him to leave her alone, too polite to even avoid him. But it’s hard not to feel bad for him. His reverence for Mr. Paganotti is excessive and is his ultimate downfall. In one sad anecdote, he recalls that Mr. Paganotti had invited him to see his house one day. Rossi dressed up for the occasion, but Mr. Paganotti forgot all about it and left without so much of a mention to Rossi. Mr. Paganotti often forgets things, doesn’t always follow up on his promises, but still the workers admire him. His charity is meager: a box of old clothes on the factory floor for the workers to pick through, directly next to a box for them to deposit payment for whatever they take.

Brenda separated from her abusive husband, ran away to London from her rural life on his farm, and met Freda while crying at a butcher’s shop. Where Brenda is pathologically nice to the point that she won’t say what she is really thinking, Freda is confrontational, abrupt, assertive, often yelling. They are two opposites who sleep in the same bed, separated, at Brenda’s insistence, by a divider of books lined up in the middle of the mattress.

The action is punctuated by bizarre little scenes. For instance, Brenda recalls that her mother-in-law leaned in to kiss her at her wedding but instead bit her ear, would sneak into the chicken coop and draw faces on the eggs with a Biro (ball-point pen), and once locked Brenda in a barn with a bunch of geese. Someone tries to shoot Brenda, but it’s softened by comic relief. Brenda, with her typical mousiness, believes that she deserves all of this as she has done a million wrongs in her head. She is so afraid of offending anyone that she lies constantly, saying whatever she thinks the person she is talking to wants to hear. Freda reminds her that she is pathetic and born a victim, but Brenda can’t help it.

As the title suggests, Freda plans an outing for the workers, including Vittorio, Mr. Paganotti’s nephew, to whom she is attracted. Things don’t go as planned. They never do. This is a very funny book, but it steadily builds a sense that something awful is about to happen. Even after it happens, the tone remains light. The reader knows rationally how horrible it all is, but still Bainbridge can make us laugh.

I’ve never read anything quite like Bainbridge’s novels and am not even sure of how to recommend her. The Bottle Factory Outing is definitely dark comedy, but it’s unique in a way that could be off-putting. The characters are realistic; the tragedy is that we can recognize ourselves in Brenda or Freda, in Rossi or Vittorio. They’re pathetic people who are trying their best in a flawed world, one that’s hard to make sense of at the best of times, impossible to understand at the worst of times. Still, the characters try. And, maybe, that’s why I’d recommend reading Beryl Bainbridge; she reminds you to keep smiling through life’s tragedies.