Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The details:

Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1937)
Pages: 264

In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct anthropological research in Haiti. She went to escape from a tempestuous love affair and later said that she tried to channel her feelings into her work. In the course of seven weeks, Hurston wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published the next year. In it, she uses dialect to give her characters a unique voice.

Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

Janie Crawford, our heroine, was raised by her grandmother in the southern United States. As her grandmother grows older, knowing that she won’t be around much longer, she thinks about what to do with Janie. In an effort to ensure a safe future for her granddaughter, she makes a match between Janie and an older man. With romantic notions filling her head, Janie agrees to the marriage, knowing that she doesn’t love her future husband, yet hoping that love will come with time. She dreams of a love that resembles the feeling she has when sitting under a tree on a warm summer’s day.

Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!

It doesn’t take Janie long to realize that love doesn’t always follow marriage. After her grandmother’s death, she meets a well-dressed man, named Jody Starks, walking along the road and follows him, hoping that perhaps he’ll be the key to the sort of freedom she craves.

But life with Jody is in some ways more confining than anything Janie has known thus far. They move to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all African American self-governing municipalities in the US. Jody arrives with a large amount of money and uses it to gain influence in the town, eventually becoming the mayor. He buys Janie fine clothes and builds a house for them, and they run the town store. As she sits at the front counter, Janie feels distant from the other townsfolk, who see her as Mrs. Mayor and not as an equal. Although she has everything she needs in terms of clothes and food and shelter, she finds that her emotional needs aren’t being met. Jody wants to control her, wants to dictate how she should act and who she should talk to.

Above all, this is a novel about trying to find a sense of freedom in a world where women still didn’t have much power. When Janie finally meets Tea Cake, the wonderfully named man who will become the love of her life, life begins to alter for her. The tree she had always dreamed of begins to grow and branch out. The most charming part of the book is Hurston’s use of language. There were phrases that hit me as being beautiful, such as “she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see.” This is one of those books that has the power to transform a vision of life. It is about becoming yourself, finally, through all of the joys and sorrows of experience.

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Book Review: Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

The details:

Title: Nine Coaches Waiting
Author: Mary Stewart
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1958)
Pages: 352

Nine Coaches Waiting offers a plot that feels familiar. A lonely, orphaned woman hired to be a governess arrives at a rural estate and falls in love. At one point, the main character thinks about Jane Eyre. But Mary Stewart saves this book from being too derivative by peppering the writing with literary references, beginning each chapter with an appropriate quote, and by giving her heroine, Linda Martin, a unique, clever voice.

The book begins with Linda telling the reader, “I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” When she was offered a job as a governess for a family in France, she quit her job at a school in London without hesitation. She knows very little about her employers, Leon and Heloise de Valmy. There is a brief mention, early, of Linda remembering her parents speaking of Leon and the accident that left him paralyzed, but the connection between the two is frustratingly never explained. How did Linda’s parents know Leon? Why were they speaking of him at the breakfast table? In a book that relies on suspense, I was expecting there to be a connection, some plot of revenge against the daughter of a hated rival, but it is never spoken of again.

Instead, Linda falls into a routine caring for young Philippe, the Comte de Valmy, who is under his uncle and aunt’s care while his usual guardian, Leon’s brother, is off working on an archaeological site. Philippe is lonely and obviously frightened of Leon, and Heloise mentions more than once how sickly and delicate Philippe is. Linda nicknames Leon the Demon King and thinks he looks like a fallen angel. Since Philippe’s parents’ preferred Paris to the countryside, Leon has managed the estate for years and plans to do so until Philippe becomes of age. He takes great pride in the great house, diverting money from his own estate for Valmy’s upkeep. Anvil-sized hints abound, making the mystery rather less thrilling than it could have been.

When Philippe falls victim to two accidents, Linda isn’t that suspicious. She’s too distracted by Leon’s handsome son, Raoul, from his first marriage. Again, readers will know immediately where this is going, but the journey to get there is delightful with Linda narrating. She saves Philippe from certain death. However, she doesn’t want to think the accidents are anything more than that. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed the characterization and the style of writing, but the plot didn’t offer many surprises. Overall, I would recommend it. It’s perfect for summer reading, the sort of book that doesn’t require too much effort, yet is still very entertaining.