March was a slow reading month for me, it started off well but I barely read much in the last couple of weeks due to various distracting factors. So just four books, but they were great, so I really can’t complain. I continued to participate in Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and also made a contribution to Cathy’s ‘Reading Ireland Month 2023’.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the four books…You can read the detailed reviews on the first three by clicking on the title links.
THE SPRINGS OF AFFECTION: STORIES OF DUBLIN by Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life. The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road.
The next two sections focus on the Derdon and Bagot families respectively and are some of the finest stories she has written. The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple. In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. The highlight of the collection is the last story which also lends the collection its name – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.
The stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing.
CRAMPTON HODNET by Barbara Pym
Set in North Oxford, Crampton Hodnet is a delightful comedy of manners with its full arsenal of vicars, curates, spinsters and tea parties – elements so characteristic of Pym’s magical world.
The book opens in Miss Doggett’s elaborately decorated Victorian drawing room where she’s hosting an afternoon tea party for the young Oxford students, some of them have been regulars, others invited for the first time. Assisting her is her companion, Miss Morrow, a spinster reasonably young but generally viewed (by Miss Doggett at least) to be past her prime or in other words, a generally accepted “marriageable” age. We are also introduced to Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, a respected professor of English Literature at one of the Oxford colleges, his easy-going wife Margaret, and their daughter Anthea who has fallen deeply in love with Simon Beddoes, an ambitious young man hoping to make it big in politics. Things in this sleepy Oxford town begin to hot up with the arrival of a young curate Mr Latimer who possibly becomes interested in Miss Morrow, and the entry of the idealistic and intelligent student Barbara Bird with whom Francis embarks on an affair.
Crampton Hodnet might come across as a light-hearted novel and in many ways it is, but it is also filled with some universal truths about people and relationships and Pym as usual has a marvellous, subtle flair for comedy.
IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes
The first time I read In A Lonely Place was almost a decade ago and I remember being so impressed then. It’s a terrific novel – a great combination of mood and atmosphere laced with Hughes’ brilliant, hard-edged, nourish-style writing and a fascinating protagonist (Dix Steele) whose actions are as shadowy and black as the fog that envelops and obscures the city of Los Angeles in the night. I also loved the portrayal of the two women, Laurel and Sylvia; personality-wise, like ‘fire and ice’ respectively.
Violence, paranoia, the banality of evil, and the emptiness of post-war life are some of the themes that form the essence of In a Lonely Place; it’s an intense, suspenseful tale, superbly crafted in the way it is told through a killer’s perspective.
DEATH AT LA FENICE by Donna Leon
Death at La Fenice is the first book in Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series set in Venice, and I liked it so much that I plan to read more.
The novel opens during a concert performance at Venice’s famed opera hall La Fenice where Maestro Helmut Wellauer, a world-renowned conductor is found dead in his dressing room from cyanide poisoning between the second and third acts. Wellauer was a well-known and deeply respected figure in the music circles and his death mounts the pressure on the Venetian police to find the murderer. Suspects are plenty, chief among them being Wellauer’s third wife who was beckoned to her husband’s dressing room for a brief chat which ultimately never took place; Wellauer was also seen arguing with a couple of performers from the orchestra he was conducting. One of them is a famous singer rumoured to be in a relationship with a rich American woman settled in Venice.
As Brunetti digs deeper, Wellauer’s unsavoury past begins to unfold (“As a musician, he was as close to perfection as a man could come. It was worth putting up with the man to be able to work with the musician”) – he was possibly a Nazi sympathizer as well as a homophobic with a penchant for blackmail and interfering into the lives of his colleagues and family. And Brunetti realises that finding his killer in the present is to unlock the key to Wellauer’s past.
In the midst of all this, we get a bit more color on Guido Brunetti and his wife Paola who comes from a rich, aristocratic family, and an easy relationship despite the differences in their backgrounds.
“For reasons he had never understood, she read a different newspaper each morning, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, and languages from French to English. Years ago, when he had first met her and understood her even less, he had asked about this. Her response, he came to realize only years later, made perfect sense: ‘I want to see how many different ways the same lies can be told.’ Nothing he had read in the ensuing years had come close to suggesting that her approach was wrong.“
For the most part, Guido hates attending social gatherings at his in-laws’ palatial Venetian home, but they have unmatched connections, and during one point in the case when it seems to be heading nowhere, Guido attends one such soiree to get a flavour of the social circles that Wellauer himself possibly frequented.
But Venice with all her allure and mystery is as much a character in the book as the rest; the novel is drenched with a vivid sense of place and Leon effectively captures its two sides – the dirty politics of this canal city, and its magic that draws in so many visitors like moths to a candle flame. Here’s Venice at night when it is empty of day trippers:
“But these were the hours when, for Brunetti, the city became most beautiful, just as they were the same hours when he, Venetian to the bone, could sense some of her past glory. The darkness of the night hid the moss that crept up the steps of the palazzo lining the Grand Canal, obscured the cracks in the walls of churches, and covered the patches of plaster missing from the facades of public buildings. Like many women of a certain age, the city needed the help of deceptive light to recapture her vanished beauty. A boat that, during the day was making a delivery of soap powder or cabbages, at night became a numinous form, floating toward some mysterious destination. The fogs that were common in these winter days could transform people and objects, even turn longhaired teenagers, hanging around a street corner and sharing a cigarette, into mysterious phantoms from the past.“
That’s it for March. In March I had started reading All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, both of which have spilled over to April so they will be featured in my April reading post. Also on the agenda are the two Iris Origo diaries – A Chill in the Air and War in Val d’Orcia as part of the “NYRBWomen23” readalong.