The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I adore Edith Wharton. The first novel I read by her was The Age of Innocence, which blew me away. Since then, I have read the marvelous The Custom of the Country as well as her New York Stories, an excellent publication by NYRB Classics. Not surprisingly, The House of Mirth is another brilliant read, fully deserving of its classic status.

The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s top-tier New York society novels showcasing the social trajectory of its unforgettable heroine, Lily Bart, and the ultimate price she pays for defying convention.

Our protagonist Lily Bart is beautiful, sophisticated, witty – the cynosure of all eyes. In her late twenties, Lily is now an orphan. But despite her impoverished means, Lily is cultured and discerning, a product of her upbringing that values wealth and luxury and abhors dinginess in all its forms.

Being a part of the elite New York social circle – a world of Trenors, Dorsets and Brys – demands verve and personality of which Lily has plenty, and money of which Lily pretty much has none. Lily now resides with her aunt Mrs Peniston, a woman whose ideas of Old New York and its mores are at odds with Lily’s. While Lily relies on the generosity of her well-heeled friends, she is conscious that this can’t be a permanent solution. The only course of action that can relieve her of financial cares and elevate her to an equal footing with her peers is a good marriage.

It seems simple, straightforward enough and Lily even chances upon a potential prized catch – Percy Gryce. Gryce is one of those shy, awkward young men but from a family blessed with immense wealth. Lily is confident of her charms in making Gryce fall in love with her, and even succeeds as per plan. Yet when the time comes to seal the deal, she chickens out.

And this is what makes Lily a complex but fascinating creation – she craves for wealth and security but can’t bring herself to marry if she’s not in love. She is attracted to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, who does not much care for the trappings of the rich and is content being on the fringes of elite society, but he does not have enough means to cater to Lily’s upwardly mobile aspirations. In a way, Lily is aware that she can’t marry Selden, even if she greatly enjoys their conversations and the playful banter between them. It is precisely one of these encounters with Selden that provides Lily an unflattering glimpse of the likely dullness of her existence were she to marry Gryce, even if it means a secure future for her.

That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic…Sometimes, I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.

It’s an opportunity missed, but Lily takes it in her stride. Lily’s appetite for leisure and luxury, though, does not wane and her proclivity for playing bridge – a wealthy pastime – causes her to amass gambling debts. To pay these off, Lily commits a big blunder, a grievous mistake, the ramifications of which will haunt her for the rest of her life. She turns to Gus Trenor – her friend Judy’s husband – and entrusts her income to him to invest in stocks. Her lack of business experience means that she fails to understand the consequences of her actions before it’s too late.

She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.

The House of Mirth, then, is a scathing portrayal of New York Society in the early 20th century with its ridiculous emphasis on how things ‘appear’ rather than how things ‘actually are.’ Reeking with double-standards, it’s a society governed by rigid moral codes and social customs, stubbornly resistant to new ways of thinking. The newer set that Lily moves in possibly seems more unconventional, atleast when it comes to modes of entertaining and the idea of marriage than what was acceptable in Mrs Peniston’s time. Yet, in many ways, certain viewpoints failed to evolve. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the status of single women.

Men could do as they pleased, their actions were never judged. Even married women enjoyed some license – a married woman could be a harmless flirt, something that was tolerated if her husband did not make a big deal about it. But a single woman had to be tremendously careful and on her guard lest she be judged wrongly. Clearly, it was a society where gender inequality was at its peak, where a single woman could be harshly treated by both men and women alike for even a minor misstep. It also brought to the fore the lack of opportunities for women, their only ambition being to secure a wealthy match for a life of perennial comfort. A woman living independently did not get the credit it deserved.

In this scenario, Lily Bart makes for an unconventional, tragic heroine – vivacious and witty on one hand, and incredibly naïve on the other. Given the aspirations of her mother, Lily’s upbringing has been fed on a diet of how to conduct herself in society, a largely ornamental role with the sole purpose of marrying. Lily knows only how to see herself through the eyes of her social set, and when they unforgivably turn against her, it increasingly becomes a monumental task to rehabilitate herself.

Always accustomed to the rich and their ways, Lily has not learnt to do anything else, and she lacks the aptitude to eke out an independent living. And yet it’s the nuances in her character that set her apart from the social circle she moves in. For one, she is quite self-aware of her position, and secondly it’s the central dilemma plaguing her (whether to marry for love or for money) that makes her so interesting. It’s her uniqueness that attracts Lawrence Selden to her even if he knows that he can’t satisfy her financially.

While reading this novel, I could not help but compare Lily Bart to Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country. Both heroines want to be a part of the pinnacle of society, but while Undine is driven by blind ambition caring little for how her actions impact others, Lily’s desires are more complex, which is also why she cuts a more sympathetic figure.

Edith Wharton’s writing as ever is marvelous and incisive, and the novel brims with fully realized characters and brilliantly rendered scenes and set pieces. Wharton dissects the inner workings of New York society with consummate skill and precision, and her astute observations on its various hypocrisies are spot on especially the point on how women are always at the mercy of the perceptions of others. A novel of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, Lily’s inevitable downfall takes on a whole new level of poignancy that is quite heart-rending in the final section. All in all, another stunning novel from Wharton’s oeuvre!

A Month of Reading – January 2021

Here’s what I read in January – a mix of translated literature, early 20th century lit and a fascinating memoir. It was a superb reading month, and I thought all the books were terrific. Indeed, a great start to 2021. It was also one of those rare months where I wrote reviews on every book I read.

So, without much ado, here are the books. For the detailed reviews, you can click on the links.

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

This is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. This is an important book that needs to be read despite the brutal subject matter.

Tea Is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex

Tea Is So Intoxicating is a delightful comedy, a hilarious take on the challenges and pitfalls of running a tea-house in a quaint English village.

Essex is witty and displays a wicked sense of humour, and her writing is deliciously tongue-in-cheek.

All the characters are wonderfully realized and unique with their own set of quirks – the obstinate David with his inability to think quickly, the self-assured but dull Digby who believes his Ducks has verve and personality, poor shabbily-dressed Germayne who is driven crazy by the two men in her life, the formidable but lonely Mrs Arbroath who loves to relentlessly argue and have her own way, the dashing Colonel Blandish who can impress women with his “Simla finesse and Poona technique”, and of course not to be left out, the enchanting Mimi in her dirndl skirt and plunging neckline who can set men’s hearts racing. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

A poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a deeply moving novel that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. I loved this one.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.

That’s it for January.  I have started this month with L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Plus, February is dedicated to #ReadIndies hosted by Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life, and I have some books I plan to read published by indies such as Archipelago Books, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Charco Press to name a few.

More Was Lost – Eleanor Perényi

More Was Lost is an absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. It is also a fascinating look at history, particularly the dramatic upheavals in the Central and Eastern European region, and the profound and life altering impact it had on the people living there.

At the tender age of nineteen, Eleanor Stone comes from a privileged family – her father is a Naval officer and a cultural attaché, while her mother is a novelist. While on holiday with her mother in Europe, she meets Zsiga Perényi, a poor Hungarian baron in his late thirties, at a diplomatic dinner. They fall in love, marry in Venice, and set up home in the Perényi estate in rural Ruthenia.

We sat and drank Tokay for a long time. I felt surprisingly miserable.

At last he (Zsiga) said, “It’s a pity we are both so poor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because otherwise we could perhaps marry.”

I looked into my wineglass.

“Yes, we could.”

There was another pause which seemed to me interminable. Then he said, “Do you think you could marry me anyway?”

“I think I could decidedly.”

So we were engaged.

Eleanor’s mother is initially hesitant about the match given the cultural differences, and the Perényi’s impoverishment, but Eleanor knows what she wants and is firm in her decision.

The Perényis do not have a steady flow of income, but they are blessed with a sprawling estate in Ruthenia, complete with land, forest and a vineyard. Eleanor and Zsiga realize that managing this estate is the only way for them to build a life together and keep the money flowing. And that is exactly what they do.

We walked over the fields toward an acacia-shaded road. The earth was fine and crumbly under our feet. I had not expected to feel very much about the land. It was the house and the garden that I had thought of. But I was wrong. The land was the reason for everything. And standing there, we felt rich. We wondered what everyone had meant by saying we had no money, and no future, and should not marry. Nonsense! At that moment, we felt we had everything.

In the first half of the memoir, Eleanor gives us a detailed view of how she goes about adjusting to her new circumstances, and it makes for riveting reading.  Communication is the biggest hurdle, so she begins to study Hungarian. She learns to navigate the various intricacies of running the household – growing and organizing food supplies, and having discussions with the cook regarding daily meals. She takes an interest in the interiors, decorating the house with beautiful fabrics and furniture.

Since Zsiga has his hands full supervising the farm, vineyard and forest, Eleanor takes it upon herself to manage the park, orchard and vegetable cellar among other things. She also adjusts to the Hungarian system of paying by barter instead of cash. Then there is all the socializing to do – paying various house calls, and in turn entertaining guests at their home.

In the midst of all this, we are given a fascinating insight on the broader political landscape at the time, and the shifting, nebulous boundaries of Central and Eastern Europe. The Perényi’s estate is situated in rural Ruthenia, a region which belonged to Hungary before the First World War but was doled out to Czechoslovakia in the territorial distribution that followed. This is a wound that continues to irk the Hungarians – they are obsessed about reclaiming most, if not all, of the regions that were taken away from them.

Thus, the Perényis are Hungarians, but live under Czech rule. Given that the Czechs are excellent administrators as compared to the laidback, inefficient Hungarians, Zsiga and Eleanor have no problems adapting to the Czech way of doing things. But since the Hungarians don’t look upon the Czechs too kindly, the Perényis’ dilemma is not lost on Eleanor.

As Hitler begins to frighteningly advance across Europe by capturing territories and the prospect of war looms large, Zsiga and Eleanor are confronted with unthinkable possibility of losing their estate and home. Eleanor expertly conveys the complex political environment at the time, most notably what she calls the ‘schizophrenia of Hungarian politics.’ Czechoslovakia enters the war against Germany, but Hungary allies itself with Hitler because he promises the Hungarians that they can conquer their lost territories. So, despite Zsiga and Eleanor’s respect and admiration for the Czechs, they worry about being considered ‘foreign subjects’ if Ruthenia is not returned to Hungary. They increasingly realize that Hitler dissolving Czechoslovakia is the only way for the Perényis to cling to their estate, and this dilemma torments them greatly because none of the scenarios are ideal.

Clearly, the fast-changing dynamics in Europe will severely test the mettle of the Perényis when it comes to defending their home and their marriage. Will they emerge triumphant?

I loved everything about this memoir. What was immediately remarkable to me was Eleanor Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty – would have been extremely challenging, but she does it with aplomb. I was impressed by her steadfast commitment to making her new life work.

More Was Lost, then, is a memoir expansive in scope and incredibly intimate at the same time, as it brilliantly captures the complex minefield of European politics through the lens of one family’s experiences. Perenyi’s prose is lovely, suffused with grace, charm and wit. She is candid, straightforward with an eye for detail, and the first half of the memoir is peppered with a plethora of anecdotes that makes for delicious reading, while the last section is especially poignant.

She excels at evoking mood and atmosphere through lush descriptions of the indoors and the outdoors – the sumptuous interiors of grand homes, the snow laden vistas, the stark contrast in the Czech and Hungarian countryside, and overall beauty of Europe with its glamour, languor and gaiety.

The park was perhaps twenty acres, bounded on three sides by the dead branch of a river. “You’ll come for the duck-shooting,” he (Cousin Laci) told me. “There are hundreds of birds down there.” There were poplars along the banks, and their branches were filled with crows, cawing into the spring wind. From the end of the park we saw the house with the pillars and the back terrace. I thought as I so often had before how much these country places in Hungary fitted the descriptions of old Russia in Turgenev or Chekhov.

It’s a narrative tinged with nostalgia, humour, sadness, a window to a lost and vanished world, a remembrance of the halcyon days of Europe when it thrived in all its glory, a touching tale of how much was gained and how much more was lost.

The later period of the photographs, the letters, and the small familiar objects was near enough to touch. These were the last remnants of that Eden-like existence in the country, occupied with the transportation of lapdogs, walks in the garden to pick strawberries in the summer, expeditions with the children, the governesses, and the tutors to a cave on the mountain, picnics, family dinners and whist games, all the activities of that delicious and vanished world.

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.

A Month of Reading – September 2020

September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.

Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.

Passing– Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh.

Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.

The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)

Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots.  The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.

The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.

At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.

This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.

In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.

In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.

The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.

That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.