27 September 2014

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

The lovely Miranda, of Old Fashioned Girls, is hosting a group read-along of My Cousin Rachel for their book club this month.  Daphne du Maurier is an author I hear, or read, about on almost a weekly basis but up until now I have never experienced her work for myself.  It was high time I did!

*Spoilers*

Set during some point in the 19th century in Cornwall and partly in Italy this is a story about love, betrayal, deceit, and one startling act of revenge.  Narrated by Philip Ashley, in his mid-twenties, raised for most of his life under the guardianship of his cousin Ambrose.  The two men are very much alike in looks and personality.  During a trip to Italy, Ambrose falls in love with a stunningly beautiful woman and ends up staying in the warm and sunny climate for the good of his eroding health.  When after a span of time Ambrose's letters to Philip reveal that something is amiss but details are scant, Philip decides to travel to the villa Sangalletti.  Upon his arrival Philip is told that Ambrose has died.  More devastating news is to come as not only has a burial already taken place but the widow has packed up house and moved on.  I wasn't even at the page fifty mark yet but already had Rachel's card marked; not just her but her sly friend, Signor Rainaldi too.

So let's get it all out there.  What exactly is the state of the relationship between the Signor and Rachel?  They both have the same aquiline features and while this might be down to a regional attribute I did wonder at times if they were related.  Or are they simply partners in crime?  In any case, I feel quite strongly that Rachel knew exactly what she was doing when she slowly seduced Philip during her visit and reeled him in.  The way she coldly brushes him off once he signs over the house and showers her with a basket full of jewels was maddening.  Frankly, I don't buy the story that she had every right to turn against Philip when out of frustration he grabs her around the neck.  I wanted to do worse than that to her myself!  Also, could Rachel say that she was continually being controlled by men when it was her decision to visit Philip in Cornwall and then stay for months when she had a home to go to in Italy?  This argument doesn't sit well with me.  But how does Rainaldi fit in with the scheme...accomplice, puppet master, lover, someone who carefully watches over Rachel in order to reclaim any debt she has cost him?

In my version of the story, Ambrose was clearly being poisoned by Rachel and she was using the same modus operandi with Philip.  The poisonous laburnum seeds tucked away in her drawer made things quite clear and both Ambrose and Philip's symptoms were comparable.  She got away with it once but not twice.  Which leads me to the matter of a weak bridge over a sunken garden.

When Louise and Philip find a sketch of Ambrose tucked away on Rachel's desk with a notation to 'remember only the happy hours' they wonder if they have misjudged her.  I think it is entirely possible that Rachel could have been genuinely in love with Ambrose but her overriding motivation is greed.  She has a taste for the finer things in life and little concern for budget.  Also, Rachel equates ownership with power; something that as a woman she would continually attempt to attain.  There were two sides to Rachel and she was quite capable of acting out of love but in the end, when needs must, she was capable of murder for financial gain and with that, power.

Now, as for Rachel's death...is Philip responsible?  He didn't warn her about the unsafe condition of the bridge but it should have been dealt with by the workers on the estate as soon as it was discovered.  In any case, I think Philip was leaving a horrible accident up to chance.  He allowed Rachel to go for her walk and if she fell to her death, it was more to do with serendipity than him actually placing her directly in harm's way.  If you go back to the beginning of the novel though we see that Philip carries Rachel's fatal fall with him but has put it into a box, so to speak...

'There is no going back in life.  There is no return.  No second chances.  I cannot call back the spoken word or the accomplished deed, sitting here, alive and in my own home, any more than poor Tom Jenkyn could, swinging in his chains.'

My fondness for this story waxed and waned at different points.  I asked a colleague the other day if she had ever read My Cousin Rachel and she replied that she had but it was during her early twenties.  Possibly the best age to read a story centred around a manipulative woman and a naive young man in the throes of first love.  Having said that, the last quarter of the book was a tense page-turning event that had me on the edge of my seat and the lasting impression is a good one!

There is a copy of Rebecca languishing on the shelves upstairs and now I look forward to reading it sooner rather than later.  Thanks to Miranda for her excellent choice of story for a book club read with its many situations to mull over and for introducing me to Daphne du Maurier.



Daphne du Maurier

26 September 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

JANE AUSTEN
1775 - 1817

FROM HANS PLACE TO CASSANDRA AT CHAWTON

17 October 1815

I am glad the new cook begins so well.  Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.

Letters

24 September 2014

The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters by Evelyn Walters

Wheeling a cart through the shelves at the library armed with pages of hold requests the font on a spine caught my eye.  Tweezing the book from its spot out of curiosity there was a painting on the cover that wouldn't be out of place on the Persephone Books website.  This beautiful book has come home with me with a plan to read up on these talented Canadian artists.

  Emily Coonan
Girl in Dotted Dress, c. 1923

Prudence Heward
At the Theatre, 1928

Henrietta Mabel May
Summertime, c. 1935

Lilias Torrance Newton
Lady in Black (portrait of Mrs. Albert Henry Steward Gillson), c. 1936

Lilias Torrance Newton
Martha, c. 1938

19 September 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

IRMA ROMBAUER
1877 -1962

In Switzerland we had a vile tempered cook named Marguerite.  Her one idea, after being generally disagreeable, was to earn enough to own a small chalet on some high peak where she could cater to mountain climbers.  While she was certainly not born with a silver spoon in her mouth - although it was large enough to accommodate several - I am convinced she arrived with a cooking spoon in her hand.  If she attained her ideal, many a climber will feel it worth while to scale a perilous peak to reach her kitchen.

The Joy of Cooking

13 September 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

A book written by Sarah Waters is something to look forward to and I have been counting down the days until the release of her latest.  Due to construction I was sent to work at another branch of the library for one week and had to play with the pick-up location of my hold so it would find its way to me.  Once I knew the book was in transit I went through the courier bins like a squirrel looking for a long-buried nut.  You should have seen my face when I spotted the shiny new copy - oh joy, oh bliss!  Since The Paying Guests is hot off the press I won't share much in the way of plot but did want to share just a teensy bit of the atmosphere and to sing its praises.

It's 1922 and all begins innocently enough with Frances Wray and her mother watching the clock in anticipation of the arrival of new lodgers to their home just outside of London.  Mr Wray has died leaving a trail of debt and his two male heirs were killed while serving in World War I.  The lure of employment at the munitions factory has cost the ladies their domestic help further widening the gaping hole in this family.  Rather than sell up, Mrs Wray and Frances decide to let the upstairs of their home but this means upheaval and they are quite anxious about what will happen to their quiet way of life.  

The Barbers are a young married couple, respectable enough, but it's the little things that soon show a relaxed nature which make Mrs Wray stiffen slightly, such as Leonard's bare feet in her kitchen as he makes his way to the yard for the WC or music and visitors well into the evening.  Lilian's rather bohemian decorating style is cause for concern that the rooms now look...'like something from a Piccadilly backstreet'...but what can they do?  Frances and her mother need the income.

Part one of the book depicts the blending of these four people within the confines of the terraced house they now share and class structure is deftly portrayed.  Anyone who has stayed with an acquaintance knows exactly how it feels to be welcome but still feel a bit in the way.  Once again, as in The Little Stranger, not only does the house feature as a character but the staircase carries an overwhelming presence.  The weight of a foot on the tread or the speed of a stride is carefully calculated by the listener to anticipate mood...or warn of approach.

Sarah Waters exhibits great patience in the lead-up to some rather heart-pounding incidents in the second part of this book.  Just when I was thinking 'okay, Sarah, what do you have up your sleeve?' she literally made me feel ill with the tension and detail of one crime, perhaps two, depending on your view of things.  Over the course of two nights, while I read in the dark, the wind was howling, whipping the curtains around my head, exquisitely ramping up the atmosphere.  You know the feeling when you wake up from a bad dream, think it was real, and then sigh with relief when you realize there is nothing to fear?  Well, I felt like that the morning after as the writing is so vivid that I felt right there in the house, in the midst of things, and it was more than a bit unsettling.

You won't be able to put down The Paying Guests once you get started so clear your social calendar.  Don't read this book on the bus or train unless you have someone to remind you that your stop is up next.  Steel yourself, you are in for the ride of your life...well, as far as reading goes...and I hope you have a strong stomach because you are going to need it.  This book WILL leave a mark.

   

12 September 2014

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

BARBARA COMYNS
1909 - 92

During the Second World War, Comyns moved to the country to escape the Blitz.  There she wrote her first book, Sisters by a River, based on her Warwickshire childhood.  Her publisher chose not to correct her spelling and punctuation and even added to her eccentric mistakes.

Our kitchen had a dusty hot cross bun hanging from the ceiling, every good Friday they put up a new one, the old one turned into a kind of mummy, there were hams hanging up too and a side of bacon, Palmer cured the pigs in the saddle room in a large zinc trough, the maids said you mustn't watch him if you had a period or the hams would get bewitched and go all wrong, Mammy said this too.  There were three kitchens altogether, all leading out of each other, they had stone floors with wells in the middle, they used to have their meals in the hot cross bun kitchen because there was a huge Eagle range there which heated the water and did the cooking, once a rat fell down the chimney right into the porrage, I've never eaten any since because it always seems to smell ratty.
  We liked having tea with the maids, they gave us biscuits floating in our cups of tea and they always eat heaps of vinegar, after tea they used to sing, songs about dark eyed lovers, they always sounded like hymns.

Sisters by a River


7 September 2014

A Perfect Woman by L. P. Hartley

I remember standing in a bookshop last year and holding two L. P. Hartley novels in my hand.  They were reprints and hot off the press, beautifully crisp and pristine.  Reading the synopsis of both I decided to buy The Boat and leave A Perfect Woman behind.  I should have bought both titles as it seems there is no such thing as a bad novel by this author.  It was Harriet's recent enthusiastic review that made me rush this book to the top of my tbr list and her praise was well-placed.

Published in 1955, this is a story about the Eastwood family and how a chance meeting on a train with a bestselling author, Alec Goodrich, takes their pedestrian lives off course.  The fact that Alec is sitting in first-class with a third-class ticket says something about the man and his wallet.  When he finds out that Harold Eastwood is just the man to help him keep more of his earnings from the tax department, Alec is keen to foster a business deal.

Harold's wife, Isabel, was destined for a splendid marriage with a successful man.  At least that was the plan her parents had mapped out for her.  When she fell in love with a meek tax accountant and could not be persuaded to hold out for someone better the wedding went ahead.  It is also a safe assertion that Isabel enjoyed being able to trump her overbearing mother for the first time in her life.  Feeling quite certain that she can shape and mold Harold into a better sort of man, Isabel eventually realizes that over the years it is her husband and his mother who have changed her.  Instead of becoming a woman of influence and queen of her own domain, she is now beholden to her mother-in-law...even when it comes to the naming of her children, Jeremy and Janice.

Harold and Isabel's young offspring are beams of light in this novel and Hartley must have retained a perfectly pitched sense of childhood to portray them so brilliantly.  Jeremy is the eldest and hyper-alert to situations as eldest children so often are.  He's also practical to a fault whereas Janice is definitely the romantic...

'No, Janice, you mustn't!''But I will, I want to!''But I tell you he doesn't want to see her!  He knows how her eyes open and shut - it's the weight inside her head!  The weight is attached to the back of the eyeballs, and the eyes work on a pivot - ''I don't care how they work, and nor does he.  He wants to hold her in his arms because he loves her!''How can he love her, silly!  He's only seen her once!''That's why he want to see her again, so that he can go on loving her!  Why do you want to see the same old motorcar so many times?  Because you love it!''No, because it's real and a doll isn't!  It's only pretending to be real!  Grown-up people never pretend, except when they are talking to us.'

Jeremy is not quite right on that score as there is plenty of pretending going on between the adults.  When Harold introduces Alec to Isabel she is quite taken with this man of words.  Alec, on the other hand, is quite taken with Irma, the Austrian barmaid at Harold's local.  When Alec asks Harold to find out more about the dark-haired beauty, with an entertaining command of the English language, things don't quite go to plan.  A  relationship roundabout is soon established that is both entertaining and heartbreaking in turns.  The plot takes a slight turn towards the edgy side with an abundance of secrets, lies, dalliances, and mystery.  Once the dust settles the result leaves some unexpected changes in the wake of so many entanglements.  And may I say that sex scenes without every single detail being shared in technicolour can be every bit as titillating.

There is plenty of story left to tell so don't leave this book behind if you spot it on a shelf somewhere.  If you're still not convinced then click here to read the review that reeled me in!