Plot Junkie: Glances at Missed Books (Part 1)

In looking over the list of the books I’ve completed this year, I realize I kind of stopped reviewing them somewhere in mid-June. I began again in August, but in the mean time, I didn’t talk about some really fantastic books. To rectify this shocking oversight, I’m condensing my usual ridiculously wordy critiques a bit, to, well, speed the plow. These all deserve extensive discussion, but alas, it is not to be.

And here, comprising the first installation of this catch-up project, for your illumination and elucidation…

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
 The Paris Wife is a fictional account of the life of Hadley Richardson, more commonly known as Mrs. Hemingway the first. (She was followed by a Mrs. H 2, 3 and 4.) They were married from 1921 to 1926, and spent most of that time living in Paris. Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was published in 1925: The Paris Wife primarily tells of the time before his fame and the assurance of his greatness.

Hemingway’s increasing emotional unavailability to his first wife, who appears rather naïve and provincial surrounded by Parisian artistic community, makes her seem incredibly insecure. The portrayal of the expat community in Paris and Pamplona was fascinating, but it was all seen with longing from the outside, from the eyes of the girl who didn’t quite make it into the party. It seemed to me like McLain’s Hadley just wasn’t as witty or brilliant; she just didn’t though it was her story, it seemed more the story of her interaction with the “important” people–those who did great work and talked about great things–while the little women talked in the corner. Hadley articulates this, saying she and Alice Toklas were relegated to the “wife” role, while Ernest and Gertrude seemed to operate on a different plane. McLain doesn’t really present any renegotiation of the situation, instead she just presents it. And Hadley seemed so drab and insecure, by the end I was ready to have an affair to get rid of her, too. I don’t think that was precisely the author’s intention, but it was all rather excruciating. I really just wanted her to leave the sorry bastard, to strike out on her own and have a fabulous life. 

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Sue Trinder is a “fingersmith,” a thief in mid-nineteenth century London. She is contracted by Gentleman, a crook aiming to marry a fortune, to take a post as a lady’s maid and to forward his courtship of her soon-to-be mistress whenever possible. Once the lady is won and wealth achieved, the lady is to be deposited in the nearest madhouse, and Sue will be given all of her gowns and jewels, as well as three thousand pounds. The lady is Maud, she works as her uncle’s secretary in a remote country estate, and she seems strangely ambivalent regarding the attentions of Gentleman. As Maud and Sue become closer, and the date for the implementation of Gentleman’s plan begins looming, Sue begins to wonder if she’s capable of the grand betrayal that is required of her. Betrayals ensue, but not quite the ones foreseen.  

Mother-of-god this was a good book. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s divided into sections (Book 1, Book 2, etc.), I was reading at midnight and bound and determined to make it to the end of the first section before I put the book down like a good college student and get some sleep. Ahem. Didn’t happen. I don’t want to ruin any surprises, so I’m going to stop babbling. Instead, I’ll just restate the previous: You have to read this book. So so freaking well done. It’s kind of an homage to Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (which if you haven’t read yet, you’re in for quite at treat when you finally do), and several of the Victorian Gothic elements of that novel show up here: two women in a lonely house, a young art teacher, falsely aristocratic husband merely after the young wife’s money, the asylum as a repository for unwanted women, actual madness, decidedly odd caretakers and less than truthful mothers. But Sarah Waters does something with the story that Collins never did—Collins’ heroines fade away into a conventional and strained domesticity, both apparently content to serve the honorable hero, one as friend and confident and the other as love. Fingersmith’s heroines aren’t quite as ready to embrace conventional domesticity. (Can I say I loved this book one more time? Yep, it’s my blog. I loved this book.) 

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister
I enjoyed this book, but objectively I can see that it wasn’t really all that great. Honestly, it was one of those semi-forgettable collections of vignettes about a group of random people connected by one random thing, and then by the end we find out that we’re all just human underneath, even the ones that look like they’ve got it all together. Sigh. I’ve read that book. Several times. Think The Jane Austen Book Club, but with olive oil. 

That said, there was a short story about an elderly woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s that was extremely well done. Her memories are trickling away, but different smells and textures in the kitchen bring back flashes of the past. I thought Bauermeister did a great job of both showing an all-too-understandable terror of rootlessness and framing her character just in those little glimpses of memory.