One-Minute Book Reviews

March 1, 2010

An English Bride Walks Down the Wrong Aisle in Julia Strachey’s Tragicomic Novella, ‘Cheerful Weather for the Wedding’

A young woman’s anxieties about her wedding escape the notice of her oblivious mother

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. By Julia Strachey. With a new preface by Frances Partridge. Persephone, 118 pp., $18, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Virginia Woolf rightly called this novella “extraordinarily complete and sharp” when she and her husband published it under their Hogarth Press imprint. One of its most unusual aspects is that Julia Strachey gives away its ending in her first line: She tells you that on March 5, Mrs. Thatcham, a middle-class widow, married her 23-year-old daughter to the Hon. Owen Bigham, a diplomat eight years her senior. She makes clear soon afterward that Dolly has married the wrong man.

How does Strachey create suspense after showing so much of her hand? In part, through her masterly use of theatrical techniques, which she studied in drama school. All of the action in the book takes place on Dolly’s wedding day at mother’s North Yorkshire home. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding has roughly the structure of a three-act play — with scenes before, during, and after the ceremony — and it rushes forward on a tide of clever repartee. For a slim book, it has a large and well-observed cast of characters: friends, relatives, servants, and a former suitor of Dolly’s who turns up hoping to plead his case. Strachey shows the bride in her white Edwardian bedroom before the wedding:

“All about the airy bedroom, maids of different kinds, in dark skirts and white blouses stooped low and searched about for stockings and garters, or stood warming satin shoes and chemises in front of the coal fire.”

But Strachey offers more than a catalog of domestic minutiae, however telling or amusing. Anglo-American literature abounds with heroines handicapped in courtship by the deaths of their mothers: Anne Elliott in Persuasion, Lily Bart in House of Mirth, Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding involves a lack of maternal guidance of a different sort. Hetty Thatcham is so dense and foolish, she is oblivious to her daughter’s anxieties about the imminent wedding. She doesn’t notice — or pretends not to see — that Dolly copes by hiding rum in the folds of her bridal gown.

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is a tragicomedy about the harm done by mothers who are too self-absorbed to understand — or even recognize — their children’s pain. And Strachey shows how that damage can sweep up people beyond the family. Dolly’s younger sister appears shocked to find the bride-to-be drinking rum out of a bottle in a bedroom minutes before the wedding. “I’m sorry to say it, Dolly,” she said, “but in some ways it will be a good thing when you are no longer in the house. It will not be so demoralizing for the servants, at any rate.” 

Best line: On a parchment lampshade with a galleon and leaves painted on it that Dolly receives as a wedding gift from Miss Dodo Potts-Griffiths: “The galleon and leaves were not, in any sense, painted from Nature, yet they were not exactly diagrammatic either. Rather it was though an average had somehow been arrived at of all the Elizabethan galleons and of all the leaves that had ever before been painted on a lamp-shade, and a diagram then drawn to represent this average.” 

Worst line: “ ‘However; s-s-s-s-s-ssh-sh-s-s-s.’”

Furthermore: Julia Strachey was a niece of Lytton Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury group. Partridge is the co-author of Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey (Little, Brown, 1983), co-written with her subject. Persephone Books reprints neglected 20th-century novels and other books, most by women.

Janice Harayda is a novelist, award-winning critic, and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her on Twitter at @janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@FakeBookNews) on Twitter www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 6, 2009

Barbara Pym’s ‘Good Books for Bad Days’

The British edition of Barbara Pym's 'Jane and Prudence'

Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary people without “self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor,” the poet Philip Larkin said. That’s partly why her fiction remains so appealing 29 years after her death: Next to all the recent novels about freaks and vampires and aliens, her men and women look radically normal.

“I should have liked the kind of life where one ate food flavored with garlic, but it was not to be,” a woman says in Jane and Prudence (Moyer Bell, 222 pp., $12.95, paperback), the story of two Oxford graduates whose lives have diverged. In this novel and others, Pym’s characters often show a similar matter-of-factness about the limits of their lives, a refreshing contrast to the desperate striving found in so much contemporary fiction.

In Jane and Prudence, Jane Cleveland, a clergyman’s wife, believes she has found the ideal mate for her friend, Prudence Bates, who has overinvested emotionally in her married boss. The plot centers on whether her matchmaking will work. But the pleasures of the novel have as much to do with Pym’s shrewd observations on human nature as with suspense about the outcome. Noticing the attention Prudence squanders on her boss, Jane reflects:

“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time … Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of those things — enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which.”

That “real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which” is the depth charge in the sentence, and it’s typical of Pym. Her novels are so calm thoughtful that they are often called “good books for bad days.” Amid the current torrent of bad days, couldn’t we all use more of those?

This is the last in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), Greater Expectations (Wednesday), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Thursday).

Tomorrow: A review of the new memoir, Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka, an author beloved by many 9-to-12-year-old boys. Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site on Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 14, 2006

Rebecca Campbell’s “Marriage Diaries”

A British-accented gross-out novel about a young couple with the seven-year-itch

The Marriage Diaries: A Novel. By Rebecca Campbell. Ballantine, 288 pp., $12.95, paperback.

The English love to deplore American vulgarity, but this book shows that when it comes to jokes about subjects like anal seepage, the Brits can beat the Yanks at their own game. The Marriage Diaries is a gross-out novel in the spirit of a Beavis and Butt-Head show, full of one-liners about belching, excrement, body odors, and human and animal semen.

A balsa-wood scaffolding supports the story of a London couple who get the seven-year-itch after the birth of their child, then try to find a way back to each other. Celeste is a self-absorbed workaholic who is said to be “a top clothing buyer” — hard to believe, given that she doesn’t know what a PDA is, let alone own a Palm Pilot. Sean is a writer and househusband who seems intended as the moral center of the novel, although he dismisses people like his mother-in-law with, “That old bitch.” The couple tell their story through antiphonal narration, or alternating diary entries about their encounters with friends and family who share their shallow values. At a party, Celeste and her guests spend “some quality time making fun of the fashion retards.”

Rebecca Campbell is the author of two earlier novels, Slave to Fashion and Slave to Love, and shows in The Marriage Diaries that she has enough education to write confidently about Leibniz, blind fish, and “the ontological proof” of God’s existence. So it’s unclear why she has chosen to create such repulsive characters. At times she makes clear that she’s capable of the unrelenting satire that they deserve. More often she substitutes archness or mild cleverness for real wit. She writes of one character: “Everything Uma said fell into one of two camps: the disdainfully dismissive and the grindingly sexual.” In a milder form that line would describe the entire novel.

Best Line: “St. James’s is probably the prettiest park in London, with its ornamental trees and cute bridge over the lake and black swans and outrageous, impossible pelicans and intricate flower beds. But it has always felt a little fake to me. The others – Green Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park – have that sense of being leftover bits of the countryside that were simply forgotten as the city grew up around them. By comparison, St. James’s is a carefully planned work of art, intricate, neat, and delicate, and a little soulless.” One of the few passages in the novel that seems to reflect genuine feeling instead of a strained attempt at cleverness.

Worst Line: “Do you mind if we discuss poo for a while?”

Consider reading instead: Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life and Kate Reddy, Working Mother (Anchor, 2003), a British import that deals far more effectively with a similar theme.

Caveat reader: This review was based on the advance readers’ edition. The final version may differ slightly.

Editor: Signe Pike

Published: September 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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