Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day
Even though we aren’t big on Valentine’s Day (we went out to a “Flavours of Africa” supper club last weekend and are calling it our celebration meal), for the past three years I’ve ended up doing themed posts featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title or that consider romantic or familial love in some way. (Here are my 2017, 2018 and 2019 posts.) These seven selections, all of them fiction, sometimes end up being more bittersweet or ironic than straightforwardly romantic, but see what catches your eye anyway.
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2014)
Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin; four weddings (no funeral – though there are a couple of close calls along the way). Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? Henry is the family man, a dairy farmer who married his college sweetheart, Beth. Lee* is a musician, the closest thing to a rock star Little Wing will ever produce. He became famous for Shotgun Lovesongs, a bestselling album he recorded by himself in a refurbished chicken coop for $600, and now lives in New York City and hobnobs with celebrities. Kip gave up being a Chicago commodities trader to return to Little Wing and spruce up the old mill into an events venue. Ronny lived for alcohol and rodeos until a drunken accident ended his career and damaged his brain.
The friends have their fair share of petty quarrels and everyday crises, but the big one hits when one guy confesses to another that he’s in love with his wife. Male friendship still feels like a rarer subject for fiction, but you don’t have to fear any macho stylings here. The narration rotates between the four men, but Beth also has a couple of sections, including the longest one in the book. This is full of nostalgia and small-town (especially winter) atmosphere, but also brimming with the sort of emotion that gets a knot started in the top of your throat. All the characters are wondering whether they’ve made the right decisions. There are a lot of bittersweet moments, but also some comic ones. The entire pickled egg sequence, for instance, is a riot even as it skirts the edge of tragedy.
*Apparently based on Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), whose first album was a similarly low-budget phenomenon recorded in Wisconsin. I’d never heard any Bon Iver before and expected something like the more lo-fi guy-with-guitar tracks on the Garden State soundtrack. My husband has a copy of the band’s 2011 self-titled album, so I listened to that and found that it has a very different sound: expansive, trance-like, lots of horns and strings. (But NB, the final track is called “Beth/Rest.”) For something more akin to what Lee might play, try this video.
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013)
Barry came to London from Antigua and has been married for 50 years to Carmel, the mother of his two adult daughters. For years Carmel has been fed up with his drinking and gallivanting, assuming he has lots of women on the side. Little does she know that Barry’s best friend, Morris, has also been his lover for 60 years. Morris divorced his own wife long ago, and he’s keen for Barry to leave Carmel and set up home with him, maybe even get a civil partnership. When Carmel goes back to Antigua for her father’s funeral, it’s Barry’s last chance to live it up as a bachelor and pluck up his courage to tell his wife the truth.
Barry’s voice is a delight: a funny mixture of patois and formality; slang and Shakespeare quotes. Cleverly, Evaristo avoids turning Carmel into a mute victim by giving her occasional chapters of her own (“Song of…” versus Barry’s “The Art of…” chapters), written in the second person and in the hybrid poetry style readers of Girl, Woman, Other will recognize. From these sections we learn that Carmel has her own secrets and an equal determination to live a more authentic life. Although it’s sad that these two characters have spent so long deceiving each other and themselves, this is an essentially comic novel that pokes fun at traditional mores and includes several glittering portraits.
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen (1991)
Set in an upstate New York convent mostly in 1906–7, this is a story of religious fervor, doubt and jealousy. Mariette Baptiste is a 17-year-old postulant; her (literal) sister, 20 years older, is the prioress here. Mariette is given to mystical swoons and, just after the Christmas mass, also develops the stigmata. Her fellow nuns are divided: some think Mariette is a saint who is bringing honor to their organization; others believe she has fabricated her calling and is vain enough to have inflicted the stigmata on herself. A priest and a doctor both examine her, but ultimately it’s for the sisters to decide whether they are housing a miracle or a fraud.
The short sections are headed by the names of feasts or saints’ days, and often open with choppy descriptive phrases that didn’t strike me as quite right for the time period (versus Hansen has also written a Western, in which such language would seem appropriate). Although the novella is slow to take off – the stigmata don’t arrive until after the halfway point – it’s a compelling study of the psychology of a religious body, including fragments from others’ testimonies for or against Mariette. I could imagine it working well as a play.
Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (2018)
Most of these pieces originated as text-only stories by Niffenegger and were later adapted into comics by Campbell. By the time they got married, they had been collaborating long-distance for a while. Some of the stories incorporate fairies, monsters, ghosts and other worlds. A young woman on her way to a holiday party travels via a mirror to another land where she is queen; a hapless bar fly trades one fairy mistress for another; Arthur Conan Doyle’s father sketches fairies in an asylum; a middle-aged woman on a cruise decides to donate her remaining years to her aged father.
My favorite of the fantastical ones was “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels,” a story of a man dealing with an angel infestation in the attic; it first appeared as a holiday story on the Amazon homepage in 2003 and is the oldest piece here, with the newest dating from 2015. I also liked “Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.,” in which a man goes to great lengths to assure two hours of completely uninterrupted reading per week. Strangely, my two favorite pieces were the nonfiction ones: “Digging up the Cat,” about burying her frozen pet with its deceased sibling; and “The Church of the Funnies,” a secular sermon about her history with Catholicism and art that Niffenegger delivered at Manchester Cathedral as part of the 2014 Manchester Literary Festival.
The Nine-Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat (2017)
I find second-person narration intriguing, and I like the idea of various people’s memories of a character being combined to create a composite portrait (previous books that do this that I have enjoyed are The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Kitchens of the Great Midwest). The protagonist here, never named, is a young Indian writer who travels widely, everywhere from the Himalayas to Tuscany. She also studies and then works in London, where she meets and marries a fellow foreigner. We get the sense that she is restless, eager for adventure and novelty: “You seem to be a woman to whom something is always about to happen.”
An issue with the book is that most of the nine viewpoints belong to her lovers, which would account for the title but makes their sections seem repetitive. By contrast, I most enjoyed the first chapter, by her art teacher, because it gives us the earliest account of her (at age 12) and so contributes to a more rounded picture of her as opposed to just the impulsive, flirtatious twentysomething hooking up on holidays and at a writers’ residency. I also wish Pariat had further explored the main character’s relationship with her parents. Still, I found this thoroughly absorbing and read it in a few days, steaming through over 100 pages on one.
Kinds of Love by May Sarton (1970)
Christina and Cornelius Chapman have been “summer people,” visiting Willard, New Hampshire each summer for decades, but in the town’s bicentennial year they decide to commit to it full-time. They are seen as incomers by the tough mountain people, but Cornelius’s stroke and their adjustments to his disability and older age have given them the resilience to make it through a hard winter. Sarton lovingly builds up pictures of the townsfolk: Ellen Comstock, Christina’s gruff friend; Nick, Ellen’s mentally troubled son, who’s committed to protecting the local flora and fauna; Jane Tuttle, an ancient botanist; and so on. Willard is clearly a version of Sarton’s beloved Nelson, NH. She’s exploring love for the land as well as love between romantic partners and within families.
It’s a meandering novel pleasant for its atmosphere and its working out of philosophies of life through conversation and rumination, but Part Three, “A Stranger Comes to Willard,” feels like a misstep. A college dropout turns up at Ellen’s door after his car turns over in a blizzard. Before he’s drafted into the Vietnam War, he has time to fall in love with Christina’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Cathy. There may only be a few years between the teens, but this still didn’t sit well with me.
I liked how each third-person omniscient chapter ends with a passage from Christina’s journal, making things personal and echoing the sort of self-reflective writing for which Sarton became most famous. The book could have been closer to 300 pages instead of over 460, though.
The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (2019)
An elegant debut novel about two couples thrown together in 1960s New York City when the men are hired as co-pastors of a floundering Presbyterian church. Nearly the first half is devoted to the four main characters’ backstories and how each couple met. It’s a slow, subtle, quiet story (so much so that I only read the first half and skimmed the second), and I kept getting Charles and James, and Lily and Nan confused.
So here’s the shorthand: Charles is the son of an atheist Harvard professor and plans to study history until a lecture gets him thinking seriously about faith. Lily has closed herself off to life since she lost her parents in a car accident; though she eventually accedes to Charles’s romantic advances, she warns him she won’t bend where it comes to religion. James grew up in a poor Chicago household with an alcoholic father, while Nan is a Southern preacher’s daughter who goes up to Illinois to study music at Wheaton.
James doesn’t have a calling per se, but is passionate about social justice. As co-pastor, his focus will be on outreach and community service, while Charles’s will be on traditional teaching and ministry duties. Nan is desperate for a baby but keeps having miscarriages; Lily has twins, one of whom is autistic (early days for that diagnosis; doctors thought the baby should be institutionalized). Although Lily remains prickly, Nan and James’s friendship is a lifeline for them. The “dearly beloved” term thus applies outside of marriage as well, encompassing all the ties that sustain us – in the last line, Lily thinks, “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.”
Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?
Happy 200th Birthday, Charlotte Brontë!
Today marks a big anniversary: the bicentennial of Charlotte Brontë’s birth. I’ve noticed a whole cluster of books being published or reissued in time for her 200th birthday, many of which I’ve reviewed with enjoyment; some of which I’ve sampled and left unfinished. I hope you’ll find at least one book on this list that will take your fancy. There could be no better time for going back to Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories and her quiet but full life story.
Short Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre
MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier
A mixed bag. Although there are some very good stand-alone stories (from Tessa Hadley, Sarah Hall, Emma Donoghue and Elizabeth McCracken, as you might expect), ultimately the theme is not strong enough to tie them all together and some seem like pieces the authors had lying around and couldn’t figure out what else to do with. Think about it this way: what story isn’t about romance and the decision to marry?
A few of the tales do put an interesting slant on this age-old storyline by positing a lesbian relationship for the protagonist or offering the possibility of same-sex marriage. Then there are the stories that engage directly with the plot and characters of Jane Eyre, giving Grace Poole’s (Helen Dunmore) or Mr. Rochester’s (Salley Vickers) side of things, putting Jane and Rochester in couples therapy (Francine Prose), or making Jane and Helen Burns part of a post-WWII Orphan Exchange (Audrey Niffenegger). My feeling with these spinoff stories was, I’m afraid, what’s the point? Plus there were a number of others that just felt tedious.
My least favorites were probably by Lionel Shriver (incredibly boring!), Kirsty Gunn (unrealistic, and she gives the name Mr. Rochester to a dog!) and Susan Hill (the title story, but she’s made it about Wallis Simpson – and has the audacity to admit, as if proudly, that she’s never read Jane Eyre!). On the other hand, one particular standout is by Elif Shafak. A Turkish Muslim falls in love with a visiting Dutch student but is so unfamiliar with romantic cues that she doesn’t realize he isn’t equally taken with her.
In Patricia Park’s story, my favorite of all, a Korean girl from Buenos Aires moves to New York City to study English. Park turns Jane Eyre on its head by having Teresa give up on the chance of romance to gain stability by marrying Juan, the St. John Rivers character. I loved getting a glimpse into a world I was entirely ignorant of – who knew there was major Korean settlement in Argentina? This also redoubled my wish to read Park’s novel, Re Jane. She’s working on a second novel set in Buenos Aires, so perhaps it will expand on this story.
The Bookbag reviews
Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Love by Jolien Janzing
Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair.
Sanctuary by Robert Edric
Branwell Brontë narrates his final year of life, when alcoholism, mental illness and a sense of disgrace hounded him to despair. I felt I never came to understand Branwell’s inner life, beneath the decadence and all the feeling sorry for himself. This gives a sideways look at Charlotte, Emily and Anne, though the sisters are little more than critical voices here; none of them has a distinctive personality.
Mutable Passions: Charlotte Brontë: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent
Dent focuses on a short period in Charlotte Brontë’s life: with all her siblings dead and Villette near completion, a surprise romance with her father’s curate lends a brief taste of happiness. Given her repeated, vociferous denial of feelings for Mr. Nicholls, I had trouble believing that, just 20 pages later, his marriage proposal would provoke rapturous happiness. To put this into perspective, I felt Dent should have referenced the three other marriage proposals Brontë is known to have received. Overwritten and suited to readers of romance novels than to Brontë enthusiasts, this might work well as a play. Dent is better at writing individual scenes and dialogue than at providing context.
I had bad luck with these two novels, which both sounded incredibly promising but I eventually abandoned (along with Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, featured in last month’s Six Books I Abandoned Recently post):
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye
Jane Steele is not quite Jane Eyre, though her life seems to mirror that of Brontë’s heroine in most particulars. How she differs is in her violent response to would-be sexual abusers. She’s a feminist vigilante wreaking vengeance on her enemies, whether her repulsive cousin or the vindictive master of “Lowan Bridge” (= Cowan Bridge, Brontë’s real-life school + Lowood, Jane Eyre’s). I stopped reading because I didn’t honestly think Faye was doing enough to set her book apart. “Reader, I murdered him” – nice spin-off line, but there wasn’t enough original material here to hold my attention. (Read the first 22%.)
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
There was every reason for me to love this novel – awkward American narrator, Oxford setting, Brontë connections aplenty, snarky literary criticism – but I got bored with it. Perhaps it was the first-person narration: being stuck in sarcastic Samantha Whipple’s head means none of the other characters feel real; they’re just paper dolls, with Orville a poor excuse for a Mr. Rochester substitute. I did laugh out loud a few times at Samantha’s unorthodox responses to classic literature (“Agnes Grey is, without question, the most boring book ever written”), but I gave up when I finally accepted that I had no interest in how the central mystery/treasure hunt played out. (Read the first 56%.)
An Excellent Biography
If I could recommend just one book from the recent flurry of Brontëana, it would be Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman, which I reviewed for For Books’ Sake back in November.
One of the things Harman’s wonderful biography does best is to trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in their fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre (1847) is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum, or extreme morning sickness. This will help you appreciate afresh the work of a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.” Interesting piece of trivia for you: this and the Janzing novel (above) open with the same scene from Charlotte’s time in Belgium.
Have you read any of these, or other recent Brontë-themed books? What were your thoughts?
Graphic Novels for Newbies
Following on from last week’s article on quick reads…
I sometimes wonder if counting graphic novels on my year lists is a bit like cheating, since some are little more than comic books. However, the majority of graphic novels I read have a definite storyline and more words on a page than your average comic. When I worked in London I took advantage of the extensive public library holdings there and tried out a lot of graphic novelists’ work that was new to me. Some of my favorites are Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds, Audrey Niffenegger and Joe Sacco. As it happens, I’ve never officially reviewed graphic novels (nor do I own any), but here’s a handful I’ve enjoyed, along with my reading notes:
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
This memoir in graphic novel form is super. Bechdel puts the ‘fun’ in both dysfunctional family and funeral home – the family business her father inherited in small-town Pennsylvania. All through her 1970s upbringing, as Alison grew up coveting men’s shirts and feeling strange quivers of suspicion when she encountered the word “lesbian” in the dictionary, her father was leading a double life, sleeping with the younger men who babysat his kids or helped out with his twin passions of gardening and home renovation.
In an ironic sequence of events, the coming-out letter Alison sent home from college was followed just weeks later by her mother’s revelation of her father’s homosexual indiscretions and their upcoming divorce, and then no more than a few months later by her father’s sudden death. Bruce Bechdel was run down by a Sunbeam Bread truck as he was crossing the road with an armload of cleared brush from a property he was renovating. Was it suicide, or just a horribly arbitrary accident? (The Sunbeam Bread detail sure makes one cringe.) In any case, it was a “mort imbécile,” just as Camus characterized any death by automobile.
Bechdel traces the hints of queerness in her family, the moments when she and her father saw into each other and recognized something familiar. She also muses on the family as a group of frustrated and isolated artists each striving, unfulfilled, towards perfection. This is a thoughtful, powerful memoir, and no less so for being told through a comic strip.
(Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? was also on my BookTrib list of mother–daughter memoirs to read for Mother’s Day.)
This sweet, autobiographical coming-of-age story in graphic novel form is not quite as likable and quick-witted as Fun Home, but it has similar themes such as sexual awakening and the difficulty of understanding one’s parents. Blankets are a linking metaphor: the quilt Craig’s first love, Raina, makes for him; huddling in the same bed with his little brother Phil for warmth during freezing Wisconsin winters; and playing ‘storm at sea’ with the covers.
There’s also an interesting loss-of-faith element to the narrative. Craig is brought up in your average Midwestern fundamentalist Evangelical church and attends youth group, camp, etc. (where he meets Raina); the pastor even wants him to consider going into the ministry, but he doesn’t fit in here – even in the Christian subculture he’s forced into a fringe group of outsiders. Writing and drawing are acts of self-creation and self-preservation. He wants to find a way to use his drawing for good but no one seems to see a value in it. Thus everything, or nothing in particular, leads him to reject his faith when he gets to college.
How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement – no matter how temporary.
The drawings are lush and bold (though even more so in Thompson’s Habibi). [SPOILERS ahead!] I appreciated how Thompson denies the satisfaction of a happy ending to Craig and Raina’s love story; it’s more realistic this way, recognizing that high school sweethearts rarely stay together. As Raina says, “everything ENDS…everything DEGENERATES, CRUMBLES – so why bother getting started in the first place?” And yet the beauty and power in memory of young love remains, thus Thompson’s rhapsodizing here.
Mrs Weber’s Omnibus by Posy Simmonds
[a collection of her comics for the Guardian]
As with the Garfield cartoons, you get to see the development of Simmonds’s style and the characters, as well as the march of fashion over the period 1977–1993. Very clever skewering of middle class liberal values and political correctness gone mad: the characters (especially polytechnic sociology lecturer George, in the Department of Liberal Studies, and children’s book author Wendy Weber) espouse these values, but their actions don’t always live up to the tolerance they preach. Here are some of the themes:
- 1980s politics: reactionary against Thatcherism; youth unemployment and purposelessness; income inequality; economic and social injustice
- Hypocrisy, avoiding unpleasant truths, compromising youthful ideals
- Middle vs. upper-middle / upper class: second homes, private education
- Place of women: the irony that stay-at-home motherhood is idealized and the difficulties of working motherhood denied (women – liberated to do what?)
Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger
A lovely and simple fairy tale, with classical plot elements like transformation and true love transcending all boundaries. In a quaint English setting, a country postman is tasked with delivering a letter to an address he’s never seen before:
2 Flat Drab Manor
East Underwhelm, Otherworld
EE1 LH9 [postcode = East of East, Lower Heights]
Here the postman meets a young raven fallen out of her nest, takes her home to mend her and they fall in love. Even when her wing heals and she can fly, she chooses to stay with him. Their daughter is a mixed creature; she can only croak, but she has no wings and so is raised as a human child. At university she meets a plastic surgeon who can create human-animal chimeras; she begs him to make her wings – a mixture of science and magic. It involves bloody surgery and painful recovery, but in the end she has the wings she’s always felt were hers. Her identity is described in terms very much like Jan Morris’s in Conundrum, when describing her sex change and her knowledge that she was really a girl: “My mother is a raven and my father is a postman, but I feel that truly I should have been a raven.”
Like Niffenegger’s other work, there’s an ever so slightly uncomfortable blend of sinister/grotesque elements with charming, innocuous magic.
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
This is probably the most peculiar graphic novel I’ve ever read. It’s the story of Jimmy Corrigan, a sad-sack workaholic who, at 36, has no friends apart from his mother, who constantly telephones him. One day he gets a letter from the father he’s never met, asking him to come meet him. And so Jimmy gets on a plane from Chicago out to suburban Michigan. Corrigan is one of those unfortunate-looking fellows who has a potato for a head and a wispy comb-over, and could be anywhere between 30 and 60; he looked little different as a child in the flashback scenes – somewhat like Charlie Brown, also in his depression, diffidence and inability to speak to women.
I much preferred the historical interludes looking at his grandfather (another Jimmy) and his years growing up in Chicago with the World’s Fair under construction. I also liked the more random additions such as patterns for cutting and folding your own model village or business cards with ‘scenic views’ of today’s Waukosha, MI on them.
Parental (verbal) abuse and neglect is a recurring theme, as are bullying from peers, car accidents, and Superman. There’s also an uncomfortable amount of imagined violence – either homicide or suicide.
Palestine by Joe Sacco
Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry
Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart
Do you read graphic novels? What are some of your favorites?