These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.
When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.
Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.
It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)
(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.
Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.
The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.
Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.
“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”
Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”
“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”
See also Susan’s review.
When Olivia Rawlings, the protagonist of pastry chef Louise Miller’s debut novel, The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, arrives in Guthrie, Vermont one September, it’s with a weight of guilt and rumor behind her. She left Boston’s Emerson Club in ignominy after setting the place on fire with a Baked Alaska and sleeping with a married boss twice her age. Now her best friend, Hannah, is determined to help Livvy make a fresh start in a small town. She uses her clout as the local doctor’s wife to get Livvy a job as the chief baker at the Sugar Maple Inn, run by a formidable older lady named Margaret.
Livvy sets up in the sugar house with her Irish wolfhound, Salty, and settles into a daily routine of baking muffins, bread and cakes for the guests. She gets to know the local community by soaking up atmosphere at the Black Bear Tavern and playing banjo with the Hungry Mountaineers band at country dances. The McCrackens, in particular, become a kind of surrogate family for this lonely woman in her early thirties: Dotty is Margaret’s best friend; her husband Henry is battling colon cancer; and their youngest son Martin has temporarily given up his normal life in Seattle to help out. A love of food and music binds Livvy to the McCrackens, and Henry is like a stand-in for the father she lost as a teenager.
This is a warm, cozy read full of well-drawn secondary characters and romantic possibilities for Livvy. There’s nothing clichéd about it, though. Livvy is a sassy narrator whose hair goes from purple to orange to turquoise and whose promiscuous past matches her reputation for perfect macaroons and apple pie. I didn’t love the conflict at the three-quarters point that briefly takes Livvy back to Boston, but it all comes together in a satisfying dénouement.
I love how Miller documents the rhythms of the small-town country year, including tapping the maple trees in the early spring and a pie baking contest at the summer county fair. But I’m calling this a perfect book for autumn because of how the early chapters depict pivotal events from Livvy’s first months in Guthrie, especially the annual Harvest Festival supper (corn consommé, baby green salad with walnuts and maple vinaigrette, goat cheese on apple spice bread, prime rib or mushroom risotto, chive popovers, Vermont cheddar with quince paste, and pumpkin crème brûlée) and a boisterous Thanksgiving meal with the McCrackens.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal was one of my top fiction picks of last year, and this is a worthy 2016 counterpart. Though not quite as edgy, Miller’s debut also shares the foodie theme of my favorite novel of 2016 so far, Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. All three of these books capture the almost theatrical magic of the restaurant meal. I’ll leave you with this extended passage describing the setup for the Harvest Festival. Though I’ve never been to New England in the fall, it makes me nostalgic for it all the same:
There is a moment after the prep is done and before the theater of the dinner service begins when I love to escape the kitchen. Dusk had fallen, and when I stepped outside, I was drawn to the light spilling from the barn, golden and inviting. I poked my head in. Margaret had outdone herself. The long tables were covered in cream linen. Squash-colored tapers stood tall in sparkling silver candelabras. Fat bouquets of sunflowers, goldenrod, and black-eyed Susans stuffed into mason jars were surrounded by tiny pumpkins and crab apples. I looked up to see a thousand white Christmas lights hanging from the rafters. The whole room glowed.
The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living was published by Pamela Dorman Books on August 9th. My electronic review copy came from NetGalley.