Sunday, January 26, 2014

Wives Behaving Badly

By Elizabeth Buchan

Minty Lloyd is a homewrecker. She seduced her boss's husband, a man in his fifties, got pregnant (with twins) and got the husband to marry her. She pretty much wrecked her boss's life. (This story is told in Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman.)
Now the twins are toddlers and Minty's marriage is in trouble. The husband, Nathan, is apparently experiencing regrets at leaving a good woman to marry a blatant gold-digger. And Minty know this, although she finds it irritating, it isn't much more than that because, as she admits to herself ,  she doesn't truly love Nathan. She loved his stuff -- his car, his house, his income, his financial security.
But then Nathan suddenly dies, leaving Minty with the sole responsibility of providing for and raising two little boys all on her own. Nathan did make provision for his new wife and his two young sons, but Minty will have to go back to full time work. Plus dealing with settling his estate and coping with the expectations and demands of Nathan's two grown children from his marriage with Rose. But help comes from the last place Minty expected or wanted, Rose, the ex-wife.

This was a pretty good story. I liked that Minty admits she married Nathan for his money and not because she was head over heels in love. I also liked that she admits that her hatred of Rose makes no sense, given that Rose is the one who was sinned against and not the sinner, Minty and Nathan were the ones in the wrong. Minty still envies Rose, even after taking everything from her. She feels like second best compared to Rose and this just fuels her irrational resentment of her husband's first wife. Minty is an interesting character with lots of flaws but she is honest with herself about her failings. I enjoyed the story, it was a good read.

A Vintage Affair

By Isabel Wolff

Phoebe Swift worked for Sotheby's in the textile department. She evaluated vintage clothing and conducted auctions. But events in her personal life led her to reevaluate her priorities and quit Sotheby's and open her own vintage clothing shop.
Her best friend, Emma, died unexpectedly and Phoebe felt she had let her down. Phoebe also blamed her fiance who she felt had her talked into ignoring Emma's last phone call to Phoebe. Emma had called her a lot that last day, saying she wasn't feeling well and asking Phoebe to stop by. But Phoebe put off visiting Emma until the next morning but by then it was too late. And Phoebe blamed it all on Guy, who she believed had talked her into staying with him that night. She was so upset, she broke off the engagement and refused to have any contact with him. This was also when she quit her job at Sotheby's.
Sometime after opening her own shop, Phoebe met a woman who was selling off some old clothes. Phoebe found out in talking to the elderly woman that she too had been burdened all her life with guilt from betraying and letting down her friend when they were young teens in pre-World War II France. The friend, a Jewish girl, was captured and shipped off to a German concentration camp through the inadvertent actions of her friend.
This story, with the old lady's regrets so similar to what Phoebe herself was feeling about Emma, captured her attention and, on a buying trip to France, Phoebe did a little investigating into the old lady's story. But when she presented her finding to the woman she became distraught and asked her not to continue looking into her friend's fate.
Meanwhile, with her shop prospering, Phoebe finds her romantic life heating up. An attractive and successful older man has been courting her and she really likes him a lot. But the man has a teenage daughter who is spoiled rotten and is resentful of her father's attentions to Phoebe, which doesn't bode well for the budding relationship. Luckily there is a handsome young newspaper reporter waiting to step in if given the opportunity.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. Not the typical romance novel, the story is more about Phoebe's guilt over Emma's death than it is about making a love connection. The story of the old lady and her Jewish friend was also very interesting and added a lot to the novel. The end was quite satisfying too. This was a real good read.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Signature of All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

This very long novel, about 500 pages, tells the life story of Alma Whittaker. Her father, a self-made millionaire, of humble origin, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Her parents only had the one child, Alma. Alma inherited her parents' intelligence and her father's looks. She grew up to be very tall and very plain. And the sole heir to her father's vast fortune.
When Alma was about ten, her parents adopted a girl of about the same age as Alma. Polly's mother was a loose woman and was murdered by Polly's father, who finally tired of his wife's wandering ways. Her parents worked on the Whittaker estate and young Polly was a child of extraordinary grace and beauty. In order to protect the girl, Alma's mother decided  to adopt her and changed her name to Prudence.
Alma never warmed to Prudence because she felt so ugly and graceless compared to her. And Prudence never warmed to Alma because Alma was so much beyond her in intelligence and learning.
Prudence became an ardent abolitionist (the novel is set in the middle 1800s in the USA) and gets married and leaves home. Alma never marries, despite being a fortune hunter's dream, and stays home studying plants, especially mosses. In the course of time her mother passes on and more and more of Alma's time is taken up with overseeing her father's business matters.
The Whittaker estate features several greenhouses containing many rare plants, including orchids. Alma learns of a talented artist whose paintings of orchids are exquisite. She meets the man, Ambrose Pike, and is captivated by him. She burns for him and craves his love. It seemed that he returned that love and they are soon married. But Pike is not interested in consummating the marriage. He wants a platonic relationship. (Too bad he didn't make that clear before he married her.) Alma is furious and sends him packing. She ships him off to Tahiti to oversee a vanilla plantation. He doesn't last long there and dies about three years later.
Alma eventually inherits everything and comes to understand, in the course of time, that Prudence, seemingly so indifferent to Alma, actually cared deeply. So Alma gives the estate to Prudence and most of the fortune that goes with it. She then boards a ship to set off for Tahiti, desiring to unravel the mystery of the man to whom she was so briefly married.

This was an OK story but very long. Alma is kind of a jerk, a bit too self-involved and really not a very sympathetic character. I didn't care for the brief husband either, who comes across as a weirdo. Also the big secret of his life turns out to be no surprise at all.
 All these characters are so reticent, none of them can be open about anything they are feeling or thinking. Kind of like  characters in a soap opera where, if someone would just speak up, a lot of misery and misunderstandings could be avoided.

Spider Woman's Daughter

By Anne Hillerman

A continuation of Tony Hillerman's Leaphorn and Chee novels, this new story is by Hillerman's daughter, Anne.
The story starts with an unknown assailant shooting Leaphorn in the head in the parking lot of a cafe. Officer Bernie Manuelito witnesses the attack. Leaphorn is rushed off to the hospital, unable to speak or give the police a clue as to who shot him. Manuelito, as the main witness, is officially off the case and the investigation falls to the FBI and to her husband, fellow police officer Jim Chee. Together, Bernie and Jim will figure out the whys and wherefores of the crime while Leaphorn clings to life in the hospital.

I wasn't real pleased with this story. I didn't like that the author decided to take Leaphorn out of action by having him shot. That sort of soured me from the start. Maybe she didn't feel like she could do him justice and so just wrote Leaphorn off.
Other than that, this is a pretty typical entry in the mystery novel genre. It was an OK story, but it certainly didn't feel like a story by Tony Hillerman.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

By Fannie Flagg

Set in the 1920s to 1950s, this is the story of Whistle Stop, a very small town in Alabama. Told through a series of flash backs and folksy newsletter articles, the story focuses mainly on Idgie and Ruth, the two women who run the Whistle Stop Cafe.
The story has a brief introduction, a newsletter article announcing the opening of the Whistle Stop Cafe, June 1929. It then moves to 1985, with Evelyn Couch, a depressed and overweight housewife, visiting the nursing home where her mother-in-law is living. Not being a fan of the mother-in-law, Evelyn escapes to another part of the building where she encounters Ninny Threadgood, another resident of the home. Ninny loves to chatter and soon engulfs Evelyn in stories about Whistle Stop and its denizens. At first, Evelyn is rather taken aback by this gabby old lady, but as the weeks pass, she become more involved in the stories and begins to reexamine her life in an effort to understand her own deep unhappiness.
The Whistle Stop stories about Idgie and Ruth tell of a different era, a simpler era but a crueler era.  A time where white racists used terror tactics to keep the blacks "in their place." But at the same time, a real community of caring and connections existed between the two races, if rather covertly.  Some things about life in those days are charming and others horrifying, but overall, this is a charming and nostalgic look at life in a funny little town in Alabama.

I did enjoy reading this book again, just for the sake of nostalgia if nothing more. While the story of Idgie and Ruth didn't really grab me, what I enjoyed the most was Ninny Threadgood and her tales of her friends and family from the old days. I also liked Evelyn too, although I thought she caved into the modern obsession with being thin. I would have liked her better if she had accepted that she was chubby and got on with her life instead of running off to the fat farm.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Invitation to Tea

By Monica Lang

When Monica was a little girl living in England, a boy came to stay with her family, his name was George McCrie. This was in the early 1900s.
George's parents were English citizens living in India. It was the custom among the English to send their children home to England to be educated and that was why George was in England. He spent the next 10 years, studying in England with periodic visits home to India. And in due time, he became the manager of a large tea plantation there.
To Monica, George was her protector against the teasing and torments of her many older brothers. So it wasn't very surprising that the hero of her childhood turned out to be the love of her life. So at the young age of about 18, Monica found herself married to George and living in the wilds of Burma while George ran the tea plantation.
Coping with life in the tropics in the 1920s was quite a challenge for Monica. Unfortunately, she ignored George's advice about protecting herself from mosquitoes and she became very ill with malaria. She was able to recover after a while and realized that she had to grow up and face the realities of her situation. So she set about creating a comfortable and welcoming home for herself and her husband and, in a few years, for their little daughter, Elizabeth.  Despite the dangers of their location, what with the tigers and the cobras and other wildlife, and the brutality of the climate in summer, Monica grew to love it there.  But when their little girl was about seven, George was promoted and made manager of a larger tea plantation and they moved away from the jungle and to a new location.
Life in the jungle had been rather isolated and the new location offered much more opportunity to socialize, as it had quite a few English folks in the area. Monica missed the peace and beauty of the jungle but really enjoyed being around her peers.
But then the day came when it was time to send Elizabeth to England to go to school. Monica and George traveled there with their daughter but George had to return to his job and Monica stayed on to get Elizabeth settled into school. Elizabeth was very unhappy at being separated from her mother and Monica almost decided to stay in England for her daughter's sake but then felt she should be with George.
So back she goes and it all seemed to work out for the best. George got promoted again and their new home had electricity and an indoor toilet and a modern kitchen, quite a change from their previous dwellings. She and George had another baby, Rosemary, born almost ten years after Elizabeth. Life was good. But looming on the horizon was the chaos and destruction of World War II. Before much longer, Monica and Rosemary were refugees headed to South Africa with George staying behind, doing his duty. Nothing would ever be the same again.

This true story was really interesting, a picture of a different life and time. At that time all the normal housekeeping chores were done by servants. The house was lit by oil lamps and candles and food was cooked on a wood fired stove. They had servants for inside the house and servants for outside the house. That was one of the reasons that the social round was so important for Monica, because she had very little with which to occupy her time, all the cooking, cleaning, gardening, child care, laundry, etc was performed by servants. One of the local English people advised her to develop hobbies just so she would have something to do. And it is not as if she and George were wealthy, George had to work for a living. They couldn't even afford to buy a decent car.