A Review of Lawrence Osborne’s The Forgiven

The Forgiven cover image

A month ago I could have written a fantastic review of this book – its tension, its creepiness, its unlikeable protagonist, the works. But for now, here are the basics. This is a novel about David Henniger and his wife Jo, successful but unhappy London professionals who travel to Morocco to attend a hedonistic weekend gathering at the home of their friends Richard and Dally. David and Jo are fractious on the long drive from the coast to their friends’ rural enclave, and David drinks way more alcohol than anyone who is about to be driving for hours in a rental car on narrow dirt roads in a foreign country has a right to drink. Jo complains about his drinking but doesn’t insist he stop or that she take the wheel. This early exposition seems to epitomize their relationship, which is miserable and driven forward by habit and inertia. Before they reach Richard and Dally’s compound, a young man steps into the road in front of the car, and David hits him. Unsure of what to do, David props the dead man up in the back seat of the car, and he and Jo continue on their way.

Writing the plot out in this way makes me wonder why I continued reading after this opening chapter. I don’t have much experience with late-night vehicular manslaughter, mind you, but if I did I certainly would not put the corpse in my rental car and bring it along to the home of my hedonistic friend. In every other way, David is portrayed throughout this novel as a jerk. Not as a terrible person – there’s no suggestion that he killed the man on purpose, and he definitely feels guilty for the accident – but as a jerk, the kind of guy who if he killed a man by accident certainly wouldn’t bother to take responsibility for the body. This moment is also clearly the novel’s first crisis point: the place that determines the route the novel will take. And this novel is very well structured: it unfolds from this moment of original sin and proceeds step by step toward its conclusion in a series of plausible, inevitable steps. But the initial incident is a bit off, in my opinion. The novel never fully convinces me that David is the sort of person who would take a body into his car in the way he does.

This is a novel about both the clash of cultures and the divide between rich and poor. Richard and Dally are fantastically wealthy and have essentially purchased a small town, built a wall around it, and created their own little world of miniature pleasure palaces. They have many local servants whom they seem to treat relatively well, but they are also distrusted by the locals both for their Western-ness (one is British and one American) and for being, you know, “sodomites.” But while they are known factors in their community who, if nothing else, help stimulate the local economy, the locals have no patience for David, whom they see as a symbol of Western arrogance and dislike immediately. Dally also becomes angry at David for bringing the body to their party and therefore bringing suspicion and bad joo-joo down on their home. So when some of the dead boy’s relatives show up at the compound wanting to take David for a three-day ride into the Moroccan backcountry, Dally and some of the servants stand back and let them take him.

This book is part of the “multiple threads of cultural misunderstanding lead to tragedy” genre that for a while seemed poised to be the seminal art form of our era – a genre epitomized by Little Bee and White Tiger and Tortilla Curtain and Barbarian Nurseries and by the movies Crash and Babel – until it was eclipsed by the climate-change-related dystopia. Of course every character has his or her own perspective on the plot, and Osborne provides flashbacks to the life of the dead man, whose name was Driss, and we learn that he too had his complicated story. And along the way we also learn about Morocco’s fossil market. Before I read this book, I did not know that one of the primary livelihoods for the poor in North Africa comes from selling fossils that apparently are a dime a dozen in the naked rock cliffs in the northern Sahara (I did, however, experience the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon about the Moroccan fossil market for about a week after I read this book, and what’s not to like about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon?). Many of the local people who climb the cliffs, remove the fossils (which seem to be largely sea creatures, from a previous geographical era when the Sahara was covered by water), clean them, and prepare them for sale believe that they are the remains of demons that once populated the earth but were destroyed in Noah’s flood. So when they learn that wealthy people in the west want to pay large amounts of money to buy demon corpses to mount in their homes and gardens, they become even more suspicious of Westerners than they already were.

This hasn’t been a great review, since my memory of the book wasn’t the greatest – but I do recommend it. I was riveted by it while I was reading, and I think it’s well crafted and look forward to reading other titles by this author. And the ending – well, the ending borrows a play from Flannery O’Connor’s playbook (spoiler alert for those in the know: think Misfit), and was moderately satisfying. But only moderately.

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Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Multiple Threads of Cultural Misunderstanding Lead to Tragedy, Lawrence Osborne, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In which Diana Gabaldon resurfaces on Postcards from Purgatory (by Jill)

Drums of Autumn cover

The fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is called Drums of Autumn, and as I begin my annual trip back in time with Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser and her Scottish highlander husband Jamie, I can hear the titular autumn drums beating outside my door. It’s been a long summer, and I can almost smell the pumpkin spice in the air the past couple of days. I haven’t gotten very far into the novel yet, because there is this pesky situation that I have: I also just started watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a difficult show to watch with only one eye. So until I find out why all of my coworkers cried while watching the season seven finale, reading progress is going to be a little slow.  But I promise to keep everyone updated on Claire and Jamie’s adventures!  Bethany tells me there are going to be some really interesting anesthesia-free surgeries in this book….

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An Indiespensible Update (by Jill)

I may have not been writing much lately, but I have definitely been reading. Not as much as I’d like, of course, but that would be true even if I weren’t working 12-13 hour days at work more often than not.

One of my reading goals for this year has been to get caught up on the Indiespensible books that Powell’s sends me every 6-8 weeks, and I’ve actually managed to make some headway, having read six of them so far this year. I’ve still got quite a few to go before I’m caught up. I’m never actually going to get caught up, but I’d like at least to have read all of the books that I received prior to this calendar year before 2017 becomes 2018. The good news is that the last one I finished, City on Fire, gets me through all of the books from 2015, and that means I only have to read 2016’s selections (there are seven of them) in the next five and a half months to reach my goal. That is probably not going to happen, because I think the average length of these books is over five hundred pages…. But you know how we are around here: we like to set borderline unattainable reading goals and then have angst about it. Or at least I do.

I thought maybe I could talk about my Indiespensible reads in one post, because that would be a sensible way to lump things together but not so cumbersome of a post that no one wants to read it!

Our Endless Numbered Days, Claire Fuller (Indiespensible #52 from April 2015)

I finished this one in March. When I first started it I was worried it was going to be like In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, which if you remember was a super weird Indiespensible book that I read back in June of 2014, but it wasn’t really. And that’s a good thing. Our Endless Numbered Days starts in 1976, with 8-year-old Peggy Hillcoat living with her parents in the London suburbs. Her mother is a concert pianist and her father is, well, a wacko. He is a survivalist, and he and his wife are not getting along well in the summer of 1976 when we meet this strange family. Mom goes on tour, and Peggy and her father go camping, as they like to do. After a few days of hiking across the countryside, Peggy’s father tells her that the world outside has ended and that they are the only ones left. They find a cabin in the woods of Germany I think (that maybe he knew about in advance) and set up housekeeping. And they are there for nine years before Peggy escapes and makes her way home. I don’t want to do spoilers but let’s just say that Peggy is something of an unreliable narrator. I quite enjoyed this book and wouldn’t mind rereading it someday.

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida (Indiespensible #53 from July 2015)

Read in April. Bethany actually read and blogged about this book back in 2015 shortly after it came out, and I thought she didn’t like it, but upon rereading her review just now, she actually did. I liked it too, though the structure was a bit annoying—no chapters, written in the second person. Thankfully there are page breaks, or else I would have been in some sort of reading hell. The only thing worse than no chapters is long chapters with no page breaks. I was surprised that the second person narration didn’t bother me at all. It seemed to be the right way to tell the story of a woman who has found herself alone and adrift in a foreign country (Morocco) with no identification or money. Bethany did a great job summarizing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty in her post, so I’ll refer you there. Suffice it to say there is no tidy ending and if I had endured what the protagonist endured I would definitely be tempted to chuck it all and go to Morocco too.

 

Best Boy, Eli Gottlieb (Indiespensible #54 from August 2015)

Also read in April. Best Boy is a story about a man named Todd Aaron, who has lived at the Payton Living Center for almost forty years. He’s autistic, and had the misfortune of being born back when people who were a bit different got put in asylums. I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time about ten years ago and did not love it, so I was worried that this book would go down likewise. But it did not. Todd was a really sympathetic character and the author did a great job of not turning him into a caricature. Best Boy was partially character study and partially plot-driven, and did a really good job of telling a simple story with great detail.

 

Did You Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg (Indiespensible #55 from September 2015)

This one was one of my favorite books I have read this year, I think. Actually, now that I think about it I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read this year. This book was not terribly long, but it’s difficult to sum up in a couple of words. It’s a multiple viewpoint novel, which I love, that revolves around a tragedy that takes place in a small Connecticut town. June Reid’s entire family: her daughter (and only child), her daughter’s fiancé, her boyfriend, and her ex-husband are killed in a freak explosion that burns her house to the ground on the morning of her daughter’s wedding. Clegg jumps around in time from events leading up to the accident to the aftermath. I found it to be stunningly well done. The characters were generally all good people, but were not perfect, and the author did such a good job with all of them. I may be exaggerating because it’s been a few months since I finished it, but I don’t remember anything I disliked about this book. I definitely recommend it. It was sad, but also hopeful.

 

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg (Indiespensible #56 from October 2015)

Oh this book. I was afraid of its girth but ended up finding it tremendous, and looking back I can’t think of how Hallberg could have made it any shorter than its nine hundred and eleven pages. I could have lived in its pages for longer than the month I spent in it. I didn’t want to put it down. The novel takes place in New York City in the fall of 1976 to summer of 1977, but really reaches back before then and extends much past then. This is yet another novel with a large cast of characters with many points of view, though unlike in Did You Ever Have a Family, I did not like all of the characters in City on Fire. Some of them were just not good people. Some of them were remarkably complex, because we get to learn what many different people think of them. I highly recommend City on Fire for anyone who wants to get immersed in a long novel.

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A Brief Review of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine cover image

This is one of those “quietly good” books I keep meaning to read more of. Though only 144 pages long, it tells a complex story from five distinct points of view: one chapter each from the third-person perspective of a mother, her daughter, and her son; an odd first-person plural chapter told by the combined consciousness of the two children, and a very short final chapter in the first-person voice of the children’s father. This family is removed from their home in Berkeley during the Japanese internment. The children’s father – we learn slowly – was removed from his home on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated first in Montana, then in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He remains in prison until after the war ends. His wife and children are removed from their home several weeks later and sent first to live in horse stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, CA (now a mall where Jill and I used to go to discount double features for – what was it? – $5? Maybe less?) and then to Delta, Utah, where they lived out the war in a tiny cell.

What makes this book distinctive is its defiant refusal to explain anything – a wise yet sad strategy, I suppose, in a book about an episode in history that defies explanation. This book simply narrates. It’s like an exercise in simple narration from a Creative Writing I class – but an exercise done very, very well by a gifted writer. We’re never told outright that the family is Japanese. In the opening chapter, which opens at the moment the children’s mother reads a notice about “Evacuation Order #19” and immediately turns around and methodically packs her possessions and arranges to be at the train station at the required time, we rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Even when she starts to purchase a hammer, changes her mind, then goes home and matter-of-factly kills the family dog with a shovel, all we see is her determination – her actions, not her thoughts. The book is full of moments like this: when the 11 year-old daughter meets a man on the train and tries to lure him toward her mother (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) only to quickly retreat. When the son captures a turtle and keeps in in a box, listening all night long to the sound of its claws clicking against the box. When the family comes home and settles automatically to sleep on the living room floor as if they were still in their cell in Utah. When the father comes home. Holy crap, when the father comes home.

As quietly good as this novel is, I am actually thinking of teaching it to my eighth graders this coming year. Eighth graders and quietly good novels don’t always mix well, but I think this novel is emotionally resonant enough that it will win the students over, and the fact that much of the novel is told by youthful narrators is a plus as well. Most importantly, this book is an excellent tool with which to teach students to keep track of details and use them to make inferences. Like many quietly good novels, book is like a game of Taboo. Certain themes are present – the cruelty of authority, discrimination and injustice, the individual vs. society, quiet endurance as a central facet of the human condition – but they are never addressed outright. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this book is also about the fact that life – especially the interior development of children and adolescents – keeps rolling right on ahead even under terrible conditions. I recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Julie Otsuka, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

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When we were freshmen in college, Jill gave me a book of cartoons for Christmas called I Went to College… and it Was Okay. I looked for the book before I started writing this review, and I couldn’t find it. It may have disappeared in one of my many moves over the last 22 years. I did discover that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $1.99, however.

At the time I thought this book perfectly captured the feeling of being an 18 year-old college freshman. For academically-oriented kids, college is the culmination of everything they have worked for in their lives – so why do they spend so much time staring off into space in libraries and walking to gas stations in the middle of the night to buy bad coffee? I wondered it then and I wonder it now.

Around the same time Jill bought me that book, Elif Batuman (and Selin, the protagonist of her novel, whom I assume to be Batuman’s alter ego) was filling out her own college applications. Batuman is a year younger than I am, and she enrolled at Harvard a year after I enrolled at Dartmouth. While different in its particulars, this novel perfectly captures my own experience as a college freshman.

To begin with, there’s email. At Dartmouth, we were issued Mac Quadras out of a big white truck and told to plug the Ethernet cables into our printer ports. Because so many students forgot this counterintuitive instruction and tied up the technology help line, the college pre-programmed each computer with a screen saver showing a picture of Dartmouth Hall with the words “Put it in the printer port!” I forgot the instructions anyway. I called the technology help line.

Within seconds of putting the cable in the printer port, we were online. We were told that Dartmouth was, at the time, the second most fully wired campus in the nation after the Naval Academy. I remember a website that was just a hamster running in a wheel. I remember porn about the Smurfs. I remember a kid saying in a comical tone in class that he had looked up an allusion in “the DCIS* Online Bible,” and we all laughed, students and professor, at the silliness of this. And I remember my dorm-mate Simon and his rubber chicken, Keith, whom I’ve written about on his site before.

*Dartmouth College Information Services, I think.

Batuman’s novel begins like this: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and I knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it. ‘You’ll be so fancy,’ said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, ‘sending your e, mails.’ She emphasized the ‘e’ and paused before the ‘mail’” (3). The quotation marks around “have” are the best part.

Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, maintains this distant, almost anthropological approach to narrating her freshman year of college. The novel’s second page – which continues to contemplate email – could almost be written by a researcher from a distant land: “There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world…And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time” (4).

The intersection of Selin’s life with other lives begins in her Russian class, where she meets Svetlana, a self-possessed Yugoslav who becomes her best friend, and Ivan from Hungary, who becomes her love interest. Selin meets both of them during a dispute about choosing Russian names – in other words, about assuming an alternate identity, which is what one’s freshman year in college is all about, really. First as Sonya, her Russian-class alter ego, and later as herself, Selin begins an ongoing email flirtation with Ivan, an exchange that includes passages like “Things just aren’t that easy in real life. You can’t just tell an ache, ‘Go back into the rock.’ Moreover, I think ‘peace’ is misleading. It can’t possibly be the same thing as cereal” (148). As baffling as that is, Ivan – a baffling dude in his own right – picks right up where she left off: “Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace, to cereal or rocks or anything like that. Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore. That seduced atom has energies that seduce people, and these rarely get lost” (149). These passages make a little more sense in context, but not much.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but my favorite passages come from Selin’s first encounters with college-level liberal arts classes. Entire sections are written in a tone just like the “Findings” section on the back page of Harpers (here’s a sample if you’re not familiar with it). Selin’s weirdest class is “Constructed Worlds,” in which, says Selin, “we went to the Museum of Natural History, where we saw a brace of pheasants that had belonged to George Washington, a turtle collected by Thoreau, and ‘about a million ants,’ described as ‘E.O. Wilson’s favorites.’ I was impressed that E.O. Wilson had been able to identify, in this world of seemingly infinite ants, his one million favorites. We saw what was believed to be the largest skull of a living crocodile species in any collection. When they cut open the crocodile’s stomach, they found a horse and 150 pounds of rocks” (25). Elsewhere, Batuman’s prose style mimics DeLillo’s: “From the top of the escalator, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned” (52). And when Selin is assigned in linguistics class to interview native English speakers from different regions about the words ‘dinner’ and ‘supper,’ her two roommates, Angela and Hannah, square off: “[They] got into an argument about which was more formal, Thanksgiving dinner or the Last Supper. They debated the difference between supper and a snack. Hannah said it depended on whether the food was hot or cold” (31). This is what I remember about college – or about freshman year of college, anyway – the endless arguments about nothing. They were never fun, but everyone else seemed to be having fun, so you just sat there, thinking about how much you hated your clothes.

This has been point-and-grunt literary criticism at its best, I know, but when I read a novel that I really love, I don’t want to write about it. I want to show you the parts I loved best. I haven’t done this novel justice and hope you’ll consider reading it if you enjoy novels that combine a disconnected narrative voice, satire of late-20th-century academia, a wacky cast of characters, and brilliant, ironic prose – or even if you don’t but suspect that you might be persuaded. Also, I hope this novel wins the Pulitzer. That is all.

Posted in Authors, Elif Batuman, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

A Review of Jen Lancaster’s The Best of Enemies (by Jill)

 

Best of enemies cover

After reading Twisted Sisters last year, I was worried that I would not enjoy any more of Jen Lancaster’s fiction, but I decided to try again. And you know what? I actually really liked The Best of Enemies. Is it because I read it at a time when I really needed something entertaining and easy? Maybe. But that’s not just it. Jen’s actually getting better; she’s expanding beyond her life experiences and making new stories. It’s really cool to watch her range grow. And yes, the two alternating voices who tell the story of The Best of Enemies totally still have Jen’s distinctive, snarky tone, but they are not her memoir voice. They’re different. And I will go so far as to say that of the two of her books that I’ve read most recently, I actually enjoyed The Best of Enemies more than I Regret Nothing, which is a change.

Of course this new novel is very plot-driven, but there’s not a whiff of the fantasy that we’ve found in Jen’s last two novels (see my posts about Here I Go Again and Twisted Sisters). I was actually somewhat disappointed to not get to see more of Deva, the hippie-dippy astral projecting/time travelling character from Here I Go Again and Twisted Sisters, but the quality of the story was much better than those other two books, so I won’t complain too much.

Granted, the two main characters of this new one are drawn with broad strokes. They are essentially caricatures of real women, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true portraits. Here were meet Kitty Caricoe and Jacqueline “Jack” Jordan, who were roommates their freshman year in college until Jack accidentally sleeps with Kitty’s sort-of ex-boyfriend. Somehow they manage to both stay BFF’s with the same girl, Sarabeth Chandler, who Kitty calls Betsy and Jack calls Sars. The novel is told in the first person, with Jack and Kitty as our narrators. Sarabeth’s husband vanishes under mysterious circumstances and somehow the two end up working together to investigate his disappearance. Jack is an investigative reporter, so it doesn’t make absolutely no sense that this happens, but it sort of makes no sense. That’s okay. The plot lends itself to spoilers, and I’m not going to get into it, because the surprises were part of what made this book so enjoyable to me. “Watching” Kitty and Jack remember why they were friends when they first met was, well, lovely. Jen Lancaster actually writes female friendships really well. She hasn’t really done that before in her fiction that I remember. Mostly she writes about awful women doing awful things and learning lessons about how one should be kinder to people. Here, her two main characters are not really awful people (except in their heads) who need to change their lives before they get run out of town like Lissy Ryder and Reagan Bishop were about to be before fate intervened and led them down different paths.

Overall, I recommend this book to people who either love Jen Lancaster or who enjoy chick lit; this is not a book for lovers of literary fiction, for obvious reasons. But if you need something to keep you entertained on a long road trip, consider The Best of Enemies. It will make the hours in the car go more quickly.

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A Review of Olivia Manning’s School for Love

school for love cover image

This novel is about Felix, a British boy whose mother has just died. Felix and his mother lived in Baghdad back when Iraq was a British colony, so Felix, whose father is also deceased, has to make a long journey home by ship at a time (early 1945) when berths on ships are reserved for service members, diplomats, and others who are directly working to bring the second world war to a close. He has a sort-of aunt in Jerusalem named Miss Bohun, and she offers to take him in while he waits for a place on the ship. Miss Bohun is a sort-of aunt because she and Felix are not biologically related. Miss Bohun was an orphan herself and was taken in by Felix’s paternal grandparents, so she grew up with Felix’s father, as a foster-sibling. Felix has never met Miss Bohun before, but he has heard his mother grumbling about her. Nevertheless, he is determined to forge a good relationship. Felix, whose age is not given but who seems about thirteen, is first and foremost a lonely, grieving child who desperately needs love. One might think that Miss Bohun, an orphan herself, would be sympathetic to Felix’s feelings, but you would be wrong. This is a British novel, after all, and treating orphans compassionately is just not something that is done in British novels.

Miss Bohun runs a boarding house, and she is also a “pastor” of a religious group called the “Ever-Readies.” When Felix arrives, he meets Frau Leszno and her son Nikky, who also live at Miss Bohun’s boarding house. Their status there is a bit unclear. Over time, we discover that Miss Bohun likes to use room assignments in her boarding house in manipulative ways. When Miss Bohun was looking for a place to live in Jerusalem, she met Frau Leszno, who ran this same boardinghouse but couldn’t afford to keep it going. Miss Bohun aggressively befriended her and offered to take over the boarding house, promising that Frau Leszno and Nicky could stay on as partners. Long story short, by the time Felix arrives, other tenants have moved into the more desirable rooms, while Frau Leszno is living in a shack in the backyard and Nikky is sleeping on a cot in the kitches, and Miss Bohun refers to them as servants. In Miss Bohun’s words, Frau Leszno and Nikky are “Polish Jews but they fled to Germany during some pogrom or other” – a remarkably insensitive thing to say in 1945 – and Miss Bohun has taken advantage of their vulnerability. Over time, we learn that this is typical of how she treats others.

At first the reader picks up on much more of this drama that Felix does. His young age and his grief understandably make Felix a fairly solipsistic character. He doesn’t mind being at the boarding house with Miss Bohun. There is a cat there – Faro – with whom he immediately bonds, and at first he accepts Miss Bohun’s party line that other people are always taking advantage of her. Miss Bohun charges Felix through the teeth for his room – so much so that the British consulate advises him to find lodging somewhere else – and rations things like water, electricity, and milk. Felix’s reactions to these deprivations are muted. He feels glum when he has to spend his days in a cold, dark room, but he doesn’t know how to assert himself enough to complain. He would almost certainly be diagnosed with depression if the novel were set in the present day, and of course depression is perfectly justifiable in Felix’s situation.

For a while I have had a nebulous sense that the books that are reissued by the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series – or the ones I’ve read, anyway, maybe 12-15 out of hundreds in the series – have a certain quality in common. This is no small feat for a series that publishes books from dozens of countries and a wide variety of authors. When I was reading this book, it came to me that this quality might be phrased as “less intensity than similar books.” I know – this is not very effective bit of literary analysis. The word “intense” means different things to different people and doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it. Intense things can be good or bad, and this label is entirely subjective. So let me walk you through my thought process a little. Imagine Miss Bohun in a novel written by Dickens. First off, her name would be Miss Plumpfingers or some such thing, and she would have at least one speech impediment. She would still complain about people taking advantage of her so-called generosity while also being the model of stinginess, and she would still be the pastor of the Ever-Readies, but she would do these things while also being a comic masterpiece who totally overwhelmed every scene she was in. Some readers would undoubtedly prefer Dickens’ version of her character, while others prefer Manning’s subtlety. I fall somewhere between these two camps. I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t difficult to finish, but I could just as easily have put it aside and picked up something else without regrets. I like a good overwrought Dickensian villain now and then, and I thought Miss Bohun as Manning wrote her could use a little more sturm und drang. But then I realized that Manning wrote this character the only way she could, given that Felix is her point-of-view character. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is clueless. He’s clueless because of his age, because of the tunnel vision caused by his grief, and also because he knows that Miss Bohun is the only relative he has who’s not back in England, and perhaps he does not want to look too closely at her treachery. He figures out how to live in her house without conflict, to accommodate her constant outrage, to be the wick in her gaslight, so to speak. To write the novel any other way, Manning would have had to be untrue to her point-of-view character’s essential limitations.

As it happens, though, the ending of this novel is great. About halfway through, Miss Bohun takes in a new boarder named Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis is an extremely young widow – maybe 18 or 19 – and she’s pregnant. Young as she is, though, Mrs. Ellis is not naïve. When Miss Bohun rations Mrs. Ellis’s milk, Mrs. Ellis contacts the milkman directly and arranges a separate delivery just for herself. When she requests certain foods that Miss Bohun refuses to buy, claiming they are too expensive, Mrs. Ellis announces that she will eat her meals elsewhere and stops paying the “board” component of her room and board. In other words, she refuses to play the game that the rest of the boarders are mired in. Felix adores Mrs. Ellis, whom he seems to see as both a love interest and his reincarnated mother, and while she keeps him at arm’s length she does share her thoughts on Miss Bohun’s character with him, and his understanding of his sort-of aunt becomes more nuanced. The most important think Mrs. Ellis does, though, is ask Miss Bohun what the Ever-Readies are ever ready for.

The answer is the second coming. Miss Bohun is the head of one of the many millenarian religious splinter groups that congealed in Israel in the twentieth century, believing that the second coming was close at hand. When Mrs. Ellis shares these facts with Felix, his understanding broadens, and Miss Bohun starts to become more like my made-up Mrs. Plumpfingers from a made-up Dickens novel – not because she has changed but because the perspective through which we are seeing her has been given the tools to see her for who she really is.

You may recall that earlier in this review I mentioned that Miss Bohun uses room assignments in her boarding house as a way to manipulate her boarders, but I never really followed up on how she does this. In addition to Frau Leszno’s outdoor shack and Nikky’s kitchen cot, the sleeping spaces include an undesirable attic room, two rooms of reasonable quality on the second floor, and the much-mythologized “front room,” the nicest of all, which Miss Bohun never rents out but constantly cleans, arranges, and redecorates. Every so often she drops hints that she is considering moving someone into the front room, and then everyone is on edge to figure out what that person has done to earn such a privilege (and when the move never happens, everyone is on edge again to figure out what the promised resident has done to lose Miss Bohun’s esteem). It is Mrs. Ellis who figures out the true purpose of the front room: it’s for Jesus. Like Elijah’s chair at the Passover table, no one is allowed to sleep in the front room, but Miss Bohun makes sure it is always spotless for the honored guest she suspects will be arriving any day now. Mrs. Ellis’s further research reveals that the financial backers of the Ever-Readies are paying Miss Bohun quite well for keeping the Risen Lord’s room available for Him 24/7, meaning that all the quibbling over pennies and nickels (or their equivalent in 1945 Jerusalem) has been unnecessary and ridiculous.

School for Love is a well-wrought example of the narrative technique called the first person/minor character point of view. In other words, Felix isn’t truly the protagonist. We think he is the protagonist because we see the action of the novel through his eyes, but really we are along for the ride behind his eyes, watching Miss Bohun come into clearer and clearer focus as the novel progresses. It’s true that Felix grows and changes (and that growth and change is one mark of a protagonist), but his growth is just a tool to allow us to see Miss Bohun better.

I liked this book and admire the mind that created it. I look forward to reading more of Manning’s work, and I plan to keep working on my theory about what the NYRB Classics books all have in common. I don’t think I’ve put my finger on it yet.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Olivia Manning, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 7 Comments