Give a girl an education

Mansfield Park
by Jane Austen

So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.

Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.

Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.

“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”

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What a ripping thing life was

uneasy-moneyUneasy Money
by P G Wodehouse

I needed to read a book published in 1916 for my Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo and it was surprisingly tough to find anything that appealed. But then this jumped out at me. It’s not a Jeeves and Wooster title but the style of writing is much the same. This leans more towards romantic comedy than skewering of the upper class, but there’s plenty of that too.

It’s the story of Lord Dawlish, or Bill, a lovable chap whose title came without a fortune but is happy working as secretary to a London club in exchange for free lodging and £400 a year, which is plenty enough to play all the golf he likes and give away a few shillings to every fellow with a sob story. Happy enough, that is, except for the fact that his fiancée, the beautiful but only moderately successful actress Claire, is determined that Bill must have more money before she will marry him.

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It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible

emmaEmma
by Jane Austen

In my late teens I went through a serious period drama phase, fuelled by TV miniseries based on classic books. A particular favourite was the 1996 ITV production of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. I loved that show and watched it so many times I can still picture every scene now, a good 15+ years after I last saw it. Plus, of course I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow film (meh), the 2009 BBC series starring Romola Garai (okay) and the greatest (or at least the most fun) Austen adaptation of them all, Clueless.

So you’d think I would have read Emma long ago. However, to date my experience of Jane Austen has not gone so well. I quite liked Northanger Abbey but I gave up multiple times on both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, finding the stuffiness outweighed the wit. I can’t say finally reading Emma has won me over; largely I think I only got through it because I already knew it so well.

Emma Woodhouse is young, rich, devoted to her family and determined to be cheerful. Her elderly father doesn’t like to go out and she doesn’t like to leave him home alone, so ever since her governess Miss Taylor left to marry Mr Weston she has been pretty bored. She makes friends with Harriet Smith, a girl of unknown parentage who was raised by the local schoolmistress. Harriet is dull but straightforward and quick to adore Emma. Emma’s friend and adviser Mr Knightley (her sister’s husband’s brother, who lives nearby) thinks she would do better to befriend Jane Fairfax, who is intelligent and accomplished. But Emma has always found Miss Fairfax cold and distant, not to mention being a little jealous of her musical skill.

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There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

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We were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

I had read conflicting reviews of this book, so I’d put it to one side for a while. But then along came the Books on the Nightstand Summer Bingo, with that classic square “A random book from a shelf”. So I stood in front of the TBR shelves, closed my eyes, waved my hand around, and lo and behold this was what I picked out.

The framework is the story of two girls’ friendship in Naples in the 1950s, but through Elena and Lila we really get to know a whole neighbourhood and all the minutiae of money, class, society and education that will affect the lives of everyone born there.

To begin with Elena and Lila are not all that different. Elena, who narrates the story, is the daughter of a porter at the city hall, while Lila is daughter of a shoemaker. Elena admires Lila from a young age and so wants to be her friend that she hangs around nearby, playing with her doll at the same street corner, until Lila has tested her bravery enough times to form a lasting bond.

“Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us…Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this.”

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I am merely bored, not a defiant brat

The Chocolate Money
by Ashley Prentice Norton

Does a compelling story outweigh all the other elements of a book being less than compelling? For me, no, but for a lot of other people I suspect it would. So I recommend you keep that in mind while reading my not-so-glowing opinions below.

I was sent this book unsolicited but the premise was vague enough and the straplines on the cover intriguing enough that I gave it a chance. After this I am definitely going back to books I have bought for myself for a while.

The story is that of Bettina, raised by her single-parent chocolate heiress mother Babs. Babs is a slightly brattish partier who loves her daughter but isn’t going to change her life for her. We follow Bettina from the age of 10 to 16 (plus a brief flash forward at the end), dipping into her life at times that I think were supposed to have been picked out for their significance (there is a slightly heavy handed mention of Bettina’s class assignments for an English teacher including her writing about many of the events from the start of the book). The problem is that, while they might be significant (but not out of the ordinary) for the average kid, from a story about a millionaire I sort-of expect more. Or at least different.

Let’s take those cover straplines that I find completely misleading. First, “When you have everything, trust no-one”. That implies a thriller, or at least lots of betrayal and distrust. As far as I can tell the one doing most of the betraying in this book is Bettina. She doesn’t make friends. Though she wants to, she picks the wrong role models and then blames it all on her mother when it goes wrong. And that is the sort of book this is, it’s about a tween/teen’s privileged but oh-so-traumatic life. Not my cup of tea.

And the other strapline? “An adorable child. A phenomenal fortune. A mother like no other.” I did not find Bettina adorable. As far as I can tell none of the other characters did so why should I? The fortune bit is true but Bettina seems strangely clueless about spending it. For instance, when she arrives at boarding school with one small duffel of clothes and sees that all the other girls brought bedding and other home comforts why doesn’t she call some expensive shop in Boston or New York and get a bunch of stuff delivered? It makes no sense.

As for her mother, I felt a lot of the time that I was supposed to be disapproving of Babs and yes, she’s not the ideal mother figure but she’s not that bad either. She isn’t absent, she includes Bettina in her life despite her having a full-time nanny. There is one occasion when she slaps Bettina across the cheek that Bettina is still obsessing about years later, suggesting it was a one-off. And there is one scene when Bettina gets drunk when she’s only 12, which I think was supposed to be shocking, but she does it at a big party at her house so help is immediately at hand and we later learn that afterward her mother teaches her about drinking alcohol. How many millionaire kids have far far worse stories to tell?

Babs does talk coarsely, that is true. I am all in favour of talking to children about sex and relationships but minus the personal element that Babs favours. Also, her refusal to tell Bettina who her father is doesn’t strike me as unreasonable and felt a lot like a contrivance to generate a guessing game for the reader.

Plot holes aside (and there’s a few – she hero worships her mother so why does she want to “escape” her? who does she stay with in Paris every summer?), I did find the story drew me in. Certainly, the middle section, where Bettina is at boarding school, kept me reading late at night and first thing in the morning. It’s an easy writing style and I have always liked school-based/coming-of-age plots. Plus this section had a decent range of characters with different agendas.

I guess my problem is that the writing had nothing going for it other than ease of absorption. It didn’t feel like an authentic child’s voice at all but it wasn’t a knowledgeable “future me looking back” angle either. It does that thing that annoys me of detailing clothes and make-up minutely, but it doesn’t do this consistently, in fact mostly only for Babs. It’s a first-person narration, so shouldn’t Bettina notice everyone in the same way? At least to compare them with her mother?

I struggled to pick out any stand-out quotes so I will just give you the opening line, which is a reasonable example of the whole flavour of the book:

“The day I cut my hair and completely fuck up the Christmas Card, I am merely bored, not a defiant brat like Babs tells all her friends.”

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Bantam Press, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

Bigger issues than story

David Golder
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from the French by Sandra Smith

This was another book club pick, in fact this one was my choice, so I was pretty nervous before the meeting. I’d chosen it based on Némirovsky’s brilliant final work Suite Française but this was a much earlier novel of her’s, with no guarantee of the same brilliance. What if everyone hated it? Or was bored by it? What if it failed to generate any discussion?

I needn’t have worried. While this is a slim volume and not as good as Suite Française, in my opinion, it did have plenty for us to talk about.

David Golder is a Russian Jew who works endlessly on obscure international financial deals to maintain the fabulously wealthy lifestyle to which his wife and daughter are accustomed. However, while he lives in a Paris apartment, they live in a multimillion franc estate in Biarritz, accompanied by an endless stream of hangers-on.

Golder isn’t the most likeable character, but we meet him near the end of his life and the impression is given that it was a difficult life and that he worked incredibly hard for himself and his family. His wife and daughter seem to only care about money, only showing Golder affection immediately before asking for a handout and getting very aggressive when he honestly tells them that business is rough and he can’t afford it right now. Add to that his failing health and you have a very sad, lonely picture of a man.

Némirovsky toys with the reader a little regarding characters’ true selves. At first Golder’s daughter seems much nicer than her mother because that’s what Golder sees. Only later is her selfishness fully exposed. And with Golder it’s the reverse – at first all you see is obsessiveness about money and his scheming seems horrible but it becomes clear, as we discover more about him and especially when we learn about his past, that he has his reasons, that his family and business associates encourage him, maybe even force him, to be this person.

I was glad to discover I wasn’t the only one at book club weirded out by the way the narrative labels everyone as a Jew, in an insulting sounding way, even though the author herself was Jewish and indeed died because of it. It could be part of the characterisation of Golder, that he has an odd skewed view of Jewishness. Or it could just be the vernacular of the time.

There was a general feeling that the book is very bleak, there is no ray of hope, no good person to contrast everything else against. But despite that Némirovsky has an easy, fluid writing style that keeps you reading even though there’s no-one to like and a fairly uneventful story.

I can’t recommend this as highly as I had hoped but I will still be interested to read Némirovsky’s other novels if they continue to be translated into English.

First published in France in 1929 by Editions Bernard Grsset
This translation published 2007 by Vintage