Her Son’s Wife by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 1926

     This book struck chords with me both as a former teacher and as a daughter. Mary Bascomb is a teacher, mother, mother in law and eventually grandmother. She has been accustomed to being the center and controlling influence in her son Ralph’s world until the unexpected arrival of Lottie Hicks, his new wife. Lottie is someone who cannot be controlled by Mrs Bascomb and the latter has finally met her match. The sparks begin to fly until Mrs Bascomb changes her ways grudgingly. The arrival and life sustaining entrance of her grand daughter into her life propels her to take action. How she copes with this situation is the pivotal part of the book. It presents the reader with a moral conundrum. Fisher’s description of family hostilities, and turmoil is very truthfully and sharply reported. All the character’s helplessness in this whirlpool of emotions is palpably felt by the reader. Mrs Bascomb makes a major decision which has a profound effect on the livesof each of the family circle. This reader had difficulty accepting that decision even though it had a positive outcome for all concerned. The moral justification for the decision is left to the reader to sort out for him or herself.

     Overall, a fascinating and insightful read and a book that is unnecessarily neglected by posterity as it speaks to anyone who has ever been part of a family unit which is the vast majority of us.

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Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life by Natalie Dykstra

A brief encounter with a charismatic and quick silver woman who in spite of her husband’s diminutive stature was cast in his shadow. The wife of the famed historian and author Henry Adams, Marian “Clover” Hooper was not able to create a life-sized shadow of herself. In spite of Dykstra’s efforts Clover remains in the shadows. The author’s sources are thin as her subject never kept a diary and only very rarely corresponded with her husband because they were seldom apart. Clover did find her muse in photography and who knows what the future would have held for her and her craft if she hadn’t fallen into a crippling depression and tragically taken her own life at age 42. During her lifetime, she was more well known for her expertise as a Washington hostess of the nineteenth century entertaining the powerful and famous with her sparkling conversational skills given full flower at her daily open houses.

Clover is one of many women attached to powerful men who reap some benefits from the relationship but are also personally and creatively stifled by them . Dykstra leaves the reader wanting to know more, especially by viewing the photographic collection  that Clover so painstakingly created.

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The Reef by Edith Wharton

The reef is a character driven novel about people living lives of stifling class consciousness. George Darrow’s fall from grace with the enchanting Sophy Viner is the catalyst for a web of lies and confusion which entangles not only them but Anna Leath and her stepson Owen. Wharton gradually reveals the implications of the brief affair and its concommittant untruths and dissembling. Both Anna and Owen, the unwitting victims are obliged to make decisions as the truth reals itself. Wharton’s opaque denouement to the novel leaves the reader in the dark about Anna. She also shuffles Sophy off to an uncertain fate and Darrow , the weakest of the characters may end up with his undeserved prize, Anna Leath herself.

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Fraud by Anita Brookner

Once again, Brookner delves into the lives of unattached and isolated women with the parallel story lines of Anna Durrant and Vera Marsh. Anna, the only child of widowed Amy is left with the shards of her life when her mother dies. “They had loved one another despairingly: that was their undoing and despair in love merely prolongs its intensity as well as its duration which is forever”. Vera, on the other hand has had a satisfying marriage but with the death of her husband and old age beginning to take its toll, she must cope with loneliness and loss without falling into the trap of dependence on her adult children. Neither of the women were memorable characters but the mysterious disappeance of Anna and the final unfolding of its mystery did not seem to fit in with the behavior patterns which Anna had developed from half a lifetime of practical and emotional dependence on her mother.

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Undue Influence by Anita Brookner

    A pervasive loneliness shadows “Undue Influence”. Claire Pitt, its heroine lives her life vicariously through other people. She is a product of an unhappy childhood with a  disabled father and a dutiful but pre-occupied mother.

     Claire meets Martin and then his invalid wife Cynthia and in spite of herself, she becomes attracted to him. Claire also seems to be looking for meaning and  in her life and a loving, stable relationship and believing that Martin might provide this for her when circumstances change his life. Everything begins to unravel for Claire however, as she tries to absorb losses that begin to mount up in her life.

    The reader is left with a totally ambiguous climax in terms of Claire’s fate. What routes does she choose? Does she have the strength to go on? These are the questions left not clearly answered.

     As in her other works, Anita Brookner delineates the struggles of the modern unattached woman whose freedom has its penalties. The book is a powerful, understated yet complex read.

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The Virgin in the Garden by A S Byatt 1978 428pp

The breadth and complexity of this novel displays the author’s intellectual skills. this reader was more impressed with her storytelling as the plot that she wove was clever,and intricate. This book is the first volume in a tetralogy of the memorable Potter family especially the younger daughter, Frederica.

The Potters are very bright people but their likeability is not enhanced by their intelligence. The book alternates its story line to accommodate the changes in the lives of the three children.

Byatt is able tp spin a web of growing suspense throughout the novel  and it holds the reader’s interest enough to wade through some parts that are extremely blogged down in metaphysical speculations. It will be hoped that in the later volumes the author will pare down similar chapters to concentrate more on the story telling and character analysis that she does so well.

This reader immediately after finishing the book went to the library to borrow “Still Life” the next volume in the series.

 

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Look at Me by Anita Brookner

   I thought that this book title and a review would be a good introduction so here goes!

Anita Brookner teases and puzzles me. Her character, Frances Hinton’s thoughts and feelings written in the first person seem almost impossible to separate from what one would imagine were Brookner’s own. Looking at a photograph of the author displays the parallels with the character’s own physical attributes. That being said,  the map that Brookner lays out for Frances follows paths that eventually seem to lead her back to her starting point. Since her life felt unfulfilled and she lives it as a self-described observer, her journey’s end leaves the reader with the sadness and dissatisfaction of a life half-lived. It’s also difficult to ascertain how Brookner feels about Frances’ inability to make changes that might lead to a more fulfilling life. In spite of the book’s total preoccupation with Frances’ inner life I was always fascinated and never bored by it and I attribute that to Brookner’s skills.

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