Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Red Pottage

This 1899 novel, the story of friends Rachel West and Hester Gresley, provides biting satire of the gender and class conventions that governed late-Victorian England. Set against a trio of painful love stories, Rachel and Hester learn the inconveniences and heartbreak of love. Rachel loves an adulterer, and Hester, a writer, loves her new book, whose manuscript consumes all of her time and energy. These pursuits are set against particular Victorian settings: Hester in the vicarage home of her self-satisfied, traditional, high-church brother, and Rachel in the stately homes of rural Middleshire's minor gentry. Both friends feel acutely the emotional and physical restrictions of their situation. None are able to understand Rachel and Hester's friendship, a deep, emotional attachment formed outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Guiding the plot is what is perhaps one of the most ridiculous displays of masculine bravado: a suicide pact between the two lovers of Lady Newhaven. Cholmondeley is biting in her criticism of Victorian society. Somewhat different from other Victorian satirists, she relies upon plot rather than explanation. Cholmondeley doesn't tell us why we should see absurdity in a particular situation; she relies on plot to do that. Written at the very end of the Victorian era, we start to see the seeds of change in gender relations. The very biting quality of Cholmondeley's novel suggests coming change.

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage, (Penguin, 1986) ISBN: 1406845612

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: Velva Jean Learns to Drive

In the mountains of western North Carolina, in the 1930s, Velva Jean Hart lives with her extended family in a community rich in folk tradition and seemingly isolated from the outside world. Velva Jean Dreams of one day going to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But Velva Jean's community is not one that people tend to leave. Velva Jean is limited by her age and family situation. With her mother dead and father run off, she is left to the restrictions of her older sister. With age and marriage Velva Jean's dreams of Nashville fade, but she gains a new desire- to learn to drive. This novel follows Velva Jean from childhood into young adulthood. At every turn it seems that Velva Jean is forced to push her dreams aside. Her story is set in Appalachia during the Depression, and we also see the first signs of outside intrusion into these previously cloistered communities. The Blue Ridge Parkway is about to be cut through the mountains. Even if it does not cut through their village, the new road will affect the lives of all around it. This was an engaging book, with a complex plot line and characters. A wonderful read.

Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (Plume, 2009) ISBN: 0452289459

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: The Visibles

This novel examines a girl's attempts to come to terms with parental abandonment. By thirteen Summer Davis's mother had run off without a trace, and her father was descending into serious mental illness. Summer quickly becomes the adult in a family spiralling out of control. There's not much that I found surprising or unusual about the plot of this book. It is, in fact, quite predictable. Summer's troubled parents shape ways in which she approaches school, career, and relationships. The plot proceeds just as one might expect. The twist Shepard adds to this particular story is Summer's fascination with DNA. She is first introduced to the concept soon after her mother leaves, and Summer spends much of her young adult life pondering the nature vs. nurture debate in light of her particular situation. I found this theme to be contrived, however, as it is only loosely woven into the narrative, and it added little value and effect to the plot. While I found Shepard to be a good writer, I wished the book had been more imaginative.

Sara Shepard, The Visibles (Free Press, 2009) ISBN: 1416597360

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteredge

What a character- Olive Kitteredge is loud, bossy, and decisive. In her old age she swears and complains. Strong-headed, but with her own sort of compassion, Oliver is an institution in her small Maine town. This novel, told in a series of stories, details the lives of Olive, her family, and those around her in Crosby, Maine. The great strength in this book is in its central character. I've never seen another character quite like Olive. From the blurb on the back I was expecting a sort of stock, cantankerous old lady, but that's not Olive. It's hard not to love and loathe Olive at the same time. Through this book we see how the exigencies of life can chip away at as solid a vessel as Olive Kitteredge, and that's both disturbing and reassuring at the same time.

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteredge, (Random House, 2008) ISBN: 0812971833