The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

Such a softly beautiful book, with prose the like of which I’ve never read before. Sentences that make me stop, and then take me into my own world with connected thoughts.

“I think people would be happier if they admitted things more often. In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment–we are all defined by something we can’t change.”

Each story in The Illusion of Separateness is, in fact, connected. The characters’ lives are intertwined in ways that become clear as the novel reaches its resolution.

But I was perfectly content to read of them independently of one another. Each character was fully developed for me, in a tender way which made them so endearing to read about.

The writing, the stories, the bits of wisdom interspersed throughout, made this a lovely read. Now I know why Simon Van Booy is such a beloved author.

Glad to have Love Begins In Winter amongst the stack for Saturday’s read-a-thon.

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag (and give-away of this most marvelous novel)

“You can stay here,” Peggy says, for ninety-nine nights, until the seventh of August, just before midnight. And then you must go…”

“If you stay I can promise you this,” Peggy says. This house may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need. And the event that brought you here, the thing you think is the worst thing that’s ever happened? When you leave, you’ll realize it was the very best thing of all.”

This magical book is exactly what I’ve needed after a steady diet of bleak and haunting novels which comprise the IFFP long list for 2014. Not that I don’t grow from, or often enjoy, bleak and haunting. But I felt it was time for a book for Spring. For rejuvenation. For hope. 
The house at which Alba mysteriously arrives one night, after being evicted from King’s College, is a house which moves and breathes. It drops mysterious notes meant specifically for its inhabitants, some of which include ghosts. And it allows conversations with the likes of Daphne DuMaurier, Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker as well as many other famous women authors.
The women who live at the house, along with Alba, are each on a journey of her own. There is beautiful Peggy, the 82 year old woman who loves cream with almost every dish and decadent chocolate cake for breakfast. But, not as much as she loves Harry. There is Greer, the woman who longs to be an actress, but perhaps longs to be a mother more. And there is Carmen, the woman with an incredible voice whose marriage has made her too afraid to sing. As each story unfolds, interwoven with Alba’s, it is hard to tell which woman is more in need of healing or of hope. Thanks goodness the house has enough for everyone because “it takes great courage and determination, to keep looking for light in all the darkness of life.”
Penguin is offering to send one reader a paperback edition of this book (U.S. only, please). And for everyone there is a lovely reader’s “kit” here, complete with recipes, discussion questions, and a conversation with author Menna Van Praag. Simply leave a comment below to enter the give-away, along with your email if you will.
Update: the winner of The House at The End of Hope Street, selected by,  is Andi of Estella’s Revenge. Congratulations, miss Newly Married!

The One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

JoJo Moyes has a writing style which is so down to earth, so in touch with her endearing characters, that it makes me embrace all that is imperfect in this world. Suddenly, the flaws which offend me  about me about myself dwindle down to size, and I am able to smile at how often one’s dreams are thwarted. 
Jess is the glittery nail polished, flip-flop wearing heroine of the novel, who cleans houses, works in a bar, and cares for her two children. One is a stepson who keeps getting beaten up, and copes with life by hiding away with his stash. The other is a girl whose passion and strength is Math. It also resides with Norman, the huge, black family dog.
When these four are found next to the broken down Rolls that Jess’ husband left her, the adventure begins. They had been on their way to a Maths Olympiad, in the hopes that the little girl could win such a competition and gain the money required for acceptance into the private school, St. Anne’s. But, as strong as Jess’ determination was, it wasn’t strong enough to carry them from London to Scotland in a broken down car with no insurance.
Fortunately, Ed Nicholls, a client of Jess’ found them. He volunteers to drive the whole group in his immaculate car, and before long a hilarious and grievous debacle begins. The dog, Norman, drools all over the leather seats which have chocolate buttons now melted into the crevices; sweaters and books are cast about; real life has entered in to Ed’s luxurious, but crumbling, life.
Of course, it’s clear that the Ed and Jess will fall in love. That their strengths and weaknesses compliment one another. But, a wedge comes between them which could effectively divide them forever.
In The One Plus One JoJo Moyes writes of our imperfections, the ultimate kindness of strangers, unlikely heroes, and most of all, hope.
For, as Jess says, “Good things do happen.” It’s just up to us to believe that they do.

Great Expectations: Take Nothing On Its Looks

“I embrace this opportunity of remarking that he washed his clients off, as if he were a surgeon or a dentist. He had a closet in his room, fitted up for that purpose, which smelt of the scented soap like a perfumer’s shop. It had an unusually large jack-towel on a roller inside the door, and he would wash his hands, and wipe them and dry them all over this towel, whenever he came in from a police court or dismissed a client from his room. When I and my friends repaired to him at six o’clock next day, he seemed to have been engaged on a case of a darker complexion than usual, for we found him with his head butted into this closet, not only washing his hands, but laving his face and gargling his throat. And even when he had done all that, and had gone round the jack-towel, he took out his penknife and scraped the case out of his nails before he put his coat on.”

When I thought of Great Expectations, I used to think of Miss Havisham first. She shrouds herself in bridal rags, sitting next to a rotted bridal cake, with one bridal shoe in hand. She is wreathed in disappointment and bitterness to such an extent that the only thing she can teach her adopted daughter, Estella, is how to exact revenge on men.
But this time through Great Expectations, I was absorbed in the men. How curious it is that Pip’s legal guardian, Jaggers, finds it necessary to be so scrupulously clean. His cleanliness is purely of an external nature, not an internal one, for he is far removed from the people whom he serves as lawyer. He seems to care not at all about the outcome of their cases as long as he can keep himself free of the dirt and scandal.
How ironic it is, then, that he advises Pip,”Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” (p. 180)  Poor Pip is unable to do that. He looks at his great fortune with great expectation, that being a London gentleman will remove the shame he feels of being “common and coarse”. And in running from common and coarse, Pip dismisses honorable and true.
For who is the noblest, the strongest, the bravest and best man in all of the novel? It is Joe, the man who minds the forge in town, standing before his anvil wearing a leather apron and an undaunted spirit of courage and grace. 
How is it that we make ourselves “clean”? Surely not from the outside. No amount of soap can give Jaggers, or Pip, or any other male character in Great Expectations the purity we find in Joe.
(I read this book with Tom of Wuthering Expectations. I so look forward to his thoughts, as he delves into novels with depth and often writes a series of posts concerning just one book. We had agreed to post at the end of January, but mine is up a bit early.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Adventure of Augustus,” Teddy read aloud, “by Delphie Fox.”
“Why is everything an adventure with you?” Sylvie said irritably to Izzie. 
“Because life is an adventure, of course.”
“I would say it was more of an endurance race,” Sylvie said. “Or an obstacle course.” 
“Oh, my dear,” Hugh said, suddenly solicitous, “not that bad, surely?” p. 181
What if Ursula didn’t die at birth when the cord was wrapped around her neck, but went on to live a full life? What if she was able to fend off her brother’s friend at age 16, and thereby avoid rape and subsequent pregnancy? What if she never married Derek and wasn’t an abused wife? What if the bombs that fell during WWII didn’t crush her in the basement of her tenement building? What if Crighton didn’t leave her, but instead left his wife and asked her to marry him? 
The scenarios of Ursula’s life, set in the context of England’s history beginning with the 1920’s, are played out over and over again. She dies, and then we go back in time to the beginning of that particular point and play out a different set of events. It reminds me of the children in school who, when faced with a disastrous outcome, shout, “Do over!” Because who doesn’t fantasize about the chance to go back and do things differently? Who hasn’t thought back over life while pondering the question, “What if…?”
What a tremendously imaginative and engaging book this is, unlike any kind of “time travel” I’ve read before. The only danger lies in dwelling on one’s regrets, while knowing in real life we cannot change a thing.
“Sometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future.” (p. 495)

Honeymoon in Paris by JoJo Moyes

So many things can get in the way of a new bride’s happiness on her honeymoon: jealousy, expectations, her new husband. I know, because on my very own honeymoon in Paris, in 1984, I suffered under similar illusions as JoJo Moyes’ characters. I foolishly expected my husband to be devoted to me above all else. I foolishly became jealous of his past loves. I was young and foolish, period. So it was quite reassuring to read of similar brides in this novella, although one was from the 21st century and the other from the 20th.
Edouard and Sophie are a couple from 1912. He is a painter who has had amorous relationships with his models and other attractive women before his marriage to Sophie. This instills an intense jealousy in his new bride who wonders what he sees in her. David and Olivia are a couple from 2012. He is an excellent businessman who has made several meetings over his honeymoon in Paris. With each new appointment, Sophie feels less significant to him in comparison to the potential clients. 
Perhaps many honeymoons suffer under a certain condition of not being able to live up to what is expected of them. By my second honeymoon in 2001 I was a much more realistic bride. As for Moyes’ characters, one wonders if these new brides will abandon their new husbands before the marriage ever has a chance to move beyond the honeymoon. In Paris.
I read Honeymoon in Paris for Paris in July. It is an utterly charming read which precedes JoJo Moyes’ latest book, The Girl You Left Behind, to be published August 20, 2013.

Pym Reading Week: Excellent Women

As pleased as I am to be joining those who are participating in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas of My Porch, I must confess to a bit of…boredom? I know Barbara is supposed to be funny, and certainly, there are several situations which are just that. But humorous is not the word that I would use to describe her writing as much as bland.
I abandoned A Glass Of Blessings halfway through after repeated attempts. I finally asked myself why I was persevering so diligently with such little pleasure. Excellent Women was easier to get going, but still I tired of reading about washing up, movers, bits of fish for luncheon, bossy old ladies, and the loneliness in Mildred’s life.
She never made me feel sorry for her. In fact, I admired her fortitude and independence as she lived in her flat alone once her friend Dora had moved on. Mildred is single, plain, and considers herself uninspiring when she compares herself with the Napiers across the hall, or Allegra Gray, the widow who moved in with her friends Julian Malory and his sister, Winifred. She feels dreadful when she is caught unexpectedly by Everard Bone while she is wearing a housedress, without stockings, covered by a cardigan. One day after lunching with Mrs. Gray she decides that what she really needs is a lipstick. This is one of the few scenarios which utterly charmed me, perhaps because I have been as daunted in searching for the right shade as our plain Mildred seems to be. 
“I strolled through a grove of dress materials and found myself at a counter piled with jars of face-cream and lipsticks. I suddenly remembered Allegra Gray’s smooth apricot-coloured face rather too close to mine and wondered what it was that she used to get such a striking effect. There was a mirror on the counter and I caught sight of my own face, colourless and worried-looking, the eyes large and rather frightened, the lips too pale. I did not feel that I could ever acquire a smooth apricot complexion but I could at least buy a new lipstick, I thought, consulting the shade-card. The colours had such peculiar names but at last I chose one that seemed right and began to turn over a pile of lipsticks in a bowl in an effort to find it. But the colour I had chosen was either very elusive or not there at all, and the girl behind the counter, who had been watching my scrabblings in a disinterested way, said at last, “What shade was it you wanted, dear?”
I was a little annoyed at being called ‘dear’, though it was perhaps more friendly than ‘madam’, suggesting as it did that I lacked the years and poise to merit the more dignified title.
“It’s called Hawaiian Fire,” I mumbled, feeling rather foolish for it had not occurred to me that I should have to say it out loud.” (p. 130)
Of course this book is about far more important things than buying a particular shade of lipstick; it’s about excellent women. The phrase is used numerous times throughout the narrative…
“Of course you’ve never been married,” she said, putting me in my place among the rows of excellent women…” (p. 27)
“But my dear Mildred, you mustn’t marry,” he was saying indignantly. “Life is disturbing enough as it is without these alarming suggestions. I always think of you as being so very balanced and sensible, such an excellent woman.” (p. 69)
“I felt that the ‘among’ spoilt it  a little and imagined a crowd of us, all excellent women connected with the church, hearing the news (that Julian Malory and Mrs. Gray are engaged).”  (p. 132)
“It was not the excellent women who got married but people like Allegra Gray, who was no good at sewing, and Helena Napier, who left all the washing up.” (p. 170)
“You could consider marrying an excellent woman?” I asked in amazement. “But they are not for marrying.” (p. 189)

“It is a known fact that people like clergy men’s daughters, excellent women in their way, sometimes rush in where the less worthy might fear to tread.” (p. 221)

What is it that Pym is telling her readers? By the time we get to the end of the story, Mildred Lathbury has seen the dissolution of Allegra’s engagement, as well as the way that Helena has taken back her husband while neither of them are loyal to each other. Just because these women have had their flings, their engagements, their marriages, they do not qualify as excellent women. Perhaps, Pym suggests to me, being an excellent woman is worth its weight, for they are the ones who are respected and esteemed. The excellent women of this world are the ones who have “a full life after all.”

Fin other thoughts on this novel here, here, here, here, and at our excellent host’s here

Mother’s Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

Mother’s Milk is an exploration into the tricky relationship which exists between mother and child. The novel opens with Robert’s birth, and he tells us how excruciating it is to be separated from his mother. Then we come to Patrick, Robert’s father, who cannot find a healthy way to be separate from his mother. The narrative flows between mother and grandmother, child and parent, pointing out the most tender aspects as well as the most terrifying. It make me examine my role as child, and my role as mother; I know that I have often loved my son too much with an approach only meant to protect him. As if that was in my power.
One small chapter, in this powerful novel, is about the Melrose’s trip to America. It made me absolutely laugh out loud in the way that Edward St. Aubyn articulated everything that horrifies me about my own country. It is not necessarily the America that I knew growing up, but it is certainly the America I exist in now. Here is a glimpse of that chapter:
Would America be just like he’d imagined it? Along with the rest of the world, Robert had lived under a rain of American images most of his life. Perhaps the place had already been imagined for him and he wouldn’t be able to see anything at all.
The first impression that came his way, while the plane was still on the ground at Heathrow, was a sense of hysterical softness. The flow of passengers up the aisle was blocked by a red-haired woman sagging at the knees under her own weight.
‘I cannot go there. I cannot get in there,’ she panted. ‘Linda wants me to sit by the window, but I cannot fit in there.’
‘Get in there, Linda,’ said the enormous father of the family.
‘Dad!’ said Linda, whose size spoke for itself.
That certainly seemed typical of something he had seen before in London’s tourist spots: a special kind of tender American obesity; not the hardwon fat of a gourmet, or the juggernaut body of a truck driver, but the apprehensive fat of people who had decided to become their own airbag systems in a dangerous world. What if their bus was hijacked by a psychopath who hadn’t brought any peanuts? Better have some now. If there was going to be a terrorist incident, why go hungry on top of everything else?
Eventually, the Airbags dented themselves into their seats. Robert had never seen such vague faces, mere sketches on the immensity of their bodies. Even the father’s relatively protuberant features looked like the remnants of a melted candle. As she squeezed into her aisle seat, Mrs. Airbag turned to the long queue of obstructed passengers, a brown smudge of tiredness radiating from her faded hazel eyes.
‘Thank you for your patience,’ she groaned.
‘It’s sweet of her to thank us for something we haven’t given her,” said Robert’s father. ‘Perhaps I should thank her for her agility.”
Robert’s mother gave him a warning look. It turned out they were in the row behind the Airbags.
I see this passive kind of American more often than I ever used to see a few decades ago. It’s as though so many of us have lost a purpose, a focus for living other than immediate gratification. It is exhibited in the food available to eat, as well as the president elected to lead, as though the public is saying, “Give us what we want, now!” regardless of the effects.
Edward St. Aubyn even points out the difference between American and English parks:
The park was bright and warm, crowded with sleeveless dresses and jackets hooked over shoulders. Robert felt the heightened alertness of arrival being eroded by exhaustion, and the novelty of New York overlaid by the sense that he had seen this new place a thousand times before. Whereas the London parks he knew seemed to insist on nature, Central Park insisted on recreation. Every inch was organized for pleasure. Cinder paths looped among the little hills and plains, past a zoo and a skating rink, quiet zones, sports fields and a plethora of playgrounds. Headphoned rollerbladers pursued a private music. Teenagers scaled small mounds of bronze-grey rocks. A flute player’s serpentine music echoed damply under the arch of a bridge. As it faded behind them, it was replaced by the shrill mechanical tooting of a carousel.
It is no wonder that Mother’s Milk has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and won the 2007 Prix Femina Étranger and the 2007 South Bank Literature Award. It seems to me to be the crowning glory of the four Patrick Melrose novels I’ve read this week, while anticipating At Last.

Some Hope by Edward St. Aubyn

Beyond bitterness and despair there was something poignant, something he found harder to admit than the facts about his father’s cruelty, the thing he had not been able to say to Johnny: that his father had wanted, through the brief interludes of his depression, to love him, and that he had wanted to be able to love his father, although he never would.
I have had the most dreadful flu for the past few days, the most horrible parts of which I will refrain from recording here, but the most lovely part has been lying in bed with St. Aubyn’s novels. When I’m able to lift my head, which has become increasingly more frequent, I delve deeper into Patrick’s story. He has become almost real to me, not only from my total immersion, but from Edward St. Aubyn’s writing. I can see that anything I pick up after these spectacular novels will cast a dim shadow against the light of his pen.
In Some Hope, Patrick comes to realize what everyone with a great wound must accept to recover: without forgiveness there is no healing.
‘If he’d changed the course he wouldn’t need forgiving,’ said Anne. ‘That’s the whole deal with forgiving. Anyhow, I don’t say you’re wrong not to forgive him, but you can’t stay stuck with this hatred.’
‘There’s no point in staying stuck,’ Patrick agreed. ‘But there’s even less point in pretending to be free. I feel on the verge of a great transformation, which may be as simple as becoming interested in other things.’
‘What?’ said Anne. ‘No more father-bashing? No more drugs? No more snobbery?’
‘Steady on,’ gasped Patrick. ‘Mind you, this evening I had a brief hallucination that the world was real…’
These are the first steps he takes toward his healing: recognition that his father was an “intensely unhappy” man with deep wounds of his own; recognition that living a life which only dwells on one’s wounds is not only unprofitable, it is harmful; and recognition that there is a world of good beckoning to him beyond his pain.
And so Patrick has left behind his coke, his heroine, his dependence on altering substances because as he has learned, “You can only give things up once they start to let you down.”

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Opening her arms so that her black silk dress stretched from her wrists to her knees, like bat’s wings, she cocked her head a little to one side, and exclaimed with excrutiated sympathy, ‘Oh, Patrick, we were so sorry to hear your news.’
‘Well,’ said Patrick, tapping the casket he held under his arm, ‘you know how it is: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What the Lord giveth he taketh away. After what I regard, in this case, as an unnaturally long delay.’
‘Is that…?’ asked Mrs. Banks, staring round-eyed at the brown-paper bag.
‘My father,’ confirmed Patrick.
‘I must tell Ogilvy we’ll be one more for dinner,’ she said with peals of chic laughter. That was Nancy Banks all over, as magazines often pointed out after photographing her drawing room, so daring but so right.
It could be wine swirling in the shattered cup above. Or, it could be blood. As I close the last page of Bad News I am reeling with the story of what Patrick’s life has become.
He flies from London to New York to collect his father’s ashes, and in the course of several days spends ten thousand dollars in hotel bills, taxis, restaurants, and drugs. So many drugs, so much coke and heroin and speed, that I keep expecting to turn the page to find him dead.
I want to bring him home and comfort him.
I want to make it all better.
I can’t imagine how he can survive in this lifestyle with this much grief. And so, I’m on to Some Hope, the third of the Patrick Melrose novels, to find out.