Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

"The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all."

Isabel Archer is a young American girl almost completely without family, who is determined to retain her freedom and independence. When she journeys to Europe with her wealthy aunt, she attracts the attention of several suitors, whom she has no qualms rejecting in order to see more of the world and the people who live in it.  Thinking he is doing her a favour, her cousin arranges for Isabel to come into some money, to support her independent lifestyle.  But when Isabel travels to Rome and meets Gilbert Osmond, she starts to question the decisions she has made, unaware of the true nature of what she is getting herself into.

I have to be honest at the start of this review and admit that I was expecting The Portrait of a Lady to be a conventional marriage plot type of book, albeit with a more feisty leading lady.  So I was unprepared for what The Portrait of a Lady actually is - a convincingly realistic portrayal of life and all its miseries, full of suffering for the main characters.  The first part of the novel is a marriage plot of a kind, but James takes the reader beyond that, and shows us the reality of a desperately unhappy marriage, and the consequences for Isabel once she has to live with the decisions she has made.  This I wasn't expecting!

Isabel is a fascinating main character.  At the start of the novel she is full of life, but also a bit full of herself and somewhat easy to dislike.  She turns down suitors left right and centre, thinking that she is worth more than anyone else.  She has romantic but unrealistic views of the world and is sometimes determined to be difficult.  She's proud and stubborn, and this is partially what makes her choose Gilbert Osmond against the advice of everyone she trusts.  The more they say that he's not right for her, the more that it seems he is only after her money, the more she is determined to marry him.  And this pride works against her once she is married, preventing her from showing the world anything but a happy face, despite her true feelings.

As I was reading The Portrait of a Lady, I thought a lot about Isabel and whether her marriage was what we would now call abusive.  Osmond actively seeks to separate her from her friends and family, expects to be able to tell her what to think, dictates her opinions and decides who she can see and when. As a reader, we see Isabel slowly become demoralised and stop fighting, a dramatic change considering her character at the beginning of the novel.  Although this didn't exactly make for fun reading, I wasn't expecting to see marriage written about like this in the nineteenth century, and I found it to be very powerful.  I admire James for writing such a realistic, gritty story with nuanced characters.  By the end, you even feel sympathy towards one of the main agents of Isabel's misery.

The Portrait of a Lady is one of those books that I think I'll enjoying thinking about and analysing more than I enjoyed the actual experience of reading it.  It's very long at 600+ pages, has a bit of a slow start and is dialogue heavy.  James' writing is remarkably perceptive and the dialogue sharp, but at times it felt like he stayed too long with particular characters or in particular scenes, and I needed to push through in order to make progress with the book.  However, I am very glad I read it and I think it's a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1881
Edition Read: Vintage, 2008
Score: 4 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 25/72
My full list of classics (with linked reviews) can be found here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sam Sunday #50: Easter

I've had a great two week Easter holiday.  For Easter Sunday today, we went to my Mum's for a roast dinner with my family and it was nice to be able to spend some time with everyone.  I can't believe how quickly my nephew is growing up, he's almost 18 months now and starting to get seriously cheeky!  We also spent some time with Tom's parents yesterday, they've been abroad for a wedding for the past few weeks, so it was good to see them.

This past week has gone very quickly.  Tom has been decorating and doing DIY jobs around the house, whilst I've been sitting with my feet up!  Everyone kept telling me to rest and relax and make the most of the time before the baby comes, so I decided just to go with it.  I've been sleeping in and reading and lounging and watching TV and it's been lovely.  We have another Bank Holiday tomorrow and then I'm back to work on Tuesday.  To be honest I'm not looking forward to it, as I'm not sure how my energy levels are going to cope with managing a class full of lively eight year olds every day plus all the marking/paperwork, but I only have five weeks to go and then it's half term and my maternity leave starts.  I can't wait!

My bump has had a massive growth spurt over the past couple of weeks.  I'm now almost 33 weeks and hoping that I don't get too much bigger....

Reading-wise, it's been another great week.  I finished a chunky Robert Jordan book and I'm almost all of the way through The Portrait of a Lady (150 pages to go).  I love to read a chunky classic in my time off work and I've enjoyed this one, although it wasn't what I expected at all.  I have lots of thoughts about it, so I'm already looking forward to writing my review.

This week, I've been reading:
  

Reviews posted:

Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time #2)

My reread of the Wheel of Time series continues.  Last time, I got up to book seven, but this time I am determined to finish the whole thing!  This review contains spoilers for the previous volume in the series, The Eye of the World.

The Great Hunt picks up straight where The Eye of the World left off. The original group of characters separates, with Rand, Perrin and Mat joining the quest to retrieve the Horn of Valere, crucial in the attempts to stop or hinder the Dark Lord. Meanwhile, Nynaeve and Egwene journey to Tar Valon to start their training to become Aes Sedai, where they meet up with Elayne, the daughter-heir of Andor.  Whilst all of this is going on, a mysterious army invades from the West and one of the Forsaken is loose.

The Great Hunt is epic in all senses of the word.  It's very long at 700+ pages and it's epic in scope and world-building.  After re-reading the first volume in the series, all of the characters felt familiar to me, so it was relaxing to slip back into Jordan's world and let the story-telling continue.  In this volume, we get to see a bit more of his world, and I loved the glimpses of Tar Valon and the Aes Sedai training in particular.  In fact, the sub-plots involving the female characters were far more interesting than the 'main' plot involving Rand.  I like the political intrigue around the different factions of Aes Sedai, and I enjoyed the section of the book dealing with Nynaeve's rise to the status of Accepted.  Later on, when Egwene is captured by the Seanchan army, I liked reading about how the different societies in Jordan's world deal with women who can perform magic.  This was all more interesting than Rand, who is still stuck in the 'I can't believe this is happening to me' phase of denial.

For me, the Wheel of Time series is great comfort reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed this volume and am looking forward to the next, but I'm well aware that the series as a whole has it's flaws.  The contrast between good and evil is too well drawn, with not enough characters showing any shades of grey.  Much of the plot relies on Rand being a bit simple and not picking up on obvious clues that the woman who is 'helping' him isn't all she proclaims to be.  And there's a lot of journeying and conversation relative to action.  Despite all of this, I found reading The Great Hunt to be a relaxing experience; sometimes there's nothing like settling into a familiar world and re-visiting old characters again.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1990
Edition Read: Orbit, 2006
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel

When NASA's original seven astronauts were announced in 1959, it wasn't just their lives that changed - their wives were catapulted into the spotlight and became minor celebrities, trailed by paparazzi.   As the competition over who would be selected to go into space intensified, the wives had an important part to play; much like politicians, only astronauts that had a perfect family life could hope to be chosen.  As more and more astronauts joined NASA and missions started leaving Earth, the wives leaned on each other to cope with the stresses of launches and the problems that being married to an astronaut could bring.  Covering the announcement of the first astronauts through to the final Apollo mission, The Astronaut Wives Club aims to show what it was really like to be married to an astronaut.

I was looking forward to The Astronaut Wives Club, it's always interesting to see how the lives of people around those with important jobs are impacted.  I can't imagine what it must be like to know that your husband is going to be blasted into space on a mission that has a high likelihood of something going wrong - how do you cope with that kind of uncertainty?  Unfortunately, whilst The Astronaut Wives Club was thoroughly researched and gave lots of information about the wives, it never really gave me that sense of what it was like to be them, what it was like to watch the launch of a rocket carrying your husband, or what it was like to not know if he would live or die.  There was a lot of distance from the wives in the book, so I never really got to be in their shoes.  And that's what I wanted out of this book most of all.

Similarly, a lot of the topics introduced were never fully explored.  Koppel writes on several occasions about the rise of feminism in America at this time, and how this contrasted with the need of the wives to have a cookie cutter perfect family and always look their best.  Some of the wives were talented in their own right, but Koppel never really examined these tensions, and whether this caused resentment in their marriages.  Lots was made of the infidelity of the astronauts and the resulting divorces, but again this was just reported - I didn't get a sense of what it was actually like.  The book would have been better if both of these themes were investigated more thoroughly.

Because of these issues, The Astronaut Wives Club missed the mark for me.  It was still an interesting read, and I admire the research Koppel has undertaken, but it wasn't engaging or as thorough as it could have been.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Headline, 2014
Score: 3 out of 5

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Sam Sunday #49: Easter Holidays Part One


It's been so lovely having time off work this last week for the Easter holidays, and I've managed to find a good balance between staying at home and resting, and going out with friends and family.  We had all of our nursery furniture delivered early on in the week, and I went baby shopping with my Mum and sister on Wednesday, so we're starting to get ourselves organised with the things we will need when the baby comes.  I have enough clothes and all of the big things like a car seat, pram and moses basket sorted out, now it's just for the smaller bits like nappies, wipes etc.  I want to get as much as possible sorted in this break, as I know I'm going to be exhausted when I return to work.  Plus, I'll be 38 weeks pregnant when my maternity leave starts, so there won't be much time/energy to do things then!

I've been cutting back on my book spending lately but I found the bookish bargain of the year this week and just couldn't resist.  Earlier in the week I reviewed W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil, which I loved, and which convinced me that I need to read more Maugham.  And then later in the week, we were browsing some charity shops in the high street when I came across a set of 10 of his novels in the Vintage editions, for £10!  There was so way I could leave them on the shelf for someone else to buy!


I love Vintage classics, and this set includes:
  • The Painted Veil (My spare copy is going to be gifted to my sister, who I think would love it)
  • Liza of Lambeth
  • The Narrow Corner - 'a tense, exotic tale of love, jealousy, murder and suicide'
  • Up at the Villa
  • Cakes and Ale
  • The Magician (this is the one I will probably get to first)
  • Catalina - set in the Spanish Inquisition
  • Christmas Holiday - about the Parisian underworld
  • Ashenden
  • Don Fernando
Unfortunately, it doesn't contain either Of Human Bondage or The Moon and Sixpence, but I'm still absolutely thrilled with it.  I'd love to hear if anyone has read any of these titles before.

As always in the holidays, I've had lots of time to read (between naps), and I've been enjoying every moment of it.  Today, Tom is painting the hallway, so I'm taking the opportunity to have a bit of a mini-readathon.  This week, I've been reading:

 
 

Reviews posted:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (4 out of 5 stars)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent


Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, for her role in the murder of two men in March 1828.  In Burial Rites, Hannah Kent tells the story of Agnes from her conviction to her death.  As Iceland had no prisons at the time, Agnes is sent to live and work with a rural family in the North of Iceland, to await her sentence.  A very much unwanted guest, particularly in the eyes of youngest daughter Lauga, Agnes examines her past and tries to come to terms with what has happened to her.  The priest she chooses to absolve her, Assistant Reverand Thorvardur Jonsson (Toti), is keen to be on her side, but Agnes is reluctant to share her story with anyone.  As the time of her execution draws closer, will anyone apart from Agnes learn the truth?

Burial Rites is a book that has generated a lot of buzz, something that is sure to increase now that it has secured a place on the short-list for the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction.  I was keen to read it from the moment I heard about it, but also a bit hesitant as I'm not a big crime reader and I wondered whether it would have enough cross-over appeal to work for me.  Thankfully, Burial Rites lives up to the hype and I certainly enjoyed the reading experience.  Kent's novel is an engaging story of a woman who was largely the result of her circumstances.  Agnes is a fascinating and complex character, who reveals only part of herself to the other characters, and who tells her story in snippets as the chapters progress.  I found myself drawn in by Agnes, and keen to find out what really happened the night of the two murders.

However, the biggest draw of the book for me was the way Kent wrote about Iceland.  The rural North of Iceland is a main character in the novel, and Kent completely immerses the reader in the Icelandic culture of the time, from the role of the sagas in everyday life, to the badstofas the families would huddle in during the colder months.  Life in the North was hard and unforgiving in those times, and the bleakness of the environment adds a lot of atmosphere to the novel - the harshness of the setting mirroring the harshness of Agnes' life.  I loved reading these parts, and was impressed at how Kent, an Australian woman, was able to transport me completely to Iceland.

Having read Burial Rites, I can see why it was short-listed for the Baileys Prize.  It's not a perfect novel, and I found the pace in the middle a little slow, but there's something engaging and haunting about it that will stay with you after you have turned the last page.  I'm still rooting for Americanah to take the prize, but this would be a worthy winner.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2013
Edition Read: Picador, 2014
Score: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Painted Veil by W.Somerset Maugham


At 25 years old, threatened by the news that her younger sister is engaged, Kitty marries the first man she can convince to propose, bacteriologist Walter Fane.  Beautiful, shallow, selfish and not in love with her husband, it doesn't take Kitty long to start having an affair with the Assistant Colonial Secretary in Hong Kong, Charles Townsend.  In fact, she convinces herself that she is in love with Charles and will somehow be allowed to ride off into the sunset with him.  But it's not meant to be; Walter discovers her affair and Charles makes it quite clear that she was just a bit of fun.  When Walter insists that she accompany him on a trip to a cholera stricken region of China as an act of revenge, the terrible circumstances around her force Kitty to examine and challenge herself for the first time in her life.

Oh man, I loved this book.  I picked it up mainly for the interesting premise - a woman having to journey into a cholera epidemic because she had an affair, and I was thrilled to find out that this was backed up by wonderful writing and characterisation.  The Painted Veil is a quiet, in-depth examination of human nature that doesn't shy away from the shallower or less attractive parts of what it means to be human, and I loved it for that.  All of the characters are extremely real and mostly unlikeable, especially Kitty in the beginning of the novel, who is completely self-absorbed and child-like, unwilling to think about others at all.  She knows her husband is desperately in love with her, but still thinks he should show more concern for her feelings when he finds out about her affair!  Charles is almost as selfish as Kitty and even Walter is unappealing.  I know some readers have problems with unlikeable characters, but I always admire an author for writing them, because life is fully of people like Kitty, and I like that Maugham didn't feel the need to varnish her in any way.

The main theme of the novel is Kitty's growth.  As she spends time in the town stricken by cholera, eventually volunteering at a convent, she comes to question herself and her behaviour.  She comes to see the bigger picture, to see that her life is small compared to the world, and that life only has the meaning that we ascribe to it.  Kitty's journey is long and tough, and at no point does Maugham take the easy way out. There's no tearful acts of repentance or forgiveness here, only Kitty trying hard with the reality she finds herself in.  Even at the end of the novel, nothing is straight-forward for her, and there is still a long way to go and some things that can never be fixed.  Life in The Painted Veil is much like real life, complex and full of shades of grey.  I loved that and think that Maugham had a very perceptive eye when it comes to human nature and relationships.

There's absolutely nothing I didn't like about The Painted Veil.  It's in some ways a quiet little book but it's a powerful one too, one that made me think about my own life and choices.  I'll definitely be reading more by Maugham in the future - any recommendations?


Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1925
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 24/72
My Classics Club list can be found here.