Elizabeth Taylor: Angel (1957)

Angel

Angel was my fifth Elizabeth Taylor novel and it was nothing like the ones I’ve read before. It’s almost entirely a character portrait, covering one person’s life from her teenage years to her death. I can’t remember many other of her novels spanning so many years, with the exception of A Game of Hide and Seek, but even that stops before middle age, as far as I remember.

The novel starts with an éclat. Fifteen-year-old Angel is caught lying. She’s been telling two small girls of her glamorous life at Paradise House. In reality, she and her mother live in a crammed apartment above her mother’s shop and Paradise House is the place where her aunt, a lady’s maid, works. When her mother finds out about her lies, she’s so angry that she slaps her. Not something Angel’s likely to forgive. Since she was a child, Angel fantasizes about the house and thinks that she should be living there and not the other Angel, the daughter of her aunt’s mistress.

This early scene tells us a lot about Angel. Not only is she unhappy about her circumstances but she imagines a better life for herself, feeling that she’s entitled to it. Since she’s got such a rampant imagination, she thinks the best revenge is to do something with it and she begins to write a novel. Her mother and her aunt are horrified. Writing? What and idea! But Angel doesn’t care. No matter the cost, she will become a famous author. This is another of her traits – she is determined and when she’s determined she doesn’t stop until she gets what she wants. All this wouldn’t be so bad but Angel is also deluded. She thinks that she’s a great writer although what she produces is pure schlock. She loves to imagine things but she never does any research. She’s also quite ignorant. People in her books open champagne bottles with a corkscrew. Her books are not only risqué but full of inconsistencies, melodrama and bad taste. At first her novel is rejected but then she finds a publishing house that is willing to give it a go. The two publishers are so amused by her writing that they can’t let it pass, thinking that the public might enjoy it for its raunchy scenes and wild spinning of tales. And they are right. Angel’s novels are a major success, making her not only famous but very rich.

Unfortunately, and this is the true tragedy, she doesn’t know that her books are loved in spite of being bad and not because they are, as she believes, masterpieces.

It wouldn’t be an Elizabeth Taylor novel if it wasn’t astute, witty, and wonderfully well-observed. Not only Angel’s mother, but also her aunt, the publishers, the servants, her friend Nora, and Nora’s brother Esmé, are all fully rounded characters.

Obviously, delusions like Angel’s cannot last a life time. While the book is funny and often hilarious in the beginning, the tone and mood get darker and very melancholic in the end.

I thought that Angel was grotesque in many ways but she had endearing qualities. She discovers vegetarianism and a deep love for animals. The big house in which she lives swarms with cats and there are many wonderful scenes. Elizabeth Taylor must have had cats because so many details are so well captured.

Angel’s a lonely figure but she has some relationships. With her live-in friend Nora, her gardener, and others. While they are all exasperated, they stay with her. Not only because of her money, although that’s part of it, but because she’s so genuine. She may be deluded, she may be flawed, but she’s true to herself. Always and at any cost.

I was wondering the whole time while reading this book where the inspiration for this novel came from. Hilary Mantel, who wrote the introduction, thinks that in writing this book Elizabeth Taylor showed how bad writers can make money while good ones, like Taylor herself, are never fully recognized during their life time. But that’s not all, according to Mantel, it’s also a very astute depiction of the life of a writer. I’m not entirely satisfied with these explanations. I think she must have met someone like Angel. When I started reading the book, I found Angel unrealistic, but then I remembered a woman I once worked with who was almost exactly like Angel.

Angel is very different from the other Elizabeth Taylor novels I’ve read so far but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as good. It’s an amazing book. It’s funny, clever, and so well-observed. I read so many novels that I forget within a month or two, but I’m not likely to forget Angel and its fascinating eponymous character.

Here are my other Elizabeth Taylor reviews, should you be interested. They aren’t in any particular order.

At Mrs Lippincote’s

A Game of Hide and Seek

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

Blaming

Emma Cline: The Girls (2016)

The Girls

I knew a lot about The Girls and Emma Cline’s publishing deal before the book was even out. It has been sold at an auction for 2,000,000 $ – together with the next, not yet written – novel and a collection of short stories. That must put a lot of pressure on the author. Another sign of a major hype is that the German translation came out at the same time as the US original. Oddly, since it’s been published, I’ve not heard so much about it or read many reviews on blogs. The title might not be doing it any favours as it makes it sound like another “girl thriller”. While it’s about a crime, The Girls is a literary novel, not a crime novel per se.

I’m in two minds about this novel. The first forty pages were terrific. Emma Cline showed major talent. Her prose was stylish and original and the approach to her topic daring, but then came the long, frankly rather boring middle section that made me almost abandon the book. I’m glad I didn’t because the end was good.

The Girls is told as a split narrative. Most parts are set during the summer of ’69 and told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd; the other parts are told by the now middle-aged Evie, who’s looking back. In 1969 Evie’s a lonely girl who lives with a mother who’s just rediscovered dating and doesn’t have time nor patience. She’s going to send Evie to a boarding school. That would be misery enough but on top of that, Evie’s just fallen out with her best friend and is discovering her sexuality, which she can’t handle at all. Then, one afternoon, she sees the girls—a group of beautiful, dirty teenage girls who appear self-assured, arrogant, and wild. Evie’s fascinated, especially by Suzanne. Evie finds out later that the people in her town are wary of them. There are rumours of drug abuse, delinquency and orgies.

Evie sees them again and is invited to their farm and introduced to Russell, their leader. She’s quickly sucked into the life on the farm and becomes one of them. Being part of that group means following Russell’s every move, waiting to be summoned by him, stealing for him, doing drugs, having sex with much older men. Russell pretends to be enlightened but he’s narcissistic and deranged. What he really wants is to become a famous pop star.

Evie’s too miserable in her life to notice that something’s going very wrong on the farm. Not only are they taking too many drugs, but there’s hardly any food. The houses they live in are decaying. The whole place is dirty and insalubrious.

Early in the novel, we learn that a horrific murder was committed and we know that, for some reason, Evie wasn’t part of the group who committed it. What we only find out at the end is why she wasn’t there and what happened to her afterwards.

It’s not often that a book comes full circle at the end like this one. For a long time, I didn’t like the dual narrative, found it artificial, but it made sense in the end.

Emma Cline does a great job at showing us the world through the eyes of a lonely teenage girl. A girl that’s very much a product of her time. She manages to make us see how girls like Suzanne and Evie were easy prey for a man like Russell (or Manson). But she also shows us that Russell wasn’t the only reason for a girl to stay on the farm. In Evie’s case, it’s not Russell who has a hold on her, but the charismatic Suzanne.

At first I was a bit afraid that given the nature of the crime, the book would be too sensationalist. It is sensationalist, but not because of the crime but because of the way Cline writes about sex. The book is explicit and occasionally shocking. I guess that’s one of the reasons why it’s not been marketed as a YA novel.

I didn’t find this novel entirely convincig and certainly don’t understand the huge advance payment she received. While there are great parts in the book, there are many parts that are dragging and the story was far from original. It certainly wasn’t a must read.

If you’d like to get to know her writing – here’s her only other publication, her short story Marion. It was published by the Paris Review and received the Paris Review Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2014.

On Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Elizabeth and her German Garden”

Elizabeth and her German Garden

I thought this would be my first book by Elizabeth von Arnim but I’d totally forgotten the wonderful The Enchanted April, which I’ve read a long time ago and enjoyed a great deal.

Published in 1898, Elizabeth and her German Garden was von Arnim’s first novel and was a huge success when it came out. It’s inspired by her own life and the time she spent in her garden in Nassenheide, Germany.

The book is written in form of a diary.

This is how it begins

May 7th—I love my garden. I am writing in it now in the late afternoon loveliness, much interrupted by the mosquitoes and the temptation to look at all the glories of the new green leaves washed half an hour ago in a cold shower. Two owls are perched near me, and are carrying on a long conversation that I enjoy as much as any warbling of nightingales.

Elizabeth is married to an oldfashioned, stern man, she calls The Man of Wrath. She’s in her early 30s and has given birth to three girls she calls the April, May, and June baby. Unlike most other women of the German high society, Elizabeth hates living in Berlin where she suffocates indoors and has to put up with many obligations. She feels she can only be truly herself in her garden. She’s actually pretty clueless when it comes to gardening but that doesn’t diminish her enjoyment. She loves spending her money on seeds and plants and tries to be outdoors as much as possible. She reads, writes, and eats in her garden. Sometimes, to her annoyance, she has visitors. With the exception of one friend, Irais, she despises all of them.

The book is filled with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of her garden, the nature, and landscape of Pomerania. Elizabeth is an oddity in this society. A woman who prefers solitude and the outdoors.  She wishes, she were freer through, allowed to pick up a spade, do her own digging.

In spite of the many beautiful passages and witty comments on the people around her, I liked this far less than I thought I would. Elizabeth might rebel against her situation and the way women are treated, she’s aware of injustice when she’s its victim, but, unfortunately, when it comes to others she is far more condescending than kind. She hardly ever sympathisez with anyone, not with the workers on her husband’s farms, nor with the gardeners, the visitors, the horses she abuses to travel during icy periods, knowing very well it’s hard on them. Yes, she’s witty but she’s also quite cruel. She questions the treatment of women but isn’t bothered all that much how the workers are treated. She makes fun of them, even goes as far as calling them dumb. Maybe this is due to personal frustrations, still, I found her to be very unkind and, in the end, it tainted my reading experience. I was surprised to discover this side of the book as I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. I only ever saw it praised for the lovely descriptions and sentiments on solitude and nature. Keen to see whether there were other reviewers feeling similar, I discovered an article in the Financial Times called The hidden dark side of “Elizabeth and her German Garden”. The writer wrote about a BBC radio 4 programme that left out all those negative passages that I mentioned before. He too, was baffled.

I would understand this kind of whitewashing if the passages were minor but they aren’t. The last third, for example, is dedicated to the visit of Elizabeth’s friend Irais and a young English woman called Menora. Menora is enthusiastic and very naïve, which Irais and Elizabeth find hilarious. They constantly make fun of her, make sure, she commits silly errors, let her believe that Elizabeth is German, although she’s English. There’s even some cruelty. All this shows that both Elizabeth and Irais feel superior.

Before ending this post, I d’ like to mention one aspect that I found funny and often touching – the way she wrote about her babies. Those passages showed great love and concern and underlined her fears for the future of the girls, knowing so well, how little freedom women had in this society.

I’m still glad I read this because the beautiful passages on nature are truly remarkable. Who knows, perhaps my memory will do its own whitewashing and I’ll only remember the positive aspects of the novel in a few years. That said, I’ll read more of Elizabeth von Arnim. Maybe I’m not being just and read this too much like an autobiography but it seemed so close to her life.

Lisa Jewell: The Girls in the Garden aka The Girls (2015)

The Girls in the GardenThe Girls Lisa Jewell

It doesn’t happen often that I stay up late because I have to finish a book but in this case it did. I guess that shows how captivated I was by Lisa Jewell’s novel The Girls or The Girls in the Garden (the US title). I came across this book on Danielle’s blog (here is the link) and had to get it right away. I just knew I would love everything about it.

The Girls is set in London, during one summer, in a communal garden and the flats and houses surrounding it. It’s told by several different narrators. It begins in the house Claire shares with her two daughters. Claire and her younger daughter Pip have just returned from a party, Claire is drunk and throwing up. Pip is worried and goes to look for her older sister Grace who is still in the garden with a group of kids from the neighbourhood. When Pip finds her, Grace is half-naked and unconscious. From here the story rewinds and starts at the beginning when Claire and her daughters move into one of the houses bordering the huge garden. Claire and her two daughters, twelve-year-old Pip and thirteen year old Grace, have gone through something shocking. The girl’s father burned down their beautiful house during an episode of paranoid schizophrenia. He’s been in a psychiatric hospital since then and Claire has never visited, nor does she want her girls to see him. When they arrive in their new house, they are quickly drawn into the lives of their neighbours. Claire and the girls are invited for dinner and the girls become part of a group of local kids.

Among the neighbours are Adele and Leo and their three homeschooled daughters. Gordon, Leo’s obnoxious father, who stays with them for health reasons. The elderly Rhea, who lives with a giant rabbit and a cat. Cece and her daughter Tyler. And beautiful Dylan with his mother and older brother with special needs.

The garden is a secluded place, secured by gates and only accessible with keys and through the back gardens of the surrounding houses. All the people who have access to the garden see it as a safe haven. A place where nothing can happen. That Grace is found unconscious, bleeding, and half-naked in a place like this is particularly shocking. Not only because nobody would have expected something like this to happen, but also because it’s clear that it must have been someone with access to the garden. Possibly someone who was at the summer night’s party.

Every single one of the men in this book is suspicious. Everybody else seems to hide something or know something they won’t tell. And there was the mysterious death of another girl, many years ago.

Obviously I found this book very suspenseful or I wouldn’t have stayed up late to finish it. But there was more. While the central question is what happened to Grace, the central themes are trust and safety, marriage and family life, growing up and friendships, themes we can all relate to. Plot and subplots, look at these themes from different angles and the result is arresting. I’m also fond of these communal gardens that I only know from the UK. They have something enchanted.

If you’re looking for a page-turner with great characters, a wonderful setting, and relatable themes, you shouldn’t miss this.

I’ve seen that Lisa Jewell has written many books. Has anyone read them? Are they as gripping as this?

All Virago/All August

The Fountain OverflowsElizabeth and her German GardenLand of SpiceEdwardiansSummerhouse TrilogyThe Professor's House

I have many Virago titles on my piles and always meant to do at least a Virago reading week for myself. So, when I discovered  All Virago/All August, hosted by the Librarything Virago Readers Group on Heavenali’s blog, I decided I would join as well.

Half of the fun is making a list. Juliana (the blank garden) mentioned that she’ll read Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel and I decided to join her. So, that title is pretty certain but I have no clue what else I will be reading. Here are some of the titles on my piles.

Angel

Elizabeth Taylor – Angel

Writing stories that are extravagant and fanciful, fifteen-year old Angel retreats to a world of romance, escaping the drabness of provincial life. She knows she is different, that she is destined to become a feted authoress, owner of great riches and of Paradise House . . .

After reading The Lady Irania, publishers Brace and Gilchrist are certain the novel will be a success, in spite of – and perhaps because of – its overblown style. But they are curious as to who could have written such a book: ‘Some old lady, romanticising behind lace-curtains’ . . . ‘Angelica Deverell is too good a name to be true . . . she might be an old man. It would be an amusing variation. You are expecting to meet Mary Anne Evans and in Walks George Eliot twirling his moustache.’ So nothing can prepare them for the pale young woman who sits before them, with not a seed of irony or a grain of humour in her soul.

The Fountain Overflows

Rebecca West – The Fountain Overflows

Rose Aubrey is one of a family of four children. Their father, Piers, is the disgraced son of an Irish landowning family, a violent, noble and quite unscrupulous leader of popular causes. His Scottish wife, Clare, is an artist, a tower of strength, fanatically devoted to a musical future for her daughters.

This is the story of their life in south London, a life threatened by Piers’s streak of tragic folly which keeps them on the verge of financial ruin and social disgrace . . .

Elizabeth and her German Garden

Elizabeth von Arnim – Elizabeth and her German Garden

May 7th — There were days last winter when I danced for sheer joy out in my frost-bound garden in spite of my years and children. But I did it behind a bush, having a due regard for the decencies …’

Elizabeth’s uniquely witty pen records each season in her beloved garden, where she escapes from the stifling routine of indoors: servants, meals, domestic routine, and the presence of her overbearing husband …

Land of Spice

Kate O’Brien – Land of Spices

Mère Marie-Helene once turned her back on life, sealing up her heart in order to devote herself to God. Now the formidable Mother Superior of an Irish convent, she has, for some time, been experiencing grave doubts about her vocation. But when she meets Anna Murphy, the youngest-ever boarder, the little girl’s solemn, poetic nature captivates her and she feels ‘a storm break in her hollow heart’. Between them an unspoken allegiance is formed that will sustain each through the years as the Reverend Mother seeks to combat her growing spiritual aridity and as Anna develops the strength to resist the conventional demands of her background.

Edwardians

Vita Sackville-west – The Edwardians

Sebastian is young, handsome and romantic, the heir to a vast and beautiful English country estate. He is a fixed feature in the eternal round of lavish parties, intrigues and traditions at the cold, decadent heart of Edwardian high society. Everyone knows the role he must play, but Sebastian isn’t sure he wants the part. Position, privilege and wealth are his, if he can resist the lure of a brave new world.

Summerhouse Trilogy

Alice Thomas Ellis – The Summerhouse Trilogy

In “The Summer House” trilogy, three very different women, with three very distinct perspectives, narrate three very witty novels concerning one disastrous wedding in the offing.

“The Clothes in the Wardrobe” Nineteen-year-old Margaret feels more trepidation than joy at the prospect of her marriage to forty-year-old Syl.

“The Skeleton in the Cupboard” Syls’ mother, Mrs. Monro, doesn t know quite what to make of her son s life, but she knows Margaret should not marry him.

“The Fly in the Ointment” And then there s Lili, the free spirit who is determined that the wedding shall not happen, no matter the consequences.

The Professor's House

Willa Cather – The Professor’s House

On the eve of his move to a new, more desirable residence, Professor Godfrey St Peter finds himself in the shabby study of his former home. Surrounded by the comforting, familiar sights of his past, he surveys his life and the people he has loved: his wife Lillian, his daughters and, above all, Tom Outland, his most outstanding student and once, his son-in-law to be. Enigmatic and courageous – and a tragic victim of the Great War – Tom has remained a source of inspiration to the professor. But he has also left behind him a troubling legacy which has brought betrayal and fracture to the women he loves most . . .

Have you read any of these books? Which are the ones you liked the most? And will you join as well?

On Ferdinand von Schirach’s Terror (2015)

Terror

Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest book Terror contains the play Terror and von Schirach’s speech on the occasion of the M100-Sanssouci Media Award for Charlie Hebdo. On the back of the book, von Schirach states that he wrote the play before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and wrote the speech before the attacks in Paris on November 13 2015. I was grateful for this speech because there was a lot of opposition to this and other awards for Charlie Hebdo, which I found shocking. There seem to be people out there, some well-known writers like Teju Cole (and 144 others), who called the paper racist and tried to prevent it from receiving the PEN Freedom of Expression Courage Award last year. Von Schirach illustrates eloquently why this kind of thinking is unacceptable.

With everything that’s been happening in the last weeks and months in France and Germany, a play like Terror becomes even more important. I first learned about this play thanks to theater reviews in German and Swiss newspapers. The play is interesting in so far as it has been written in the form of a trial and the theater audience is the jury who decides at the end, whether the accused is guilty or not guilty. Depending on that decision, the end will be different. In the book, we get to read both versions. According to the newspaper articles, no audience has ever voted “guilty” so far. That’s interesting because, as the play shows, what the accused has done is against the law.

What is Terror about? A passenger plane with 164 people on board was hijacked and about to crash on a stadium, in which 70,000 people were watching a game. The accused, a fighter pilot, decided to shoot the passenger plane down, although he didn’t receive an order. He thought that killing 164 people was the lesser evil. When the reader/spectator first hears this, he’s quickly coming to the conclusion that it is justified, but after the interrogation of the witnesses and experts and the pleas, one is suddenly not so sure that the pilot’s decision was justified.

It’s intriguing to see why the law finds it unacceptable and why, nonetheless, from a purely moral point of view, the audience thinks it’s OK to shoot down a passenger plane. Just to give you one example. The pilot’s defense argues that the shooting down of the plane didn’t matter, as the 164 passengers would have died anyway. The trial reveals that there might have been a possibility that the passengers could have accessed the cockpit and overpowered the terrorist. But, even if this wasn’t the case, it’s still unacceptable form the point of view of the law because you’d actually say, that people whose lives are doomed can be killed. What about someone with terminal cancer? Would it be OK to kill that person knowing he’d die soon anyway? Of course not. Once you ask yourself this kind of question, you see how tricky it is. The number of possible casualties is, according to the law, also not a good reason to determine whether or not, people could be killed in order to save other people as  you can’t quantify life. Where would you draw the line? If killing 164 and saving 70,000 is ok, then what about 100 versus 120?

The play isn’t flawless and, according to the reviews, the performances were wooden because the play is dry. I loved reading it because I found it thought-provoking. It looks at the case from many different angles and made me see some things in a new light. Once I finished reading, I wasn’t as sure as when I started, whether I would have decided the pilot’s not guilty. I guess, in the end, I would have decided in his favour because a verdict of “murder in 164 cases” seemed excessive, given that he saved 70,000 lives.

The book hasn’t been translated yet but I could imagine it will be. It’s made into a film for German TV that will be aired on October 10 2016. The viewers will be able to play jury and give their verdicts via Facebook, phone, and Twitter. I hope I can watch it.

For those of my readers who read German, here’s another take on the book + discussion on Sätze&Schätze

Colm Tóibín: Brooklyn (2009)

Brooklyn

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

It’s the 1950s and Ellis Lacey is living in Ireland with her mother and older sister. She wants to be an accountant but is only a shop assistant. Thanks to her sister, she can emigrate to America where she’s hired in a shop, goes to an accounting school and betters herself. Here, she meets a young Italian man and begins a relationship with him. After tragedy strikes, she has to decide whether she will stay in America or go back to Ireland. The novel has four parts. The first is set in Ireland and on the ship crossing over to America, the second and third are set in Brooklyn, the last in Ireland.

Ellis is a passive character but interesting as she’s introspective and a keen observer of what happens around her and inside of herself. I loved reading about the way she processed things that had happened to her during the day. In the beginning this passivity isn’t exactly attractive but it’s not as infuriating as it is in the last part. Ellis never speaks up, never fights for herself and in the end, she pays a high price for this behaviour. One aspect that stood out for me was the way Tóibín wrote about the experience of being an immigrant. I’ve lived abroad a few times, in some cases in places where I knew hardly anyone. Many of the feelings described, brought those experiences back.

Here’s a quote showing Ellis in the shop she’s working in Brooklyn.

The morning was full of frenzy; she did not for one moment have peace to look around her. Everyone’s voice was loud, and there were times when she thought in a flash of an early evening in October walking with her mother down by the prom in Enniscorthy, the Slaney River, glassy and full, and the smell of leaves burning from somewhere close by, and the daylight going slowly and gently. This scene kept coming to her as she filled the bag with notes and coins and women of all types approached her asking where certain items of clothing could be found or if they could return what they had bought in exchange for other merchandise, or simply wishing to purchase what they had in their hands.

Ellis may be the main character but there are numerous other characters, some who only appear briefly. They are all complex and rich in facets. One could also say that the two main settings, the eponymous Brooklyn and Ireland are treated like characters. They are described in detail, juxtaposed, compared, contrasted. Two very distinct worlds come alive between these pages.

I highly recommend Brooklyn. It’s beautiful and I can’t wait to read more of Tóibín. Just be warned – Ellis can, at times, be an infuriating character.

If you’d like to read a more in-depth review here’s Max’s take on the novel.