Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox

A couple of years ago I read Desperate Characters – a 1970 novel by the American writer Paula Fox – in which a cat bite sparks a crisis in the lives of a privileged middle-class couple, setting in motion a series of events which threatens to undermine their seemingly harmonious existence. There is a crisis of sorts too in The Widow’s Children, Fox’s later novel of family dysfunction, first published in 1976. This is an acutely observed story of longstanding slights and prejudices, of things left unsaid or buried beneath the social niceties of family gatherings, of trying to live up to the burden of expectations – both those we demand of ourselves and those imposed on us by others. It is an excellent book, one that deserves to be much better-known.

Fox’s novel could be likened to a play, a deliberately claustrophobic chamber piece that plays out in an extended sequence of scenes, each one denoted by a new chapter. The cast is small and finely sketched, allowing us to observe each character in some detail.

Central to the story is Laura Clapper (née Maldonada), a fifty-five-year old prima donna, now married to her second husband, a rather foolish, hard-drinking man by the name of Desmond. Laura is impulsive, outspoken and manipulative, a woman with virtually no self-awareness and very little understanding of her impact on those around her. As Peter Rice, her longstanding editor friend observes at one point, ‘she actually can’t judge her own behaviour […]; she explodes, then wonders at the flying glass’. For Desmond, life with Laura is exhausting, for it is he who has to pick up the pieces when she blows up.

Completing the core cast are Laura’s brother, Carlos, a faded music critic, openly gay and playing the field; Clara, her timid, self-effacing daughter from her first marriage; and Eugenio, Laura’s other brother, a rather distracted individual who appears in one of the later scenes. Also central to the story, although we never meet her in person, is Alma Maldonada, mother of Laura, Carlos and Eugenio, an elderly widow who resides in a nursing home.

As the novel opens, Clara, Carlos and Peter Rice are preparing to join Laura and Desmond for drinks in their hotel room to say goodbye to the couple before they embark on an extended holiday to Africa. Before the guests arrive, we learn that earlier in the afternoon Laura received a phone call from the care home informing her that Alma had just died; but instead of telling Desmond the news, she keeps the information firmly to herself, showing no signs of sorrow or distress in the process. If anything, the opposite could be said to be true – Laura seems to relish in the knowledge of this secret fact, something that she alone is privy to, possibly to reveal at a vital moment during the evening ahead.

Her mind had been empty of thought; she had known only that something implacable had taken hold of her. And she had felt a half-crazed pleasure and an impulse to shout that she knew and possessed this thing that no one else knew, this consequential fact, hard and real among the soft accumulations of meaningless events of which their planned trip to Africa was one other, to be experienced only through its arrangements, itinerary, packing, acquisition of medicines for intestinal upsets, books to read, clock, soap, passports, the husk of action surrounding the motionless center of their existence together. (p. 18)

And so this bizarre evening begins during which the members of the Maldonada clan dance around one another in a strained sequence of manoeuvres during which various tensions become apparent and old grievances are revealed. (As of yet, there has been no mention of Alma’s death.) As Clara puts it here, the interactions between individuals are characterised by a marked gulf between outward behaviours and inner feelings, all in the name of keeping the charade of ‘family’ going. But to what end one might ask, especially with someone like Laura orchestrating the show.

In no other company more than among these Spaniards was Clara so conscious of a discrepancy between surface talk and inner preoccupation. They sped from one posture to another, eliciting with amused cries each other’s biases, pretending to discover anew the odd notions each harbored, amusing themselves nearly to death! Until Laura, with a hard question, thrust a real sword through the paper props, and there would be for a second, a minute, the startled mortified silence of people caught out in a duplicity for which they could find no explanation. Then, with what indulgence, what tenderness, Laura rescued them, sometimes. (p. 41)

As the evening plays out, we learn more about the backstory of each character, their individual flaws and imperfections, their missed chances and lost opportunities. We discover that Clara was abandoned by Laura as a young baby, only to be brought up by the impoverished Alma in her makeshift home in Brooklyn, a fact that has coloured Clara’s relationship with her formidable mother ever since. I love this passage describing Clara’s arrival at the drinks gathering, a moment that conveys so much about her perceived inferiority to Laura, and in so few words.

“Hello,” said Laura, bringing up the greeting from the deepest reach of her voice, a plangent, thrilling annunciation to which, Clara knew, no response would measure up, felt with a sinking heart that her own “hello” would weigh less than dust on such a scale of tonal drama, and so only held out her hand. Her mother gripped her fingers strongly for an instant, then withdrew her hand to a cigarette. (p. 19)

Clara also experiences a sense of unease about the state of her relationship with Alma, reluctant as she is to visit her at the care home even though she feels obliged to do so. Perhaps as a consequence of the nature of her fractured family, Clara seeks affection elsewhere. There is a man in her life; but as he married with children, the chances of her achieving a fulfilling relationship with him seem cruelly out of reach.

Carlos too feels the sting of his sister’s gaze; his rather sad and empty life is revealed in this insightful reflection, one of many in the book.

…Carlos would fold his hands behind his head and lie there, tears running down his cheeks, thinking of his used-up life, of lovers dead or gone, of investments made unwisely, of his violent sister who might telephone him at any minute and, with her elaborate killer’s manners, in her beautiful deep voice, make some outrageous demand upon him, making clear she knew not only the open secrets of his life but the hidden ones, knew about his real shiftlessness, his increasing boredom with sexual pursuit, his unappeased sexual longing, his terror of age. (p. 39)

Perhaps most notably, we also hear more about Alma’s story, how she emigrated from Spain to Cuba at the age of sixteen to marry a much older man she had never met before; how she neglected the Maldonada children when they were young; and how, following the death of her husband, she fled from Cuba to the USA where the family struggled to rebuild their lives. As a consequence, there is a noticeable sense of displacement running through this novel, an undercurrent of shifting circumstances and identities, which adds to the fault lines that have emerged over time.

I’m not going to reveal if and how the news of Alma’s death comes out; that would spoil the story, I think. Nevertheless, when the party move to a nearby restaurant for dinner, it becomes clear that Laura may have been more affected by the day’s events than had appeared at first sight. Interestingly, in the second half of the novel, the focus shifts away from Laura towards the male characters in the story, particularly Peter Rice – the ‘half-scant life’ he has settled for is touchingly revealed.

All in all, The Widow’s Children is a very accomplished novel – razor sharp and precise in style, brittle and unflinching in its sensibilities. The writing is superb, packed full of insightful observations on the inner truths of our lives and the fronts we put up to conform to expected social conventions. There are frequent references to predatory birds and animals throughout the book – the core symbolism is an obvious one.

I’ll finish with a final quote that caught my eye, this one from the ‘Restaurant’ chapter of the book.

Clara grew aware, with an easing of her spirit, that there were other people not much more than an arm’s length away, small islands of people at their tables, among whom waiters eddied and shifted, bent and straightened up. Some of the diners looked domestic, some festive, and some were silent. How, she wondered, did this table appear to all those others? In the subdued ambiguity of the restaurant lighting, the sustained clamor of conversation and eating, would anyone glancing casually at the Clapper table have observed the ravages of the battles that had raged among them. And was the apparent placidity and self-satisfaction of all those other people only a contrived show? (p. 123)

The Widow’s Children is published by Flamingo; personal copy.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

In this utterly charming, quintessentially English novel, we follow the highs and lows of six months in the life of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the most delightful narrators you are ever likely to encounter in literature. As an aspiring writer, Cassandra shares her story by way of a series of highly detailed journal entries through which she hopes to figure out and capture her feelings – the strange mix of emotions she finds herself experiencing during this pivotal time in her life. In essence, the novel is a coming-of-age story, complete with plenty of agonising over various romantic entanglements along the way. For some reason, I thought I might struggle to engage with this book and its ‘consciously naïve’ narrator, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This turned out be a great read for me – unashamedly cosy and indulgent with some moments of poignancy along the way to counterbalance the sweetness.

The novel is set in the midst of the Suffolk countryside in the mid-1930s. Cassandra lives with her rather eccentric family in a dilapidated castle which they have leased from their nearby neighbour, the elderly Mr Cotton. The household is notionally headed up by Cassandra’s rather frustrating father, Mortmain, a once-promising writer who hasn’t produced any new work in the past ten years, a point that only serves to exacerbate the family’s woeful financial situation. These days, the reclusive Mortmain spends most of his time camped out in the castle’s gatehouse reading detective novels and trying to solve crossword puzzles. Then there is Cassandra’s ethereal stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model with a penchant for nudity and communing with nature. (Cassandra adores Topaz in spite of all her idiosyncrasies.) Finally, completing the family unit, we have Cassandra’s pretty older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and their odd-job boy, Stephen, son of the Mortmains’ former maid, back in the days when they could afford one. Stephen is covertly in love with Cassandra – a fact that she is fully conscious of but doesn’t quite know how to handle without hurting his feelings.

In spite of their residing in such formerly grand surroundings, the Mortmains have virtually no money to speak of. For years they have been living off the ever-dwindling royalties from Mortmain’s only book, the proceeds from Topaz’s modelling days (no longer in evidence), and little bits of money they have managed to borrow here and there. The rent on the castle has not be paid for quite some time. Moreover, all the family’s good furniture has been sold and replaced by the bare essentials, mostly cheap items acquired from local thrift shops.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon. (p. 16)

There is little heating or food to speak of at the castle – on a good day, there might be an egg or two to accompany the usual tea of bread and margarine. As a consequence, the girls, Rose in particular, long for some kind of escape. There is a very amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Rose threatens, albeit somewhat petulantly, to go ‘on the streets’ to earn some money, only to be reminded by Cassandra that it would be impossible for anyone to do so in the depths of Suffolk; it’s simply not that sort of place! In reality, Rose believes her best chance of a brighter future would come from marrying a wealthy man, someone who could sweep her off her feet and take her away from the crumbling castle forever. The trouble is, the chances of meeting any eligible young men, irrespective of their looks and relative standing, are practically non-existent, especially given the castle’s isolated location and the Mortmains’ limited resources. Nevertheless, Rose is determined to find someone, even if it means marrying a man she does not love, just to pull herself out of a life of poverty.

Then, just when the Mortmains appear to be at their lowest ebb, into their lives sweep two dashing young Americans: Simon Cotton, the wealthy new owner of nearby Scoatney Hall, and his younger brother, Neil. (In effect, Simon is the Mortmains’ new landlord, old Mr Cotton having just passed away.) Naturally, all this happens in typical fairy-tale fashion as the Cottons arrive at the castle just in time to see the Mortmain family at their most eccentric: Topaz has already been spotted on the nearby mound communing with nature; young Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen surrounded by a makeshift screen of clothes horses; and to top it all off, Rose appears at the top of the stairs dressed in a freshly-dyed tea dress, just as her recently returned stepmother starts playing the lute. It all makes for the most bizarre scene, but luckily the Cottons find the whole thing rather fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose immediately sets her cap at Simon, seeing him as a potential future husband – this in spite of his beard which both girls find rather off-putting.

It is a pity that Simon is the heir, because Rose thinks the beard is disgusting; but perhaps we can get it off. Am I really admitting that my sister is determined to marry a man she has only seen once and doesn’t much like the look of? Is it half real and half pretence – and I have an idea that it is a game most girls play when they meet any eligible young men. They just…wonder. And if any family ever had need of wondering, it is ours. But only as regards Rose. I have asked myself if I am doing any personal wondering and in my deepest heart I am not. I would rather die than marry either of those quite nice men. (p. 66)

At first, the brothers consider Rose somewhat too forward and obvious, viewing her manner as more affected than alluring. Nevertheless, both Cassandra and Topaz are determined to aid Rose in her quest to get close to Simon. After one or two false starts, an invitation to dine at Scoatney is finally extended, an opportunity which Rose is determined to seize. In this scene, Cassandra is discussing Rose’s chances with Topaz.

I closed the kitchen door and said: ‘What did you think of her manner today?’

‘At least it was quieter, though she was still making eyes. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

I looked at her in astonishment and she went on:

‘Simon Cotton’s attracted – really attracted – couldn’t you see? Once that happens, a girl can be as silly as she likes – the man’ll probably think the silliness is fetching.’

‘Is Neil attracted, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Topaz. ‘I’ve an idea that Neil sees through her – I saw him give her a very shrewd look. Oh, how are we going to dress her, Cassandra? There’s a chance for her with Simon, really there is – I know the signs.’ (p. 122)

All too quickly Simon finds himself falling in love with Rose, and when he proposes marriage she naturally accepts. Cassandra, Topaz and Mortmain are all delighted at the news; Neil, however, is furious, a fact he reveals only to Cassandra, urging her to keep his outburst private. It would appear that Neil sees Rose as a gold-digger, someone who seems intent on marrying his brother for the money alone, irrespective of any genuine feelings of love.

As preparations for Rose’s wedding get underway – she is promptly whisked off to London by Simon’s erudite mother who insists on buying her a glamorous wardrobe and trousseau – Cassandra continues to chart the various developments in her journal. She is decidedly more grounded, more perceptive than her rather materialistic and foolish sister, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses.

Alongside Rose’s romance with Simon, Cassandra’s own feelings have also been thrown up in the air – not only by Stephen, who declares his love for her, but by Neil and Simon too. As far as Cassandra sees things, Neil is the more approachable of the Cotton brothers, more easy-going and open; and yet there is also something very attractive about Simon, especially once he dispenses with his beard. Much to her initial surprise, Cassandra also finds herself falling in love. Once again, the journal entries help Cassandra to make sense of her feelings. In effect, they provide an outlet for the experience of first love, marked as it so often is by that blend of exquisite pleasure and undeniable pain.

After that I talked easily enough, making him laugh quite a bit – I could see he was liking me again. But it wasn’t my present self talking at all; I was giving an imitation of myself as I used to be. I was very ‘consciously naïve’. Never, never was I that with him before; however I may have sounded, I always felt perfectly natural. But I knew, as I sat there amusing him while the band played ‘Lover’, that many things which had felt natural to me before I first heard it would never feel natural again. It wasn’t only the black dress that had made me grow up. (p. 323)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the way in which the story finally plays out, save to say that there are one or two twists along the way (especially toward the end). Dodie Smith wrote the book while she was living in America, homesick as she was for her native England. As a consequence, the story is shot through with a touching sense of nostalgia, a reverence for the eccentricities of the nation she loved.

This is a captivating, slightly bittersweet novel, one that appears frothy on the surface but is actually deeper and more insightful than its initial levity suggests – I have barely scratched the surface of it here.

I Capture the Castle is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

Deep Water is another top-notch novel from Patricia Highsmith, up there with the best of the Ripleys for me. The book was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen have been married for around eight years. They live with their six-year-old daughter, Trixie, in the suburban community of Little Wesley where Vic owns a small publishing business dedicated to the production of high-quality, specialist books. The Van Allens’ marriage has been toxic for some years; there is no real love left in the relationship, only jealousy, sniping and needling as the couple rub up against one another whenever they are at home together. (Vic no longer shares a bedroom with Melinda, choosing instead to spend his nights in a separate room on the other side of the house.)

Right from the start, Highsmith lays the blame for this situation firmly at Melinda’s feet. For the past three or four years, Melinda has been seeing a steady sequence of men, flaunting her conquests in Vic’s face by inviting them home in the evenings for copious drinks and some intimate dancing. (Vic rarely dances himself; in fact, he actively abstains from dancing simply because Melinda enjoys it so much.) These soirees often extend late into the night, prompting Vic to stay up as long as possible to keep an eye on Melinda, spoiling the cosy atmosphere she is aiming to create.

To make matters worse, Melinda usually manages to wangle an invitation for her latest man whenever the Van Allens are invited to the home of one of their neighbours – a fact that Vic finds particularly infuriating, although he is scrupulous in concealing his true feelings from their mutual friends. In this scene, Joel Nash, Melinda’s current beau, is accompanying Melinda and Vic to a get-together at the Mellers’ house – Horace and Mary Meller are the Van Allens’ closest pals.

Horace had tactfully refrained from mentioning Mr Joel Nash. Hadn’t said Joel was nice, or welcome, or asked anything about him or bothered with any of the banalities. Melinda had manoeuvred Joel’s invitation to the party. Vic had heard her on the telephone with Mary Meller the day before yesterday; ‘…Well, not exactly a guest of ours, but we feel responsible for him because he doesn’t know many people in town…Oh, thanks, Mary! I didn’t think you’d mind having an extra man, and such a handsome one, too…’ As if anyone could pry Melinda away from him with a crowbar. (pp. 4-5)

Every few months or so, Melinda seems to have a new love interest in her life, each one as foolish and ineffectual as the last. Actually, it is their idiotic nature that Vic really takes issue with – well, this and the fact that Melinda makes no secret of her fascination with these men by parading them all over town.

It was not that he objected to Melinda’s having affairs with other men per se, Vic told himself whenever he looked at Ralph Gosden, it was that she picked such idiotic, spineless characters and that she let it leak out all over the town by inviting her lovers to parties at their friends’ houses and by being seen with them at the bar of the Lord Chesterfield, which was really the only bar in town. (p. 17)

Vic himself is a quiet, respectable chap, highly regarded in the town of Little Wesley and well-liked by virtually everyone who knows him. He has time for people, taking care to stop and listen to their preoccupations and concerns – in short, he seems a generous, kind-heartened man, willing to support others wherever possible. His interests are somewhat insular and nerdy, activities such as breeding snails, studying bedbugs, gardening and stargazing; but then again, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this, they’re just innocent hobbies, things he can do without any interference from Melinda. Vic’s real pride and joy is his daughter, Trixie. In fact, he probably spends more time with her than Melinda, playing with the young girl and giving her extra tuition for school – she’s a very bright kid, remarkably well adjusted considering the state of relations between her parents. Melinda, for her part, pays little attention to Trixie, choosing instead to spend her afternoons and evenings in the company of her boyfriends, drinking and dancing and generally making a fool of herself.

As a consequence of all this, the Van Allens’ friends – especially their closest allies, the Mellers and the Cowans – feel very sympathetic towards Vic, but less so towards Melinda. They can see all too clearly what Vic has to endure when he is out with Melinda; in fact, it’s a wonder that Vic puts up with it at all, especially considering how long the whole business has been going on.

The fact that Melinda had been carrying on like this for more than three years gave Vic the reputation in Little Wesley of having a saintlike patience and forbearance, which in turn flattered Vic’s ego. Vic knew that Horace and Phil Cowan and everybody else who knew the situation – which was nearly everybody – considered him odd for enduring it, but Vic didn’t mind at all being considered odd. In fact, he was proud of it in a country in which most people aimed at being exactly like everybody else. (p. 18)

Quite near the beginning of the novel, Vic decides that he’s had enough of the likes of Joel Nash and Ralph Gosden for a while, so he decides to invent a story to scare them off. Vic tells both men, albeit on separate occasions, that he killed one of Melinda’s former lovers, an advertising exec named Malcolm McRae. (A few months earlier, McRae was found dead in his Manhattan apartment, murdered by an unknown assailant; the perpetrator is yet to be identified.) Both Joel and Ralph are visibly unnerved by Vic’s disclosures, and so they back away from Melinda – but Little Wesley is a small place, and word of Vic’s alleged involvement in the McRae case soon starts to spread. Those who know Vic well don’t believe a word of it. They can see exactly what Vic is doing, trying to frighten his wife’s lovers by hinting that he is not the mild-mannered doormat he appears to be. Nevertheless, there are other residents of Little Wesley who are less familiar with Vic, people like Don Wilson for example – recently arrived in town and a little outside of the Van Allens’ circle of friends – who are more suspicious of him, more willing to believe that he might have killed McRae in cold blood.

He thought that a few people there tonight really believed that he had killed Malcolm McRae – the people who knew him least. That was what Mary had tried to tell him. If Mary hadn’t known him so well, or thought she knew him so well, she might be one of the people who suspected him, he thought. She had as much as said it that night of the party. ‘You’re like somebody waiting very patiently and one day – you’ll do something.’ He remembered the exact words, and how he had smiled at their mildness. Yes, all these years he had played a game of seeming calm and indifferent to whatever Melinda did. He had deliberately hidden everything he felt – and in those months of her first affair he had felt something, even if was only shock, but he had succeeded in concealing it. That was what baffled people, he knew. He had seen it in their faces, even in Horace’s. He didn’t react with the normal jealousy, and something was going to give. (p. 52)

At first, Vic’s actions have the desired effect on Joel and Ralph, and life with Melinda settles down for a bit. The Van Allens even have a fairly pleasant night out together, something that hasn’t happened for years. But then the police catch McRae’s real killer, blowing Vic’s claims out of the water; and before Vic knows it, there’s a new man in Melinda’s life – Charley De Lisle, the piano player at the Chesterfield bar. Vic cannot stand the thought of Melinda dragging De Lisle to various social gatherings in front of their friends; and when the Cowans decide to throw a fancy-dress party at their home, with Charley providing the music for the event, things come to a dramatic head.

Deep Water is a truly brilliant thriller – expertly structured and paced, it remains suspenseful right to the very end. There is a sense that something dreadful might happen at any moment, just when the reader is least expecting it.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the way Highsmith draws on the reader’s natural emotions, prompting them to feel a great deal sympathy for an affable, downtrodden man who ultimately goes on to commit a terrible crime. The characterisation is uniformly excellent, from Vic and Melinda, right down to the minor players in the story. For years, Vic has been taking it on the chin from Melinda, calmly turning a blind eye to all her embarrassing antics. To their friends, Vic is a saint, is the model of patience, respectability and integrity; and yet inside he is privately seething, the tensions simmering away. For years he has been playing a game, appearing relaxed and indifferent on the outside, but bristling away on the inside. By contrast, we feel very little compassion for Melinda, largely on account of her outrageous behaviour towards Vic and her abject neglect of Trixie; there are times when she appears unhinged and deranged, especially to some of her closest friends.

I’m going to leave it there for fear of revealing anything more about the plot. All I can do is encourage you to read this terrific novel for yourselves – I doubt you’ll regret it.

Deep Water is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Les Belles Amours by Louise de Vilmorin (tr. Francis Wyndham)

A couple of summers ago I read Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de ___ (1951), an exquisite novella that follows the fate of a pair of earrings as they pass from one person to another. (You may be familiar with the story via the Max Ophüls film, The Earrings of Madame de…, widely considered to be a masterpiece of French cinema.) In my eagerness to try another by de Vilmorin, I tracked down a copy of Les Belles Amours (1954), a novel that explores the complexities of romantic liaisons, a subject close to the author’s own heart. As outlined by John Julius Norwich in his afterword to Madame de ___, de Vilmorin’s love life was characterised by a series of intricate romantic entanglements. These included an engagement to the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an affair with Orson Welles (to whom Les Belles Amours was dedicated), and an extended liaison with Duff Cooper, the British Ambassador to France at the time. As Francis Wyndham once commented, ‘You couldn’t say she [de Vilmorin] was beautiful, but there was an aura about her. In some mysterious way, she was tremendously attractive’.

So, back to the novel itself, Les Belles Amours is in a similar style to Madame de ___. In short, it is another beautifully constructed story, by turns elegant, artful, astute and poignant. I hope to find a place for it in my 2017 highlights.

The narrative revolves around the respective fortunes of three central characters: the handsome roué, Monsieur Zaraguirre; the young libertine Louis Duville; and the alluring woman who manages to capture both of their hearts. (Interestingly, we never learn the young woman’s name as her identity throughout the novel is characterised by her attachment to each of the two men in turn.)

At nearly sixty, the distinguished Monsieur Zaraguirre remains irresistible to women – the fact that he now resides in South America only adds to his attraction. Wherever he goes, this successful businessman makes a lasting impression; women fall at his feet, longing to capture his attention and maybe his heart too. While M Zaraguirre clearly enjoys the company of women, he remains somewhat detached from his lovers, avoiding emotional involvement at all costs. When he senses that a woman is getting too close to him or tiring of the uncertainty of the situation, he bids her farewell with a diamond ring, a parting gift to remember him by.

To love him was to regret him, his kiss did not diminish his essential remoteness, liberty could be divined beneath his ardour and independence showed through his fidelity. He inspired and disarmed possessiveness, and as he was inaccessible women longed to own him. ‘Ask me for anything you want, except a promise,’ he told them… (p. 18)

During his frequent business trips to Europe, Monsieur Zaraguirre often spends time with his closest friends, the Duvilles, at their home of Valronce in the French countryside. The Duvilles long to see their thirty-year-old son, Louis, settled with a suitable wife and to this end Mme Duville spends her days inviting a succession of attractive young girls to the house in the hope that her son will fall in love with one of them. Louis, for his part, remains somewhat immune to these beauties, preferring instead to spend his leisure time in Paris where he amuses himself with a succession of casual love affairs. Easily bored, he is a lover of late nights, fast pursuits and glamorous mistresses, all to the mild distress of his parents.

Then, one weekend, Mme Duville’s cousin, a distinguished Colonel, brings his niece, a beautiful young widow, to Valronce where she meets and forms a bond with Louis. The pair are instantly attracted to one another, so much so that they announce their engagement before the day is out.

Carried away by love, he made up his mind from one moment to the next, without thinking it over, so certain was he of his love. It is true that the violence of love makes patience impossible; however, it was not only love, it was doubtless a presentiment which made him wish to be married at once, without waiting. (p. 21)

The Duvilles are delighted by the news, and preparations for the wedding immediately swing into action – the couple are to be married within the month. Naturally, the Duvilles invite their good friend, M Zaraguirre, to their son’s wedding, an invitation the latter is only too keen to accept. Nevertheless, when M Zaraguirre arrives at Valronce only days before the marriage is to take place, he too finds himself falling in love with Louis’ fiancée – and what’s more, the feeling is mutual. During this scene, M Zaraguirre and the young woman in question are alone in the garden. In response to an enquiry about her feelings, Louis’ fiancée opens her heart. In the eyes of the experienced roué, it seems she has mistaken an affectionate form of friendship for one of love.

‘He is charming, he charmed me and I wanted the happiness he offered me. It is understandable that I should be delighted by so simple a prospect, and I loved Louis, yes, I loved him and I love him still with all my heart. Tell me, have I confused love with affectionate friendship, or am I really heartless?’

She was touching, sincere and in great distress.

‘Friendship is often as sudden as love,’ answered M. Zaraguirre. ‘Friendship is a wise form of love that reassures the heart and doesn’t disturb the imagination.’

‘Ah! I don’t want to lie to Louis or deceive him, yet that is what I am doing when I realise that in the future I shall do nothing else. My life was blameless before you came but since you are here everything has changed, even myself.’ (pp. 44-45)

M Zaraguirre and the young woman spend the night together and then elope the following morning (the day of the wedding) thereby leaving poor Louis in the lurch. Naturally, the Duvilles are devastated, and M Duville senior breaks off all relations with M Zaraguirre once the true nature of the situation comes to light. Within a matter of weeks, Louis’ former fiancée has become Mme Zaraguirre, and the couple waste no time in departing for South America where they settle into a rhythm of life together, sheltered by the beauty of M Zaraguirre’s colonial country house, Tijo.

Some five years later, Mme Zaraguirre decides to accompany her husband on one of his business trips to Europe. It will give her an opportunity to visit various members of her family whom she has not seen since her elopement. While in France, Mme Zaraguirre makes a new friend, a rather silly, gossipy woman who encourages her to live a little by spending some time in Paris, a city she has never been interested in visiting until now. As M Zaraguirre has business to attend to elsewhere, Mme Zaraguirre accompanies her friend to the capital where she runs into Louis Duville at a gathering. At first, it would appear as though Louis has forgiven his former fiancée for deserting him, but at heart, the underlying situation is more complex than that. When it transpires that Mme Zaraguirre would like nothing more than to bring about a reconciliation between her husband and his old friend M Duville, Louis sees an opportunity for revenge, thereby setting in motion an elaborate dance, one in which each party hopes to play the other to their own advantage.

They could not escape the past for long. Days at Valronce and in Lorraine emerged one by one from their conversation; they remembered the same moments with the same emotion and yet their thoughts were not alike: while Mme Zaraguirre, slightly committing herself, wished only to obtain from Louis Duville a favour that would add to her husband’s happiness, Louis Duville, still moved by the memory of his beautiful love, hoped to avenge himself on a man who had humiliated him. When the comedy they were acting was over, Mme Zaraguirre thought that she had reconquered a heart free from bitterness and Louis thought that he had re-won a woman who loved easily. Besides, she attracted him. (p. 75)

What follows is a complex sequence of manoeuvres, something that doesn’t quite go according to plan for either player. I won’t go into the details here; I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself should you decide to read the book. Nevertheless, by the end of the story, my sympathies were firmly with Louis – and with M Zaraguirre for that matter. Mme Zaraguirre is a complex character, at times rather selfish and indifferent to the feelings of others. While I loved reading about her, I certainly wouldn’t trust her as a friend or a potential ally. Perhaps the signs were there at an early stage with this description, a reflection on her demeanour as a young widow.

It was doubtless to cheat loneliness and boredom that, apparently ignorant of the passions she aroused, she played a game of promising without compromising herself. There was even a suggestion of distance in the way she held out the flower of illusion like a sceptre. She was mistress of a reserve that made men dream, and women resented that. No one could reproach her for anything, and yet no one trusted her. However she had a heart and was capable of love. (p. 34)

There is something timeless about Les Belles Amours. The story is set in the mid-1920s, but it could easily have been any time in the late 19th century. My Capuchin Classics edition comes with a set of beautiful pen and ink drawings which add a lovely touch, enhancing the mood of particular scenes.

I loved this novel of intrigues, infidelity, and the complexities of the heart – highly recommended for lovers of French fiction and classic literature in general.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

Last summer, I read and adored Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan’s seminal novella about love, jealousy and desire – in essence, the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions. This year I was keen to read her follow-up, the 1956 novella, A Certain Smile – this time in the Irene Ash translation which was rushed out in the same year. (You can read my additional post about Heather Lloyd’s recent translation of Bonjour Tristesse here). In summary, A Certain Smile is the bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth complete with all their intensity and confusion. While I didn’t love A Certain Smile quite as much as Tristesse, I did enjoy it a great deal. It’s a lovely book for the summer, best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side. Perfect reading for #WITMonth (women in translation) which is running throughout August.

The novella is narrated by Dominique, a law student at the Sorbonne, who is experiencing an overwhelming sense of boredom with life. She is bored by her rather immature and petulant boyfriend, Bertrand, by her studies at the University, and at times by the city of Paris itself. Dominique spends her days idling her time away in cafes, listening to records on the jukebox, and generally lolling around. Sagan perfectly captures this sense of ennui, the feelings of listlessness and detachment that stem from a lack of clear purpose in Dominque’s life.

Nevertheless, everything looks set to change for Dominique when Bertrand takes her to meet his Uncle Luc, a businessman and traveller. Luc is older than Bertrand, more self-assured and sophisticated. Naturally, Dominique is instantly attracted to him. In some ways, she sees Luc as a kindred spirit; his expression suggests a certain sadness, a weariness with the world in general.

He had grey eyes and a tired, almost sad expression. In a way he was handsome. (p. 12)

Luc, for his part, is also attracted to Dominque; somewhat unsurprisingly, her youth and freshness prove appealing to him.

To complicate matters further, Luc is married to the charming Françoise, a kind and generous woman who takes Dominique under her wing, buying her clothes and acting as a sort of mother figure in a gentle, subtle way. (In reality, Dominique’s sees little of her own mother who is still trying to come to terms with the tragic loss of her son, an event which took place some fifteen years earlier.)

In spite of her fondness for Françoise, Dominque finds herself getting more involved with Luc, especially once he invites her to dine alone with him without Bertrand or Françoise. Dominque knows she is playing a dangerous game here, but what does that matter? This is the most interesting thing to have happened to her in months.

I was young, I liked one man and another was in love with me. I had one of those silly little girlish problems to solve. I was feeling rather important. There was even a married man involved, and another woman: a little play with four characters was taking place in the springtime in Paris. I reduced it all to a lovely dry equation, as cynical as could be. Besides, I felt remarkably sure of myself. I accepted all the unhappiness, the conflict, the pleasure to come; I mockingly accepted it all in advance. (p.29)

In time, Luc asks Dominique to come away with him to the Riviera. He is keen to spend time with her alone, to show her the sea, and to teach her how to feel less inhibited. Even though she knows Luc will return to Françoise at the end of the trip, Dominque accepts his proposal, complete with all its inherent risks and uncertainties. She steels herself to be resilient, deep in the knowledge that Luc will not fall in love with her. It is clear that there have been other affairs in the past, so why should this one be any different?

‘Afterwards I’d go back to Françoise. What do you risk? To get attached to me? To suffer afterwards? But after all, that’s better than being bored. You’d rather be happy and even unhappy than nothing at all, wouldn’t you?’

‘Obviously,’ I replied.

‘Isn’t it true that you’d risk nothing?’ repeated Luc, as if to convince himself.

‘Why talk about suffering?’ I said. ‘One must not exaggerate. I’m not so tender-hearted.’ (p. 47)

Dominique and Luc spend an idyllic fortnight in Cannes, making love and generally enjoying one another’s company. They are united by a common lethargy, a weariness for the day-to-day business of life.

We walked in step, had the same tastes, the same rhythm of life; we liked being together, and all went well between us. I did not even regret too much that he could not make the tremendous effort needed to love someone, to know them, and to dispel their loneliness. We were friends and lovers. […] Sensuality was not the basis of our relationship, but something else, a strange bond that united us against the weariness of playing a part, the weariness of talking, in short: weariness itself. (pp. 64-65)

Somewhat inevitably and in spite of her best intentions, Dominque finds herself falling in love with Luc. She is young and inexperienced in these matters, and her natural emotions soon take over; but when the holiday comes to an end, Luc goes back to Françoise, leaving Dominque on her own in Paris to pick up the pieces.

Everything had turned to dust and ashes. I realized that I was not suited to be the gay paramour of a married man. I loved him. I should have thought of that sooner, or at least have taken it into consideration; the obsession that is love, the agony when it is not satisfied. (p. 101)

This is a book in which emotions are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. The prose is cool, clear and candid, a style that perfectly suits Dominique’s character and the nature of her story, while the mood is free-spirited and oh-so-French – like a Jean-Luc Godard movie or Mia Hansen-Løve’s appropriately-titled 2011 film, Goodbye First Love.

In spite of everything that has gone before, Dominque’s story ends on a more hopeful note. There are moments of brightness earlier in the narrative too, like this scene in which our narrator reflects on Paris, the ‘shining golden city’ that stands apart from so many others. I’ll leave you with this final passage which I loved for its youthful exuberance.

Paris belonged to me: Paris belonged to the unscrupulous, to the irresponsible; I had always felt it, but it had hurt because I was not carefree enough. Now it was my city, my beautiful, shining golden city, ‘the city that stands aloof’. I was carried along by something that must have been joy. I walked quickly, was full of impatience, and could feel the blood coursing through my veins. I felt ridiculously young at those moments of mad happiness and much nearer to reality and truth than when I searched my soul in my moods of sadness. (p. 28)

A Certain Smile is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has also reviewed this novel.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

First published in 1945 but set largely in the interwar years, Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is a wonderful novel about a young woman’s search for true love, complete with all the delights and disappointments such a quest entails.

While Mitford’s novel focuses on the amorous adventures of Linda Radlett, everything we see and hear is filtered through the lens of Linda’s cousin, the sensible and level-headed Fanny. Having been abandoned by her mother – known within the family as ‘the Bolter’ for her tendency to run off with a sequence of lovers – Fanny has been raised by her kindly Aunt Emily in a small but comfortable home in Shenley. Childhood Christmas holidays are spent with the rather eccentric Radletts at their estate in the Cotswolds, a large manor house by the name of Alconleigh. The Radlett family is headed by Fanny’s Uncle Matthew, a large blustering man whose favourite sports are catching Germans with his entrenching tool, hunting of any description (including the pursuit of his children around the grounds), and stomping about in search of an outlet for his many frustrations; then there is Aunt Sadie (Emily’s sister), who does her best to maintain some semblance of order within the household; and finally, the six Radlett children, most notably Linda, Fanny’s cousin and closest friend. Mitford does a great job in conveying the various idiosyncrasies of this unconventional upper-class family – we are privy to their passions and beliefs, their rather silly preoccupations with outmoded social conventions, and their various peccadillos and habits.

The Radletts were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives. (p. 9)

Fanny and Linda spend much of their time chatting together about girlish things, hiding out in the linen closet (or ‘Hons’ cupboard’ as it is called), the only warm place in the house. It is here that the hopelessly romantic Linda talks of finding true love, one that is lasting and passionate, the sort that only comes along once in a lifetime. In particular, she is entranced by the glamour and sophistication of the smart set of bright young things she meets by way of her neighbour and advocate, the cultured Lord Merlin.

By the time of her coming-out ball, Linda is ripe for the taking. Much to Uncle Matthew’s dismay, she falls in love with an attractive young banker, Tony Kroesig, whose family originally hailed from Germany, albeit several generations ago. In this scene, Uncle Matthew lets rips to Davey, Aunt Emily’s delightful but rather sensitive husband. As you can see, his language is gloriously unfiltered, very much a reflection of his bombastic nature and the prevailing attitudes of the day.

‘Who is that sewer with Linda?’

‘Kroesig, Governor of the Bank of England, you know; his son.’

‘Good God, I never expected to harbour a full-blooded Hun in this house – who on earth asked him?’

‘Now, Matthew dear, don’t get excited. The Kroesigs aren’t Huns, they’ve been over here for generations, they are a very highly respected family of English bankers.’

‘Once a Hun always a Hun,’ said Uncle Matthew, ‘and I’m not too set on bankers myself. Besides, the fellow must be a gate-crasher.’

‘No, he’s not. He came with Merlin.’

‘I knew that bloody Merlin would start bringing foreigners here sooner or later. I always said he would, but I didn’t think even he would land one with a German’ (p. 56)

At first, both families are dead against the match, albeit for very different reasons. Uncle Matthew has an intense hatred of all foreigners, irrespective of their standing and tenure in Britain. The Kroesigs, on the other hand, consider landed gentry such as the Radletts to be feckless and no longer of any great relevance in the modern world. Moreover, they would prefer young Tony to concentrate on his career for a while, with the hope that he might also go on to marry the daughter of one of the other big banking families in the city, thereby creating a union of great worth. Nevertheless, in spite of this initial opposition, the Kroesig-Radlett wedding goes ahead, and Linda and Tony begin their rather ill-fated life together.

As Fanny quite rightly intuits, the marriage turns out to be a failure almost right from the start. Tony is soon revealed to be a frightful bore, a pompous, self-centred ass whose only interests revolve around money and politics – shortly after the wedding he gains a comfortable seat as a Tory MP. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Linda proves a disappointment to the Kroesig family who consider her eccentric, distracted and extravagant. Tony’s work and political activities are of no interest to Linda whatsoever, a point which becomes patently obvious for all to see. By the time her daughter Moira is born, Linda has fallen totally out of love with Tony; his many shortcomings are simply too ingrained to overlook, those first flushes of love have long since gone.

The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual, and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside her imagination. Linda did not commit the usual fault of blaming Tony for what was entirely her own mistake, she merely turned from him in absolute indifference. This was made easier by the fact that she saw so little of him. (p. 88)

Then one day at her in-laws’ home, Linda meets Christian Talbot, a handsome Communist full of energy and ideas. Entranced by this young man, his passions and beliefs, she runs away from Tony in the hope of finding true love with husband number two.

Linda was a plum ripe for shaking. The tree was now shaken, and down she came. Intelligent and energetic, but with no outlet for her energies, unhappy in her marriage, uninterested in her child, and inwardly oppressed with a sense of futility, she was in the mood either to take up some cause, or to embark upon a love affair. That a cause should now be presented by an attractive young man made both it and him irresistible. (p.98)

But once the initial excitement dies down, Linda discovers that her new life with Christian isn’t all she had hoped it would be. All too soon, during a trip to France to support the refugees fleeing the Spanish Civil War, Christian reveals himself to be a rather hopeless husband. Concerned as he is with the major revolutions of the day, Christian remains oblivious to the feelings and emotions of others, especially those closest to him; it is radical ideas and left-wing causes that interest Christian, not individual people and their emotional needs. All of a sudden this becomes apparent to Linda – and so she packs her suitcase and leaves, forsaking another husband in the process.

Then, just when Linda is at her lowest ebb, stranded in Paris with insufficient money to make it home to England, a dashing stranger appears and comes to her rescue. The man in question is Fabrice, a wealthy duke and bon viveur, the man who turns out to be the one great love of Linda’s life. At long last, there is a chance of true happiness for our heroine; but the question is, will it last?

But she was filled with a strange, wild, unfamiliar happiness, and knew that this was love. Twice in her life she had mistaken something else for it; it was like seeing somebody in the street who you think is a friend, you whistle and wave and run after him, and it is not only not the friend, but not even very like him. A few minutes later the real friend appears in view, and then you can’t imagine how you ever mistook that other person for him. Linda was now looking upon the authentic face of love, and she knew it, but it frightened her. That it should come so casually, so much by a series of accidents, was frightening. (p. 139)

The Pursuit of Love is an utterly charming novel. It is by turns hilarious, artful, touching and poignant, peppered as it is with Mitford’s sparkling dialogue and wit. The author has drawn heavily on her own family here, particularly in the portrayal of Uncle Matthew, a thinly-veiled version of her father, Lord Redesdale. The characterisation is fabulous throughout, from the privileged, whimsical Linda, to the indomitable Uncle Matthew, to the pitch-perfect minor characters of Davey and Lord Merlin, both of whom remain ardent supporters of Linda in her quest for personal fulfilment. Even the infamous Bolter makes a cameo appearance at one point – another memorable character, vividly sketched.

For all its wit and satirical humour, this novel also conveys a strong sense of humanity. In spite of her many mistakes and failings, Linda is always welcomed back into the family fold, supported by Fanny, Aunt Sadie and even Uncle Matthew. There is a sense of real support and affection here, a family sticking together despite what life may throw at it.

As the story draws to a close during the turmoil of WW2, Mitford also reminds us of the fragility of our existence. This was not a time for the frivolous pleasures of love; rather the focus was on survival and the preservation of life. While the closing section is rather poignant, the novel ends on a fitting note. All in all, this is a great book, fully deserving of its status as a modern classic. I enjoyed it immensely.

The Pursuit of Love is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.’

At an early stage in the novel, Spark maps out the social hierarchy that has developed within this large boarding house, once a private residence back in Victorian times. The ground floor houses the staff offices, dining room, recreation room and drawing room (the latter freshly papered in depressing shades of sludge-like brown), while the first floor accommodates the youngest members of the club, girls between the ages of eighteen and twenty, recently released from boarding school and used to living in communal dormitories, not unlike the curtained-off cubicles in this part of the building.

The girls on this floor were not yet experienced in discussing men. Everything turned on whether the man in question was a good dancer and had a sense of humour. The Air Force was mostly favoured, and a D.F.C. was an asset. (p. 27)

For those with more money, the second floor offers a little more privacy: shared rooms for two or four residents, mostly occupied by young woman in transit and those looking for flats or bedsits. The third floor is home to a mix of girls, either prim and pretty young virgins destined for a life of near-celibacy, or bossy women in their late twenties who are too sharp to fall for the charms of any man. Finally, the most attractive, sophisticated and lively girls are to be found on the top floor of the house, typically those with interesting jobs or lovers, and active social lives to boot.

As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means. (p. 9)

Also residing at the May of Teck are three spinsters in their fifties, women who have somehow managed to sidestep the usual rules of the establishment that require members to move on once they reach the age of thirty. These elderly residents provide some nice comic moments in their interactions with one another, and in those with the younger residents of the club.

By 1945 they had seen much coming of new girls and going of old, and were generally liked by the current batch, being subject to insults when they interfered in anything, and intimate confidences when they kept aloof. (pp. 14-15)

The novel focuses on a handful of the girls who reside at the May of Teck – mostly those on the top floor of the building – offering glimpses of their daily preoccupations and concerns as they try to go about their lives as best they can. While the timeline moves backwards and forwards throughout the novel, the majority of the action takes place over three months: the period between VE day in May and VJ Day in August 1945.

Central to the novel is Jane Wright, who in 1945 is working for a slightly dodgy publisher, checking out the financial status of aspiring authors and trying to uncover their weak spots for her employer to exploit when negotiating contracts. Also featuring prominently are the beautiful Selina Redwood, a rather statuesque girl who values poise and elegance above all else, Dorothy Markham, the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, chairwoman of the club’s management committee, and Anne Baberton, the owner of a fabulous Schiaparelli gown that is loaned out to the other girls on the top floor whenever the occasion demands. This suitably glamorous dress causes a quite stir wherever it makes an appearance…

‘You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy…it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.’

‘But it looks altogether different on me, Anne. You can have a whole sheet of sweet-coupons.’

‘I don’t want your bloody sweet-coupons. I give all mine to my grandmother.’

Then Jane would put out her head. ‘Stop being so petty-minded and stop screeching. I’m doing brain-work.’ (p. 35)

(Jane is constantly seeking peace and quiet to concentrate on her important ‘brain-work’.)

Finally, and perhaps most notably, there is Joanna Childe, the self-sacrificing daughter of a country clergyman in the High Church. Young Joanna, who firmly believes that her one great chance for love has already passed her by, now devotes herself to giving elocution lessons to the other occupants of the house in exchange for payment or extra ration coupons. She is a lover of poetry, and her recitations of famous lines and stanzas are threaded through the novel adding an extra element of hilarity and interest.

Most of the chatter among the girls revolves around everyday issues: the men they are dating; their food rations and diets; the trading of clothing coupons and other luxuries; who gets to wear the posh frock when they have an important date, and so on. Nevertheless, against this light-hearted backdrop, there are signs of darker forces at play, mentions of notable events from 1945 are dropped in every now again – most worryingly perhaps, the emerging threat from the deployment of the atomic bomb.

Spark also inserts another strand into the story, one which adds a somewhat unsettling note. In the opening pages of the novel, a death in the present day (presumably some point in the 1960s) acts as the catalyst for the flashbacks to 1945. The missionary, Nicholas Farringdon has been killed in an uprising in Haiti, news of his death having reached Jane by way of a Reuters bulletin – she now works as a successful reporter for a leading women’s journal. Back in the 1940s, Jane had introduced Nicholas – then an aspiring author and intellectual whom she had been tasked with investigating – to the May of Teck Club. He was said to have been an anarchist, albeit a most unlikely one. No one could quite believe it of him at the time.

He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was. (p. 32)

Winding back to 1945, Jane is rather attracted to Nicholas and his somewhat bohemian lifestyle. He takes her to parties and poetry gatherings, introducing her to other writers in the process. Ultimately though, Nicholas gets mixed up with the glamorous Selina, spending hot summer nights with her on the May of Teck’s roof.

Nicholas had decided to do everything nice for Jane, except sleep with her, in the interests of two projects: the publication of his book and his infiltration of the May of Teck Club in general and Selina in particular. (pp. 65-66)

Elements of Nicholas’ ultimate fate are revealed in present-day conversations between Jane and the other former members of the May of Teck. Like Joanna’s recitations, these snatches of dialogue are threaded through the novel, a feat Spark pulls off to good effect.

The tone of the novel is by turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant. As the story heads towards its dramatic conclusion, Spark introduces a development that turns out to be both gripping and devastating. It is perhaps no surprise that the earlier elements of humour segue into a sense of imminent tragedy. In a clever twist, the phrase ‘of slender means’ in the novel’s title has a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the girls’ limited financial resources, while on the other it also relates to their physical build and hip measurements. Only the slimmest girls can slip through the narrow slit-window of the top-floor washroom to gain access to the May of Teck roof for a spot of sunbathing. Selina and Anne can manage it, but not the others, especially not Jane who is rather plump. The ability (or not) to slip through this aperture plays an important role in the closing stages of the book, but I had better not say too much more about this for fear of revealing any spoilers.

I really enjoyed this novel with its cast of interesting, well-crafted characters. Spark manages to pack so much into these 140 pages; it’s really quite remarkable. The period detail is excellent too, very evocative of the time, as evidenced by this passage from the opening page. I’ll leave you with this description of London, a city still in the early stages of recovery from the devastation of WW2.

Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit. (p. 7)

The Girls of Slender Means is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.