Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mary Olivier - May Sinclair
Sinclair divided this novel into five books: Infancy, Childhood, Adolescence, Maturity, Middle Age. I liked Mary best as a child, mainly because I believed in her craving for love and her ability to experience a primitive happiness. But there are problems in her family (which slowly emerge for the reader), and they encumber her. She winds up caring for a selfish, narrow-minded mother. Her potential isn’t snuffed out, but it’s not allowed to flourish. She reads a lot of philosophy (abstract speculations about the true meaning of Life take up far too many pages). Her few romantic encounters are brief and chaste. The uneventful days plod along, turning into years. I felt sorry for Mary, but working against my sympathy was the highly stylized prose, in which everything is made to seem so damn meaningful. At the book’s end Sinclair got thoroughly carried away and buries poor Mary under a torrent of overwrought verbiage. Before her death (depicted as a ethereal drifting off) she finds and gives up her soul mate. I no longer cared.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
This would have been a short story if Warner had left out the dawdling. Lolly is appealing, and I found it mildly pleasant to dawdle along with her, though eventually I became restless at the book’s lack of focus. Then things took an abrupt shift, with Lolly rebelling against the circumstances of her life. Up to that point she seemed blandly content; she was happy to stay with her father until he died, and during her years with her brother and sister-in-law and their children we aren’t privy to Lolly’s dissatisfaction. Suddenly she decides to go to a remote place called Great Mop and live (as Laura, the name she prefers) without any responsibilities or ties. Then she becomes a witch. The novel is subtitled The Loving Huntsman, and that’s how Satan is portrayed. No menace, no evil. There’s no talk of her selling her soul (though she surely did). Apparently she’s granted freedom from entanglements, but she was accomplishing that quite well on her own. The scene with the most passion is the conversation between Laura and Satan; she expresses the futility and emptiness of the lives of most women, and why they turn to a huntsman who desires their very souls. After their talk Laura sets out for home; it’s late, and when darkness falls she plans on finding a place to slumber – “a suitable dry ditch or an accommodating loosened haystack.” My reaction was to wonder how the author would like to spend the night in a ditch. I obviously wasn’t won over by the fantastical elements of this novel. Nor did I think Ms. Warner took proper care of her mild and daft creation. This is evident even in the title. Lolly Willowes has a nice ring to it, but Laura associated the name Lolly with her despised role as Aunt Lolly. She wanted to be called Laura.

Champagne for One - Rex Stout
After starting a number of unsuccessful literary novels (most of which I didn’t get far enough into to review) I needed to clean my palate with a Nero Wolfe mystery. Stout removed all embellishment from his prose; we simply get Archie’s voice, and he’s not the arty type. This outing wasn’t as cleverly constructed as others in the series. The premise is intriguing, but it defies a solution. A deus ex machina is needed, and it comes in the form of a fortuitous discovery made by one of Wolfe’s operatives. Another weak point is that the motive for the murder isn’t convincing. Still, as Stout knew, the enjoyment to be had in these mysteries stems from the interaction between Archie and Nero, and that aspect is as satisfying as ever.

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