Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Summer Place - Sloan Wilson
A good, solid, engrossing novel. It begins with a troubled relationship between two young people; they part and go on to marry others. Decades later, when Ken and Sylvia meet again, the sexual spark is reignited, though now they’ve matured and know that their love is real. They divorce their spouses and marry. At this point Ken and Sylvia stop being the focus of the story and the children from their first marriages take center stage. It’s as if John and Molly are reliving the passion their parents had felt. But their relationship is a difficult, conflicted one because of the emotional dynamics at work. The people that Ken and Sylvia divorced are still the parents of John and Molly, and they play a complicating role. Wilson also shows how deeply the young people were damaged by growing up in loveless, dysfunctional families; whether they can unite to overcome the damage, or whether it will tear them apart, is left up in the air. Throughout the novel Wilson opted for honesty, and I respected this.

The Queen’s Gambit - Walter Tevis
I liked and cared about Beth. Her story begins when she’s put in an orphanage at age eight. It’s not a hellish place, but it offers her no emotional warmth. Beth visits a misanthropic janitor in his basement lair, and he grudgingly teaches her how to play chess. It’s soon obvious that she’s endowed with a genius for the game. Much of the book is taken up with tournament matches. I couldn’t understand the moves being described, but I shared Beth’s feelings as shifts of power occur. Against the caliber of opponents she faces, chess is mentally and psychologically grueling and demands an obsessional dedication; consequently, Beth doesn’t have much of a life outside of chess. Also, in the orphanage the children were given tranquilizers, and Beth continues to rely on them to alleviate a pervasive tension. When she’s eighteen she turns to alcohol with a vengeance. I didn’t entirely believe in the self-destructiveness of her drinking, nor how effortlessly she’s able to give it up. The book ends with her defeating the Russian grandmaster who had twice defeated her. Yet I was uneasy about Beth’s prospects for happiness. Chess can absorb and empower her, but it can’t fill an emotional void that has existed since she was a child. At age twenty she’s had a few sexual relationships (both with chess players), but they lacked the intimacy she needs. This wasn’t entirely the fault of the men. Beth has set up barriers that separate her from other people. I see the possibility – if her life continues to be loveless and friendless – of depression settling in and the drinking resurfacing. The fact that I was troubled at the end of the book means, of course, that Walter Tevis is a talented writer. There’s much emotion in Beth’s emotionally muted world. When she returns to the orphanage (after the death of the janitor) she goes down to the basement where she first saw chess pieces. I was surprised and impressed by how moving this scene was. In an understated way, vistas are opened.

A Jest of God - Margaret Laurence
I was totally out of sympathy with this novel. Rachel’s story is told by means of an interior monologue in which she sometimes expresses herself with a solemn eloquence that struck me as coming not from the character but from an author trying hard to impress. To be in Rachel’s mind is exhausting. She talks to herself a lot: “Stop. Stop it, Rachel. Steady. Get a grip on yourself. Relax. Sleep. Try.” Yes, Rachel, please, please get a grip on yourself. She’s besieged by raw emotions and often seems on the verge of hysteria. She teaches school in a Canadian town and lives with her manipulative mother. The focus of the novel is her first sexual experience, at age thirty-four. We have to endure lines such as “Put it in, darling.” Yet we’re never told if she feels pleasure when it is in. Since we’re spared nothing else about her (including her dreams and fantasies), why can’t we know this basic fact? As it is, the affair, which she had long desired, merely creates more problems for Rachel – we get a heavy dose of her doubts, awkwardness, anxiety, etc. She’s not coping at all well with life, but instead of feeling sympathy, I felt annoyance. Laurence, who did such a wonderful job in The Stone Angel, goes overboard with this character. There’s no distancing, just untempered earnestness. With relief I quit reading.

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