American Blonde 2

THE “OLD HOLLYWOOD” STUDIO SYSTEM AND THE MAKING OF A MOVIE STAR (1945-1947): Jennifer Niven’s American Blonde is like a walk down memory lane.  You can almost see and hear Judy Garland singing, Fred Astaire dancing, Clark Gable acting.  The author is in love with the Old Hollywood of the ‘30s and ‘40s when a big-league film studio like “Metro” (“sixty stars, the most of any studio.  More stars than in heaven”) made stars bigger than life.  Niven, whose name has a stardom ring to it, has an emotional attachment to those bygone days, which you’ll learn about in the last enlightening chapter, “Endings.”  From what I gather, she’s waited a long time to craft a wistful Hollywood story she was meant to write, steeped into nostalgic details, for this is her fourth novel starring her beautiful, spirited country girl from Appalachia, Velva Jean.

Velva Jean heartens us, the way she keeps re-inventing herself.  In this novel, she’s Kit Rogers, Hollywood’s newest sensation.  If, like me, you start with American Blonde, you can always go back to what you missed as she comes of age in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Becoming Clementine – the “Velva Jean Series.”  This novel can stand alone, as it fills you in on the earlier trio: Married at 16, divorced by 20 (DRIVE); Velva Jean heads to Nashville pursuing her passion, singing. When that doesn’t work out, her brother, Johnny Clay Hart, inspires her to pursue flying, as a WASP or Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (FLY), which leads to her becoming a spy and a WWII heroine (CLEMENTINE).

Returning to America, “Miss Red, White, and Blue,” poses for a newsreel featuring the “second girl in history to fly a bobber across the ocean.”  A blonde, green-eyed “natural beauty,” Velva Jean catches the cinematic eyes behind Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, like its legendary head, Louis B. Mayer, who at 60, “didn’t look at all like the most powerful man in Hollywood.”  Now Kit Rogers, her transformation feels as glamorous as the novel’s alluring cover but Velva Jean confides she “had her own scars but I wasn’t wearing them on the outside.”

At 24, Kit Rogers still dreams of Nashville.  She reasons that coming to Hollywood she’ll “train with the finest music teachers in the world,” so when she returns to her southern roots she’ll take them by storm.  She’s right: she’s seriously trained in singing, and so much more.

Kit’s first film role is a revolutionary war hit, “Home of the Brave,” on Stage 15, “the largest in the world.” She plays Betsy Ross, a “patriotic Cinderella,” a role created just for her.  Here we meet a full cast of Hollywood characters – actors, actresses, producer, director, agent, photographer, publicists, gossip columnist, costume designer, drama teacher, voice teacher, general manager – so many as you’d expect for the mighty studio.  A couple of characters besides Kit loom large: The screenwriter, Sam Weldon, one of two men who sweeten the novel’s romantic tension; and Barbara Jenning, formerly Eloise Mudge, one of Velva Jean’s closest friends going back to their flying days, now an actress in the picture too, whose having an affair with the film’s hottest star, handsome Nigel Gray, a married man.

Since Velva Jean tells us she’s spent her life fighting, Niven plots another cause for her to fight, turning her charming historical novel into a mystery.  Like her honorable character, she’s not afraid to shine a light on an all-powerful studio system that didn’t just make stars, but could break them.

What I especially relished about the novel is the tender prose.  The author stays true to the integrity of her Velva Jean character even in Hollywood.  Romance and mystery can still be delivered up in the juicy, wholesome spirit of the golden era of Hollywood.  So, the mystery feels like you’re watching Perry Mason sleuthing and the romance is sweet and sexy but left to your imagination.  Take this witty, suggestive banter between Sam and Kit, whom he affectionately calls “Pipes”:

Sam: “You’re not the kind men mess with.”

Sam: “For you, Pipes, I’d steal the moon.”

Sam: “I like holding hands with you Pipes.  I don’t know when holding hands has ever excited me more.  Or at all.”

Kit: “I can’t imagine you do a lot of hand holding.”

Sam: “No, but I can imagine doing a lot of it with you.”

Sam, like Kit’s adoring fans, is dazzled by her.  So is Butch Dawkins.  Not to the new Kit Rogers, but to the old Velva Jean he met five years ago when they trained at Camp Davis.  (Here, for instance, I wanted the backdrop.)  Butch, part Creole, part Choctaw, plays the guitar in a band with Kit’s brother Johnny Clay.  They’ve come to LA to record soulful songs.  Velva Jean may be flirtatious around polished Sam, but it’s the virile, non-polished Butch who “didn’t smile a lot but when he did he was the best-looking man I’d ever seen,” that Velva Jean/Kit Rogers can’t seem to forget.  Butch remembers too, but he’s a serious, compassionate, patient, no-nonsense guy.  Yes, you really can feel the electricity between these two.  MGM may have succeeded in training Kit to sing pop, jazz, and vocal without her southern cadence, but it’s Butch who warns her “they’re going to rub the shine right out of you.”

His words are prophetic.  When Kit first breathes in California, she tells herself “all the world was right here at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer.”  But then a tragedy unfolds.  If you read the back cover, you’ll know that Kit’s best friend Mudge has suddenly died at a party for the cast and crew of “Home on the Brave” at the Santa Monica estate of the film’s producer, Billy Taub, and his brought-out-of-retirement for this film, celebrity wife, Ophelia Lloyd.  Now Kit Rogers finds herself in a “world where nothing was what it seemed.”

Yet Kit Rogers is still that brave girl who escaped a concentration camp and rescued her brother, Johnny.  (Another instance when I missed the earlier novels.)  For American Blonde is filled with suspense, pressures, and threats but our heroine is undaunted, determined to solve what’s really happened to her friend – which she does.

When Kit sings the apt-titled song “Facing the World Alone” in her next “Flyin’ Jenny” film, you can envision sitting in the audience clapping your hands.  For you too are won over by this principled, old-fashioned character who sends us a big-hearted, modern-day message about hope and love and friendship and truth.

My hope is that the film rights to American Blonde are bought by MGM, so that fiction and truth merge when I’m really in the audience clapping.   Lorraine

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The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances 1

I still recall the pleasure of a novel by Ellen Cooney I read nearly 10 years ago: A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladies (published in 2005, historical fiction/1900’s Boston).  And, for some unknown reason, have yet to read Lambrusco, published a few years later (also historical fiction/1943 Italian Resistance movement), awaiting on my shelf (not much longer!).  So, when I learned the author had written a new book about animal rescue, so different from these, I was excited to read it, especially since my family has rescued three beloved English Setters.

Rescuing Dogs, Rescuing People (present day, Maine?):  You do not have to be a dog rescuer (or other animal rescuer) or dog lover to appreciate this novel.  All you need is a heart.

As any volunteer for any noble cause knows, the giver gets as much (or more) than the giving.  The giver who touches your heart in THE MOUNTAINTOP SCHOOL FOR DOGS AND OTHER SECOND CHANCES is Evie, a 24-year-old broken soul whose soul-searching voice narrates this affecting story.  Occasionally, she curses but mostly she comes to us sadly, pensively, in poignant prose.

We meet Evie the day she arrives at the “Sanctuary,” a “sprawling, rugged, stone and wood lodge built a hundred years ago as a ski resort,” now a dog rescue center.  Its starry logo is a dog “tilted upward, head high, front paw lifted, like he was walking around in just air.”  This “place of refuge” is the last stop for these dogs, saved by an underground “Network,” having failed everywhere else.  Evie answered an ad she found on their website, paid fees for what she assumed was a traditional training school with classes, textbook, teachers, students.  But the sanctuary that sits atop a snowy mountaintop in an unknown locale is anything but conventional.  And Evie, who has never owned a dog, is the only trainee.

I’m guessing the novel is set in northern Maine, the state where the author lives, for there are clues beyond being snowbound: people attired in park ranger garb, elderly staff, and a rescue scene off the mountaintop to a neighborhood that’s a: “came-to-life picture of a perfect place in America to live.”  Yet nothing is perfect here for the poor dog being rescued, one of the many thoughtful messages Cooney makes.  This one: things are not what they seem to be.

At the base of the mountaintop is an inn, room and board included with Evie’s fees.  Here she meets the innkeeper, Mrs. Auberchon, 50, another lost soul (less obvious) who is also “Warden of the Sanctuary,” which means she observes dogs upon arrival, communicating with them through “computers, cameras, speakers, mikes, magic.”  The pros/cons of the solitary nature and value of technology in the lonely lives of these two loner characters is another message.  While enough of Evie’s past is revealed over time to grasp why she’s a human stray, Mrs. Auberchon’s comes to light only at the tail end, along with a glimpse into the evolution and future of the twosome’s relationship.  While there are other people in the story, volunteers and staff, it’s Giant George, the only other young person, a 15-year-old boy who perceives himself to be a Great Dane, who – aside from the dogs – contributes to the rescue of Evie.  For that’s what this heartfelt tale is really about: Evie’s rescue.  “Rescue,” Evie says, the “Best. Verb. Ever.”

Rescue is part of Evie’s alphabetic voice.  Cooney has cleverly structured the novel as an A-Z glossary of dog-related vocabulary – details about breeds, traits, behaviors, training – reflective of Evie’s avid research.  It’s delivered in down-to-earth prose, metaphors for human behavior and understanding.  Dog/human terms include: Abandon, Adoption, Alpha (bullying), Appreciation, Bonding, Companion, Connection, Depression, Family, Fear, Forgiveness, Gains, Goals (“totally overrated”), Home, Loneliness, Losers, Obedience, Second Chances, Shelter (“a place you’re glad to be”), Rehab, Surrender, Treats, Trust, Victories.  A few more examples show why Evie refuses to discuss her past, and hint at her healing:

Abuse: “Sometimes you don’t call it abuse even when it is happening to you … You just call it “my life.”

Gentle: “Good adjective.  Good non-alpha thing to be.  Good thing to aspire to, but not until you’re ready to stop being a softie, desperate to be liked and admired.”

Hope: “Can I have it?” – “Can I actually figure out what it actually is?”

Real: “You cannot be fake with dogs”

Truth: “The truth is there are moments when I am very, very peaceful.”

Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the important dogs in the story.  They arrive with handwritten assessments of their condition, including prognoses for adoption, many poor: Shadow, a hound mix with a nasty infection from a choke collar; Hank, a Lab/Pitbull crazed by wooden objects; Josie, a small mix still biting at 8, who “wasn’t the only one in this room with memories needing erasing;” Tasha, a Rottweiler who needed an owner who could handle her intimidating size and strength;” Dapple, an underweight, withdrawn, overworked greyhound; and the “pitties,” whose foreboding arrival is anticipated by all, except unknowing Evie.  They were trained for dogfighting.  Yes, this practice still exists.  In “many states,” Cooney chillingly points out, it’s “not a serious crime to abuse animals.”

When we’re introduced to Evie at the inn, she’s very anxious.  When one of the dogs knocks her to the ground, the fall mirrors her life: a “pattern of being knocked to my feet.”  She doesn’t even realize she’s being tested, that her training has begun.  For days, she tries to figure out what’s going on, and is understandably upset when she overhears Mrs. Auberchon confiding to Mrs. Walzer, the baker of dog treats, Evie will never last the week.  Little by little, Evie proves herself with the dogs.  When she’s granted permission to go to the mountaintop, you feel the emotional significance of her acceptance: “The light in the windows had the mellow glow of candlelight, and for a few moments I was enchanted, as if I’d entered a Christmas card or a carol.”

On the mountaintop, she’s greeted by Boomer, an older Golden Retriever, whose golden heart cannot be overstated.  Boomer may be aging but his “spirit was like a genie in a lamp, as alive as anything.”  When Evie hugged Boomer: “It was the first time finding out what it’s like to be held in the arms of someone who has no arms … He was good at holding.  He was doing a better job with me than I’d ever done with myself.”

As Evie works with the dogs, her conversations with them are not just reflections about them but herself.  Her voice brightens when she speaks to little biting Josie: “You would not believe how much I get it that your will is a whole lot bigger than your body.  I’m in awe of that.  I mean, I know things like that.”

You can’t help but admire the way Cooney delicately sends us many wise messages, such as when Evie appraises the former ski lodge’s shabbiness on the outside, yet it still retains “personal dignity, the kind that only comes from inside.”  Or when Evie appreciates how a dog can have a “heart twice the size of its body.”  Cooney wants us to appreciate Evie as twice as powerful as she seems on the surface.  Evie possesses an inner strength we ought to be a little in awe of.


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The Kitchen House 1

It bothered me I hadn’t heard of this powerful novel set in my state, Virginia.  I wondered if its timing was overshadowed by THE HELP, but that blockbuster came out a year earlier.  Very different stories of racial injustices in the South, but you’d think THE KITCHEN HOUSE would have garnered attention once readers showed how much they cared about civil rights.  So, I did a little Googling and learned it took 2 ½ years for this historical novel to get traction, through word-of-mouth spread.

Indentured Servitude, Slavery, and the Price of Freedom (Virginia tobacco plantation, 1791 to 1810): If only THE KITCHEN HOUSE were pure fiction.  If only the racial horrors, abuses, and inequalities were the product of the author’s vivid imagination, rather than stirred by stark antebellum South truths.  It’s a testament to Kathleen Grissom’s storytelling and authentic dialogue – told through two distinct female voices – that what happens on her imaginary plantation, Tall Oaks, feels so real it might have taken place at one of the best preserved plantations in Virginia: Prestwould.  Built by slaves during the same historical time period as the novel, the author did some of her research here.  Grissom, who renovated a Virginia plantation property, clearly felt history come alive, as you will too.

From the Prologue, you’re prepared for an “unspeakable” tragedy.  And while you should prepare for plenty more heart wrenching calamities, there’s also courage, dignity, and love that buoys you.

First, though, you’ll want to wrap yourself around a who’s who of characters for this story is peopled by a large cast.  Backgrounds, race, class, and family loyalties matter greatly, impacted by whether they’re members of the “kitchen house” or the “big house” or toil in the tobacco fields, thus live in slave quarters.  Here’s a rundown of key people at Tall Oaks:

LAVINIA McCARTEN:  The white, female, more educated voice.  An indentured servant who will eventually be granted freedom when she comes of age.  At 7, she arrives ill and disoriented, having lost her Irish family.  It’s historically fitting that she comes to Virginia, the first state to institute the harsh labor practice of indenture.  Brought over by ship by the plantation owner, Lavinia looks as you might expect: pale, thin, freckled, red hair, and as gentle and amiable as can be.  Her room, board, and labor is at the “kitchen house” where she quickly becomes attached to the wise matron, Mama Mae, a slave whose status is elevated working here but she’s still property with no hope for freedom.  By 12, Lavinia is beginning to understand the “line drawn between black and white.”  Her “lonely heart,” her “singing heart,” tell her not to “want to be the white girl.”

BELLE:  The bi-racial, second narrator, whose uneducated voice is in a dialect that flows and moves us.  She’s so light skinned she could pass for white.  That’s because her father is the plantation master; her mother, an unknown slave.  Since she’s the captain’s daughter, she’s at the main house, but the captain’s wife does not know her genetics, believes she’s her husband’s mistress.  Belle’s mixed heritage complicates other lives too.  She loves Mama Mae’s son, Ben, which, of course, is unacceptable.  They hide their love, fear their lives.  At 18, she doesn’t want her promised freedom, for she can’t bear to lose Ben.  She’s one of the characters whose “gotten hurt enough in this life.”

CAPTAIN JAMES PYKE:  Married at 40, at sea for months on end, driving his jealous, extremely lonely wife to depression and madness, for she sees that Belle is “one of the captain’s most prized possessions.” He may be kindly but he feels unknowable, owing to his constant, lengthy absences.

MISS MARTHA:  When she married at 20 her “vibrant nature” was considered well-suited to her “adventuresome” husband, but sadly she’s anything but.  As the weakest, languishing character, we empathize with her feelings of abandonment and great losses.  Her survival depends on opium.  She adores her young daughter, Sally; not the case with her son, Marshall, for reasons that become painfully clear.  Belle may be responsible for her care, but it’s Lavinia she bonds with.

MAMA MAE AND HER FAMILY:  We understand why Lavinia loves Mama Mae.  You will too.  She’s brave, spiritual, devoted to her family, endearing.  She may “act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the house happy.  That because I mean to stay up here.”  Papa George, her husband, has a heart of gold too.  They have twin girls: Fanny, the “plain one,” and Beattie “destined to be a beauty.”  They instantly became Lavinia’s playmates, as they’re all close in age.   Ben, their 18-year-old son, knows his place as a slave despite his enduring affection for Belle, so he also gets involved with a slave, Lucy.  For too many sorrowful reasons, his “big old eyes fill up and run over until it looks like there’s a bucket of water coming down his face.”  Dora is their oldest daughter, tending to a sick baby Henry; the father, Jimmy, a slave working in the fields.  Yes, all these relationships are steeped in complications.

WILL STEVENS:  A breath of fresh air for his kindnesses, his human decency.  Will enters the picture when the Captain realizes he needs someone capable to run his estate while he’s away.  As a young girl, Lavinia is infatuated with Will; theirs a charming, teasing relationship.  When she matures, he sees she’s a “beautiful young woman who has the heart of a child.”

RANKIN:  One of the abusive, hateful characters.  Rankin oversees the tobacco farm, an alcoholic, and a dangerous influence on Miss Martha’s son, Marshall.

UNCLE JACOB:  A calming, spiritual presence.  He’s the least known except for references to his African tribe, Foulah, and Islamic religion.  Presumably, these differences account for why he lives alone in a cabin on (or near?) the plantation.

MR. WATERS:  Marshall’s tutor, out for no good.  Perhaps the root of Marshall’s abusiveness?

While there are more characters in this sprawling novel as the years pass, telling about them would spoil the reading.

While often “everybody’s full of nerves,” not all is always bleak.  Home cooking runs deliciously throughout, reminding us of the goodness of families, summer southern days, and regional recipes of biscuits, corn bread, peach preserves, pickled cucumbers, and strawberry jam pound cake.  Periodic references to the estate’s “blue room,” bring forth a peaceful oasis bedecked with books.

Of Ben it’s asked: “What gave him this courage?” I wondered the same of the author.  For this is a brave novel, debut or not, that digs painfully deep into racial hatred.  At times, Grissom says in her thoughtful Author’s Note, she was drained by the writing.  But I think the reader is strengthened by the courageous voices who come through to us with a loud, very important message: We must never forget all the Mama Maes, who graced us with their woefully understated words: “Times, this life not easy.”


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The Fortune Hunter 2

An Empress, a Horseman, and an Heiress/Photographer:  A Victorian-era romantic triangle (England, 1875): The first word that comes to mind to describe Daisy Goodwin’s second historical novel is: delicious.  (The same can be said of her debut, The American Heiress.)  Since a New York Times testimonial on The Fortune Hunter’s star-studded cover said it first (“Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously”), let’s expound.

When was a novel’s dialogue your favorite part?  Goodwin’s award-winning British TV company, Silver River, prides itself on “taking a concept to the screen in the most entertaining way possible.”  So it stands to reason the author knows how to write dialogue in the most entertaining way possible.

Dialogue that is so clever.  It’s flirtatious, teasing, witty, flamboyant, sycophantic, compassionate, catty, loving, perceptive, and brimming with tidbits of British history under Queen Victoria’s reign – depending on which of the numerous characters is being depicted; many inspired by real figures.  Peopled with upstairs and downstairs characters from England, Scotland, Hungary, and an exuberant American photographer from California who contrasts his “country that is still being imagined” against “every patch of earth [in Britain] has a story,” the settings are central England’s prime fox hunting countryside, where such English country houses in Leicestershire (Melton Hall) and in Northhamptonshire (Althorp and Easton Neston) still loom marvelously and so “monstrously out of scale” we see them as characters too.

The incisive prose takes us inside the passions that drive the three main characters: fox hunting, steeplechase riding, and photography (for “viewers to see their characters, not their situation in life”).  All together, the result is an enormously entertaining novel, one you’ll regret when it closes on page 468. Mind you, none are wasted pages, for the dialogue is precise, getting us quickly inside the heads of these three characters:

THE EMPRESS:  Given “the mystique of royalty is a precious thing” and the Empress graces the stunning cover, let’s start with “the most beautiful woman in Europe,” Empress Elisabeth of Austria (also Queen of Hungary), nicknamed Sisi.  At 38, she’s been unhappily married to Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph since sixteen, a stifling life of “layers of custom and faux servility” under a spotlight she finds painfully dull except for her portrait painted by Winterhalter, with her extraordinarily long hair studded with diamond stars.  Sisi was, as she appears here, obsessed with her beauty, figure, and athleticism, had a pet monkey, and detests being photographed, fears her laugh lines will show.  Then again, “perhaps it was more important to find something to laugh about.”  The only time she feels free is hunting, so she’s escaped to England for the challenging Pytchley hunt, where the “idea of a galloping queen was peculiar and splendid.”  Surrounded by her devoted countess, baron, and cavalieri servanti, they cater to her whims (like raw veal skin treatment) and watch her every mood.  It changes in England when Captain Bay Middleton, a great English horseman, becomes her “pilot” guiding her riding, already accomplished and fearless.  Around Bay, she’s determined to seize “a chance at happiness.” How could he (or anyone) refuse her?  And so the romantic triangle begins to take shape.

THE HORSEMAN:  Bay isn’t in a position to refuse the piloting assignment because his commanding officer and equerry patron, Earl Spencer, Sisi’s friend, has summoned him to do so.  (The “Red Earl” is Viscount Althrop.  Yes, the same Althrop as Princess Diana’s childhood home – another slender beauty also unhappily married, whom the author draws parallels to.)  Bay is a “ladies man,” a gift and a curse.  History says he did have an affair with that married woman, Lady Blanche Hozier; perhaps her child, Clementine, was his? Just one of the juicy pieces of British history since Clementine later married Winston Churchill.  While it’s true Bay was Sisi’s “pilot” and there were rumors about their relationship, the romance here is Goodwin’s invention.  Bay’s womanizing is the subject of constant ridicule, which he endures gracefully; he’s even self-deprecating about it (“I am not the sort of man that makes mamas happy.”)  While he enjoys “being in the center of things,” he’s not full of himself.  Confused about his emotions, he’s most endearing when he expresses his compassion for his horse, Tipsy.

“You know what you are getting with a horse, whereas with a woman all you can see is what’s on the outside.  You can see a horses’ soul the moment you ride together but with a woman – well, I don‘t think I have ever met a woman who says what she means.”

THE HEIRESS/PHOTOGRAPHER:  Charlotte Baird is the diamond in the rough in the novel.  Also drawn from history, she’s the least well known of the triad.  A wealthy orphan due to inherit the Lennox fortune when she turns 25, she’s come to London from the Scottish Borders to be under the guardianship of her Aunt Adelaide (Lady Lisle) until she reaches the age of majority, 21, months away.  What a welcome contrast to Sisi!  She knows she’s “not the most striking looking girl in the room” (although Bay falls for her grey-blue eyes, the “color of a blue roan” he rode in Ireland), but her whimsical disdain for the pretentiousness and trappings of royalty, refreshing spirit, strong sense of self (“The one advantage of being motherless is that you learn how to make up your own mind about people”), and way of seeing the world through the lens of her camera wins our hearts.  When Bay starts paying attention to her – he’s her first suitor – she ignores jealous warnings that he’s a fortune hunter.  Charlotte’s not afraid to stand up for herself against her so-called protectors: Fred, her pompous, annoying brother, who cares more about himself and the family fortune; Augusta Crewe, her petty, “affected and calculating” soon-to-be sister-in-law; and Captain Chicken Hartopp, a friend of Fred’s from his cavalry, the real fortune hunter.

The repartee between Charlotte and Augusta is so good.  When Augusta warns Charlotte that “Captain Middleton, who comes from a modest background, is a fortune hunter,” Charlotte replies: “If that is the case, he does a much better job of concealing it than anyone else.”  Or, the time Charlotte is called upon by her mentor photographer/godmother Lady Dunwoody (inspired by the British photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden) to come to Holland Park, London to help her assemble a photographic exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society.  Augusta swoops in to remind Charlotte that nothing is as important as helping with her wedding, to which Charlotte replies: “But Augusta, as you have often pointed out, I know very little of the fashionable way of doing things … Forgive me, if I would rather go somewhere I can actually be of use.”  Touche!

Bay may find Charlotte “full of contrasts” but it’s Bay’s feelings for Charlotte and Sisi that are confused.  He finds himself spending more and more time with the Empress, yet he very much “likes the idea of making Charlotte happy.”  The stakes get higher when Charlotte inadvertently takes a photograph of Bay and Sisi exquisitely mounted on horseback readying for the hunt, capturing the intensity of Bay’s expression looking on at Sisi.  Since the “camera doesn’t lie,” Charlotte must confront the admonishments about Bay.  Are they true?

Just as the fox does not “run in a straight line” … “the endless circling and doubling was the element that made hunting so fascinating,” so too is the circling back and forth between Bay and Sisi and Charlotte.  We know which star we’re wishing for, but Goodwin keeps us guessing until the very end.


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Restoration & Merivel: A Man of His Time (sequel)

King’s Fool and Friend: The Highs, Lows, and Contradictions of a 17th century man (Restoration: 1664 – 1668/England; Merivel: 1683-1685/England, France, Switzerland):

Just as Restoration opens with Sir Robert Merivel – a lavishly imagined historical character we get to know so vividly over these quick-turning 800 pages he feels real – recounting “five beginnings” of his life, let’s start by listing five ways this posting is unlike any other:

  1. The review is a double-package.  Merivel is the sequel to Restoration, originally published in the UK in 1989, and nominated for the Man Booker Prize.  I read both to see how well Merivel stands by itself.  While it does (many times the reader is brought up-to-speed), you may feel greater compassion for Merivel having seen how far he’s come if you read both.
  2. 17th century England, the “Age of Possibility” when King Charles II was restored to the throne, is 200 years earlier than my historical fiction preferences.
  3. I love books whose prose is uplifting.  But Merivel is a man of many contradictions (“I’m a paradoxical thing” he tells us) – manic and melancholy (he cries so much he wears out handkerchiefs).  Since this is a penetratingly honest account of twenty years of his insatiability – insatiable lust, greed, and quest for purpose – the prose soars when his moods are joyous but plunges when he despairs.
  4. The prose is extraordinary but not always “enchanted.”  Merivel’s younger years, in Restoration (we meet him at 37), are more hedonistic than 15 years later when we meet him again in Merivel: A Man of His Time.  Sometimes the prose startles in its vulgarity and graphical depictions, but as Merivel grows more searching, loving, noble, so marks the prose.  When he speaks “soul-to-soul” about his love for animals, nature, music, art, the King, Pearce, his manservant, his daughter, the prose enchants.
  5. The prose never feels gratuitous.  In fact, Rose Tremain confirms this in her eye-opening “Afterward” to Restoration, explaining her fictional intentions.  She reached far back in history to a grandiose King who had so many mistresses (at least 8 I found in historical references, claiming 17 illegitimate children), to give fictional integrity to anything goes!

The result is immersive prose, an unforgettable fellow, and a powerful warning that resonates today.

A brief timeline of Merivel’s beginnings: 

1636:  Merivel at age 9 performs his first dissection.  Later, he excels in anatomy when he pursues medical studies in Cambridge, which explains his graphic prose

1647:  Meets his Quaker friend, John Pearce (“prone to Godliness”) in college

1661:  Father serves as glovemaker to restored King Charles II at Whitehall

1662:  Parents perish in a fire at their haberdashery shop, humanizing the Great Fire of London 4 years later

1664:  Forgoes medicine to serve the King, makes him laugh, is his tennis partner, saves his spaniel, Lou-Lou. (Animals play an important role in both novels.  Not all are commonplace, like an Indian Nightingale and Clarendon, a bear.)

1664:  A grateful King sets Merivel up in an estate in Norfolk that comes with a monthly stipend on the condition that he marries, in name only, one of his mistresses, Celia Clemence.  Merivel must promise not to love her for she belongs to the King, who wants to placate a jealous mistress, Lady Castlemaine.  Poor Queen Catherine!  (She does not produce any heirs.)

Bidnold, Merivels’ estate, looms large.  As he delights in changing its character, he reveals some of his:

“It was a Jacobean manor, moated and bordered by a substantial park … Though struck by its drabness, I rejoiced in it.  For from these plain rooms, I decided at once, I would fashion interiors that reflected, in their crimsons and vermillions, in their ochres and golds, in their abundance of colour and light, my own excessive and uncontainable nature.”

Bidnold may be magnificent, but the countryside is isolating and brutal in the winter, triggering loneliness and boredom for the restless Merivel.  Without doctoring, he must find other means for “enlightenment.”  He starts by aspiring to be an artist, hoping the painting “as wild, as undisciplined, as excessive as my own character” will “make me whole.”  His attempts to play the oboe, lead him to wonder:  “Does music teach wisdom?” “Does it civilize the soul?”  What music does is awaken him to the beautiful voice of his wife, hence her beauty, hence his downfall.

Merivel’s adventures take many roads.  One leads to re-discovering his old friend Pearce at Whittlesea, a Quaker mental hospital, where he joins the staff in the “service of the common good.”  Within this bedlam, he further disgraces himself by impregnating Katherine, a patient.  As Restoration draws towards its ending, sadly, this will not be the only time Merivel mourns his “beastliness” and “the peculiar ways in which, without meaning to, we sometimes bind ourselves to another person for all eternity.”

Merivel:  A Man of His Time opens with Merivel’s adoration for his seventeen-year-old daughter, Margaret, strengthening his likability.  When she departs with friends for Cornwall his depression deepens, along with self-reflections.  Tremain cleverly capitalizes his Feelings and Thoughts, emphasizing them.  Loneliness, Poverty, Poisoning, Suicide, and Meaninglessness are laid bare as five possible endings for Merivel’s destiny.

Still, he yearns for Wonders.  So Merivel dreams up the idea of traveling to Versailles, where King Louis XIV reigns, King Charles’ cousin.  Clutching the King’s letter of introduction, he hopes to serve another monarch.  Versailles, a “Song of Magnificence and Beauty,” dazzles him, like the room with 100 mirrors.  Along the way, he encounters a Dutch clockmaker, Hans, who signals a theme of time, ever more pressing.  Merivel is also touched by the predicament of a caged bear (“I don’t know why the plight of animals moves me so greatly.  Perhaps it is that I have never overcome my own Animal Nature”); poverty (“the great scourge across the land”), and a woman he meets, Madame Louise de Flamanville, whose father owns a chateau in Switzerland.  He is now 57 years old and craving Lightness of Heart.

As Merivel struggles to find peace, we cannot read fast enough to learn whether he has predicted his destiny.  By now, we care about this flawed, passionate, charitable, philosophical man.  When at last we find him ensconced in a comforting room back at his beloved Bidnold, reflecting on how much he “liked to sit, sometimes, and watch the Alterations of the sky, and listen to the wind, and feel that I was above the world and yet floating in its beauty, like a cloud,” we so wish his destiny to be floating in beauty.  But Merivel is a most contradictory soul, whose spirit we’ve come to know rather intimately.  So we brace ourselves for the coming clouds.


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