Tag Archives: New York

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Travelling with books, Writing and Walking

The Street by Ann Petry

For some groups of people the American Dream has always been a lie. And for some of them it’s a nightmare. In the 40s if you were a single mother, black, living in New York you were at the bottom of the bottom of the heap. In The Street Ann Petry describes the life of the urban poor, revealing the tensions that existed for them all and how their hopes and intentions were blasted. 

The Street

New York, during the Second World War, a young single mother moves into a few rooms on 116th Street in Harlem. She has left her husband, who was unfaithful while she was away working and moved away also from her father and his girlfriend who showed little care for the boy. Lutie Johnson has brought her son, Bub, who is eight, to live here. 

Lutie wants to make a better life for herself and the boy and has already studied and worked hard and saved to get this far. She believes that the street is no more than a staging post. She has to leave Bub alone so much he is taken under the wing by the vengeful Super of the block, Mr Jones. Everyone in the street is hustling to get something from everyone else. There’s Mrs Hedges, who keep a brothel and offers Lutie work. She is the white man Junta’s right hand woman and protects Lutie for his benefit. 

It amused her to watch the brawling, teeming, lusty life that roared past her window. She knew so much about this particular block that she came to regard it as slightly different from any other place. When she referred to it as ‘the street,’ her lips seemed to linger over the words as though her mind paused at the sound to write capital letters and then enclosed the words in quotation marks – thus setting it off and separating it from any other street in the city, giving it an identity, unmistakable and apart.

Looking out of the window was good for business, too. There were always lonesome, sad-looking girls just up from the South, or little girls who were tired of going to high school, and who had seen too many movies and didn’t have the money to buy all the things they wanted. (231)

Then there’s Min who lives with the Super, but their relationship becomes vitriolic and violent. She seeks the help of a root doctor to keep him from throwing her out. Although in the end she leaves him. And the school teacher, a white woman who hates the children. And the girl Mary who work for Mrs Hedges and falls for a sailor. 

Lutie reflects on the situation she finds herself in.

Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lynch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place. And she began thinking of Pop unable to get a job; of Jim slowly disintegrating because he, too, couldn’t get a job, and of the subsequent wreck of their marriage; of Bub left to his own devices after school. From the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands. (297)

Lutie has maintained a faith in the American Dream up to this point. If she can just work hard enough, or sing for the band, or save enough money, she and Bub can get out of the street and into a better life. No good will come of Lutie’s efforts. She is a single woman who is black, so at the bottom of every heap and considered fair game by many. Everyone wants to take something from Lutie. But in the end she she commits a grievous crime, abandons Bub to juvenile detention and escapes from the street and the city. The world will close over her brief stay in this street. The reader has a strong sense that Lutie will find herself in a different but similar street again soon.

Underlying all the action is the difficulty for black men to find work, or work that is not demeaning. The Superintendent of the block is black, but he is half crazy with being inside all the time. Boots, who leads a band, and is a fixer for Junta, has worked as a Pullman Car porter, resenting being at the beck and call of every person, and being called ‘Boy!’

Although Lutie is the main character, we are given a good look at many of the people she meets, and to understand how they are also caught by the other people on the street. The street is any street. The tragedy written into the story from the outset is more than Lutie’s tragedy. Hustle, give in, fight back, there are opportunities to do all of these. But in the end the street is a dead end. For everyone.

I originally chose this novel for the Decades Project, for the 1940s. I was so impressed by A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn that The Street will not be included. The Street was the first novel of the black American female writer Ann Petry, published in America in 1946. It is highly recommended.

Other Blog Reviews

A Life in Books blog reviewed it in January. She regrets that the novel is still relevant today. You can find it here.

Heavenali says that the novel is compelling and devastating and praises Virago for reissuing it, here.

The Street by Ann Petry, first published in 1946 and by Virago in 1986 and reissued with a smart new cover in 2019. 403pp

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is my choice for the 1920 Club. Its portrayal of restriction seems very appropriate for our times. Here we read of a narrow society, which curbs its members with invisible rules and customs. Mostly set in Old New York in 1871 the fates of three young people are determined by these outdated codes. In this novel Edith Wharton returns to the theme of love outside society’s boundaries. 

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. Bloggers read a book from the year and post their thoughts on it, linking to their blogs. Simples, and a great way to choose a book that you might not otherwise read. It suits me perfectly, because I don’t want to chase new books all the time, but read and reread books, especially from the 20th century. 

The Age of Innocence

We are in New York at a precise time, 1871. We follow Newland Archer, a young man who is accomplished and cultured and believes himself a little above the society into which he was born. He will find himself as trapped by the families’ codes as everyone else, especially as he is about to announce his engagement to May Welland.

There is a problem for May’s cousin Ellen Olenska has just returned from Europe where it is known that she has abandoned her marriage to a Polish count. No matter that he is the transgressor, in Old New York  circles it is the woman of a failed marriage who is ostracised. And divorce is not accepted. And no-one in this circle speaks directly about these difficult matters.

Newland Archer agrees to announce his engagement early in order to protect May by accepting the Countess. He also persuades Ellen not to divorce her husband. He gradually falls for Ellen, and the feeling is mutual. Sensing that his attentions are elsewhere, but we are not sure if she is aware of his entanglement with Ellen, May offers to release Archer from the engagement, but he feels obliged by duty to continue to the wedding. As the Archer and Ellen become more involved everybody assumes they are lovers and conspire with May to exclude her. At the point when Archer decides that he will abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe, May reveals that she is pregnant.

Archer assumes he is above the double standards that he can so clearly see operating within their close circle. Early on he announces the revolutionary idea that men and women should be judged by the same standards. He imagines that he will achieve a companionate marriage with May, while at the same time thinking in terms of possessing her, and expecting the impossible innocence (ignorance) and purity that was implied in her virginal appearance. The author early on reveals that he assumes he is not caught by the practices, especially the silences and social estrangements that the families enforce. But he is too weak, or is it too loyal to May, to go directly against the codes. And because he is a man he has less to lose than either woman, and benefits from these codes and double standards. And because he is a man he has been trained to be self-centred.

May has been schooled in the ways of the families. Her appearance is perfect, she has intelligence, but does not use it for cultural ends. Archer quickly comes to see that marriage to her will not bring companionship but perpetuate the relationships of the society into which they were born. She out-manoeuvres Archer at every turn. It is so well done that one is not sure how far she does it consciously, that is until her final conversation with Ellen is revealed when May was deceitful even as she played her trump card.

Ellen is a more sympathetic character. Her appearance especially her interests and clothing are unorthodox, coming as she does from Europe. She challenges the mores of Old New York by the style of her appearance, the décor in her house, her social practices, and especially by her relationship with Newland Archer. She also has a way of escape. Having been persuaded not to divorce her abusive husband, and therefore with no independence or money of her own she takes a stipend from the matriarch of the family and returns to Europe. 

All three characters have suffered from the limitations of New York in the 1870s. The final chapter reveal that within a few decades it has all changed. And of course the massive social upheaval of the First World War had played its part in that.

Edith Wharton in 1920

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton knew what she was writing about. She had been raised in New York in the 1870s, in the social milieu that she describes in this novel. She had made a bad marriage, and her husband had embezzled her money and they were finally divorced in 1913. From 1908-10 she was involved in a passionate love affair with Morton Fullerton an American journalist.in Paris. The Age of Innocence was her 12th novel and she was recognised as an exceptional writer in America as well as Europe where she now lived.

Reading The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, 1st editiion

The introduction by Sarah Blackwood to the Penguin edition can be found on the Literary Hub website. She draws readers’ attention to the details in the novel. Indeed much of the tightness, restrictions of the world of the Archers and Wellands is achieved by precise details: of the time (details of plays, opera performances, books and so forth); the place (street names, descriptions of the Museum before it became the Metropolitan); physical details of houses, gardens, interiors; and clothing. The details do other work, such as revealing some of the unspoken fracture lines: eg the muddy wedding dress dragging after May across the room (p229). Throughout the novel it is clear that the characters can read every details of each other’s behaviour, and that May can do this best of all. 

The book in the past was been portrayed as costume drama, a historical romance, but that is misleading. The wedding of May and Newland occurs precisely half way through this book and it explores myths and challenges of marriage and notes that social change is on its way. 

Scorcese’s film was made in 1993, and appears to have been a costume drama starring Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer. It was critically acclaimed, but apparently did not do well at the box office. I have not seen it.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton first published in 1920. I used the edition published by Oxford World’s Classics. 265pp

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921

No 45 on the Guardian’s List of 100 best novels

Related posts on Bookword

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) 

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Passing by Nella Larsen

Published in 1929 Passing was the second and final novel by the American writer Nella Larsen. The title refers to a ‘Negro’ (her term) passing as a white person. Set in Chicago and New York among the middle classes, Passing exposes the damage done by definitions and categorisation by race. The novel provides a challenge to the concept of race altogether.

This is the third book for the Decades Project (see below for more details), being my choice of books from the decade 1920-1929 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.

Passing

The novel is set in the 1920s in the USA. Irene is taking tea in a department store in Chicago. To do this she is ‘passing’ for Irene is light enough in her colouring to appear to be white. ‘Negroes’ were not accepted in the restaurant. Irene was born and brought up in this city. A childhood friend, Clare, recognises her and they sit together to talk about old times. Clare is also ‘passing’, not just in the store for convenience, but she is married to a white man (unlike Irene who is married to a doctor who could not pass). Clare is a risktaker, lively and beautiful.

She is keen to spend more time with Irene, because she misses the company of ‘negroes’. She  invites Irene to tea and there Irene meets Clare’s husband. There is a shocking scene when Bellow laughingly explains why he calls his wife ’nig’- because she is getting darker with the passing of the years. And then, when Irene enquires whether he has ever met a ‘negro’ he replies:

“Thank the Lord, no. And never expect to! But I’ve known people who’ve known them, better than they know their black selves. And I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people. And,” he added darkly, “worse”. (172)

There is so much to be shocked at here. The open, bragging way in which John Bellow dismisses ‘negroes’; that Irene did not challenge him; that there is such a casual racism in his criticism; and he is standing next to his wife who has been ‘passing’ for many years.

Irene is glad to return to her home in Harlem, New York where her husband is a doctor. Irene reappears some months later, wanting to mix with the lively inhabitants of Harlem. At first resistant to her troublesome former schoolfriend, Brian warms to Clare’s charms.

Fearing an affair, Irene contemplates what can be done, when she accidentally meets Clare’s husband again while she is in the company of a ‘Negro’ friend. John Bellow begins to understand and becomes very angry. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a death from a 6th floor window. Was the victim pushed or did they jump? We are not sure.

‘Passing’ in other ways

While the story of the novel is tied to the passing of ‘negroes’ there are some other kinds of passing that Nella Larsen reveals in this novel. We should also note that Irene, from who’s point of view the novel is written, is happy to pass in order to get a decent cup of tea, in other words, when it suits her, but condemns Clare’s more radical form, by which her whole married life is constructed around passing.

The term could also be used to describe other compromises people make. Irene is concerned to preserve her marriage to Brian at all costs. She would be prepared to pass as a happy wife, keeping up the nice home and the plans for their two children even while knowing Brian was sexually unfaithful. 

And what are we to make of the white folks who like to visit Harlem and mix in with the black culture? This was the time of the Harlem Renaissance after all. 

And finally passing might also refer to death.

And the reader cannot help noticing that all these other aspects are connected to the overall idea that race was a defining social category from which other issues arise.

Race in Passing

In Passing Clare has to perform being white, not being ‘negro’. This is what categorising by race does to people; also categorising by other ‘isms’. When we were writing about our ageing population we spent some time thinking about the pressures on people to act old, perform being older members of the community. Sexuality, gender and other categories must also be performed or hidden. The first two books in the Decades Project for 2020 were about young women who refused to perform as required by their families and insisted on leading their lives in their own way. 

The damage done by the category and labelling of race is exposed in Passing. The the main characters, Irene and Clare, and their husbands are all living lives that are lies. 

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen was born in 1891. She died in 1964. She was part of the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s – 30s. She wrote only two novels because she gave up writing when she was accused of plagiarism. She was the daughter of a black father who deserted her mother who then married a Danish émigré like herself. So Nella grew up in a white family, although she was bi-racial. 

In some ways this book is dated, but it still has relevance today. I thoroughly recommend it. My book group read this a few years ago and it provoked some very interesting discussion. I know of another book group that had the same experience.

Passing by Nella Larsen was first published in 1929. I used the edition published by Serpent’s Tail (with her first novel Quicksand) in 2014. 105pp

The Decades Project 2020

This year I have returned to adult fiction and to my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20thCentury Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I am choosing one from each decade every month. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. 

The first two choices for the project were

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)

Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Here is a book about the love of books and about generosity and how together they developed into a warm friendship between many people. That is the pleasure of reading 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.

We have reached the 1970s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury. This book is not especially important in the history of women or of Anglo-American relations. But it has a great charm and its popularity has endured since its publication in 1971. Helped by a film with good-looking actors.

84 Charing cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road is a book of letters. Mostly it is the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York and Frank Doel, who worked at Marks & Co at the eponymous address in London. Helene Hanff first wrote to request copies of books that were difficult to find in New York at the end of the Second World War. Marks & Co was a second hand and antiquarian bookshop.

October 5, 1949

Gentlemen,

Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialise in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian book-sellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books, and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up school-boy copies.

I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean seondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?

Very truly yours,

Helene Hanff

(Miss) Helene Hanff

The books she wanted were non-fiction: Hazlitt essays, Oxford verse, and so on. Helene Hanff was a writer, of articles, tv scripts and children’s history books. She did not earn a great deal from her writing.

The responses came first from FPD, later Frank Doel, finally Frank. At first Frank Doel was formal and scrupulous in his replies. But as she responded with wit and warmth to the books she received or did not receive, he dropped the reserve.

The turning point in the relationship, turning it from a commercial transaction to a friendship, was when Helene Hanff sent a food parcel containing ham at Christmas 1949 to the staff of Marks & Co. Rationing continued in Britain until1953, so she continued to send food parcels.

Here are some examples:

March 1950

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing. You are just sitting AROUND.

September 1950

he has a first edition of Newman’s University for six bucks, do I want it, he asks innocently.

Dear Frank:

Yes I want it.

April 1951

To All at 84, Charing Cross Road:

Thank you all for the beautiful book. I’ve never owned a book with pages edged all around in gold.

Gradually other members of staff began to write to Helene Hanff, for they too benefited from the food parcels. Frank Doel’s wife joined in and even their neighbour. Helene Hanff clearly had the gift of creating a community even through the vagaries of the British and American postal services.

And then in January 1969, not quite twenty years after that first letter Helen Hanff received this letter.

Dear Miss,

I have just come across the letter you wrote to Mr Doel on the 30thSeptember last, and it is with great regret that I have to tell you that he passed away on Sunday 22ndDecember, the funeral took place last week on Wednesday the 1stJanuary.

… Do you still wish us to try and obtain the Austens for you?

What is special about 84 Charing Cross Road?

The pleasure in this correspondence is the evident love of reading and the love of books.  Another pleasure is to see the beneficial effects of generosity of spirit. And the death of Frank Doel was not the end of it. This book was published two years later. The chief correspondents had never met, but she had always wished to visit London, and now she had friends to meet. When she could finally afford the airfare she visited to celebrate the publication of this book. Following her London visit Helene Hanff wrote The Duchess of Bloomsbury, included in the edition I read.

And then in 1987 there was the film, starring Anthony Hopkins at his warmest as Frank Doel, and Anne Bancroft as Helene Hanff. It is hard to reread the book without these two occupying my mental image of the writers. But they did an excellent job. And at least it wasn’t made into a rom-com with a happy-ever=after together ending.

Helene Hanff died in 1997. She was 79 years old.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

Silent Springby Rachel Carson (1962)

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookwordplease enter your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge bowled me over and I have wanted to read My Name is Lucy Barton since it appeared last year and was so well received. Its publication in paperback was not until March this year and now I have read it.

Lucy Barton is not Olive Kitteridge.

I really enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, which I reviewed for the older women in fiction series last June. Two things about Olive Kitteridge appealed to me: first the main character was a rather irascible older woman, not easy to like, and the other characters found her hard to get on with. This made her a very unconventional character. Second, the structure of Olive Kitteridge was unusual. It was made up of a series of short stories, and Olive Kitteridge was not the main character in all of them. This allowed Elizabeth Strout to explore Olive Kitteridge from different viewpoints and at different times in her life.

Elizabeth Strout is a skilled writer and so she has not repeated these novelistic features in this book. With Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout has in some ways been more conventional. The main character, Lucy, is more sympathetic to the reader than grouchy Olive, being rather tentative as she recalls the time she was seriously ill in hospital.

The novel is framed by the recollections from her hospital bed. Her mother comes to visit for five days and the women talk. The narrative is structured in a series of short sections, not chapters, having no titles or numbers, each simply beginning on a new page. So it shares some of the episodic nature of her previous book, but the focus is steadily on Lucy Barton. And all of it goes to answer the implied question of the title: who is Lucy Barton?

So who is Lucy Barton?

This novel explores what has made Lucy Barton the person she is, and by implication asks the reader to consider the influences on her own life. There are three main influences:

  • Other people, especially her mother.
  • Her location, Amgash Illinois in her childhood and New York as an adult
  • Her career as a writer.

Lucy is remembering being ill in a New York hospital with complications after appendicitis. She missed her husband and young girls, and she lay looking at the Chrysler Building through her window. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen for perhaps ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and their relationship is revealed by their conversation and by the omissions in what they say. The reader begins to see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, and childhood poverty (cultural as well as financial).

Her mother tells several stories about people they knew in the past. Most of these people have unsuccessful marriages. Some of the mother-daughter talk appears pointless, or breaks off at key moments or seems to be a repetition of a sad childhood game.

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. “Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

She flicked her hand at me, still looking out the window. “Silly girl,” she said and shook her head. “You silly, silly girl.”

I lay back and closed my eyes. I said, “Mom, my eyes are closed.”

“Lucy, you stop it now. “ I heard the mirth in her voice.

“Come on Mom. My eyes are closed.”

There was silence for a while. I was happy. “Mom?” I said.

“When your eyes are closed,” she said.

“You love me when my eyes are closed?”

“When your eyes are closed,” she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy – (135)

Other people are less important than the mother who could not tell her she loved her: her silent and hopeless father; Jeremy the artist who suggested she should be ruthless and perhaps already was; the novelist Sarah Payne who gave her advice on her writing; and her husband.

Chrysler Building, New York photo by David Shankbone, August 2008 via WikiCommons.

Lucy left the small town in Illinois for New York City, and loves its variousness, the vivid people she meets and sees. The changing view of the Chrysler Building is a delight to her, reminding her of how far she has come from her roots. She reflects however that the dark experience of her childhood remains present.

But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. (14)

On Sarah Payne’s writing course Lucy is struck by this comment:

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. (98)

And Lucy has become a successful writer, but still is struggling to understand who she is and what she thinks and what she does.

I love the cover: the window is cut out to show the Chrysler Building. The designer should receive a mention.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin 193pp

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016.

In April 2017 Elizabeth Strout will publish her latest novel in America: Anything is Possible.

Over to you

Have you read this book? Or others by Elizabeth Strout? What did you think?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

To subscribe and receive email notification of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project