Reading Ireland Month: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

ri18Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.

Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.

11917193Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.

I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play. 

Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.

It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.

‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’

He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.


He only grinned.

‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’

819524The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.







The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank could not play music, he could not read a score, he had no practical knowledge whatsoever, but when he sat in front of a customer and truly listened, he heard a kind of song. He wasn’t talking a full-blown symphony. I would be a few notes; at the most, a strain. And it didn’t happen all the time, only when he let go of being Frank and inhabited a space that was more in the middle. It had been this way ever since he could remember.

34203744My first Rachel Joyce novel was a home run! The Music Shop is a page-turning, earnest, feel-good novel, something I’d say we all could use more of these days. It helps if you’re a music lover, but even if you aren’t this novel has plenty to offer. In fact I could see myself someday reading this again for comfort in a time of stress.

Most of the book takes place in 1988, around a struggling record shop that’s on a shabby, quiet street in a nondescript (I think unnamed?) British suburb. It’s owned by Frank, a man who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right album to shake up a person’s life in the way that they need. As good as he is as connecting people with the right music, he is a failure in the love department, not letting anyone get too close to him emotionally. We get hints of past trauma in his upbringing but it’s not until later in the book that the mystery of his past is revealed. Meanwhile, the CD age is upon him, and his record vendors are pressing him to stock CDs in his shop. He refuses, affronted by their lack of character.

But CD sound was clean, the reps argued. It had no surface noise. To which Frank replied, “Clean? What’s music got to do with clean? Where is the humanity in clean? Life has surface noise! Do you want to listen to furniture polish?”

Add a cast of quirky, mostly sweet fellow Unity Street shopkeepers and a bumbling, adorable shop assistant named Kit, and you have a winning atmosphere for the action of our story. A beautiful woman named Ilse Brauchmann faints outside Frank’s shop one day, and his life is never the same. Unable to face what he really feels for Ilse, he starts giving her “music lessons” at a nearby cafe, bringing her albums to listen to with accompanying listening notes. Frank’s shop business is not so good, as people start to want CDs and the city falls on hard times in general. People just aren’t shopping on their little street like they used to. As we watch Frank try to find ways to save his shop, and as he gets closer to Ilse, we also get glimpses of his past in chapters that depict his unusual upbringing by his less-than-maternal mother, Peg. She is the one who makes music so important in his life, but she also does a lot of emotional damage to young Frank with her parental shortcomings. And we come to find that the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann has some secrets of her own.

I just loved this book! I was occasionally frustrated with Frank, for being too guarded and obtuse, but I forgave him when I found out what had scarred him from wanting to love again. The novel had a cinematic feel to it, sort of like a combination of “High Fidelity” and a good rom-com like “You’ve Got Mail” or Notting Hill.” A couple of scenes made me laugh out loud. And the writing is really lovely, not overly descriptive but evocative all the same.

The water was blue-gray with the day’s reflection and trees, and dimpled as far as they could see with the falling rain. They sat for a long time, just watching the rain and smiling, her with one oar, him with the other. By now their hair was so wet it stuck to their heads, and the shoulders of her coat were more black than green, but they stayed out there in the middle of the lake, until the cloud shifted and the evening sun came out, and everything around them, every leaf, every blade of grass, every rooftop in the distance, shone like a piece of jewelry. 

This is the kind of book that made me want to sit down and listen to music the way I used to listen to it in high school. I’d sit on my bedroom floor and do nothing else but let the music wash over me, playing my favorite songs over and over, for hours. I’ve never had a record player of my own, I came along too late for that; my first music was cassette tapes and then the first ones I bought on my own were CDs. And now almost all of my new music purchases are from iTunes. But record albums are making a big comeback, and I’m actually considering getting a record player for the first time.

In any case, whether you’re a music lover or not, this is a heartwarming book that celebrates community and friendship, and taking the risks necessary to live a full life filled with love and relationships. If you’re searching for a lighter contemporary read, one with heart and wit, look no further than The Music Shop.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

As many of you have written before, it can feel daunting to write about a Five-Star Read. The sense of wanting to do a book justice is palpable. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, despite having previously read only one of this books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s one of my favorite books ever. I’ve listened to it and read it with my eyes, and I highly recommend both experiences.) I came to love him through listening to his podcast with fellow author Jess Walter – A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. It’s on (maybe?) permanent hiatus but you can still listen to the episodes wherever you find podcasts. The two authors are good friends and just have a marvelous time together discussing books, basketball, the writing process, and interviewing authors. But I digress.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a collection of short stories, published in 1993. I managed to space my reading out over nearly a month, just reading one story a day. Previously my short story collection habit was to blow through the collection like a novel, often becoming bored and restless near the end. But reading one story a day was a nice little break from my other reading, and it gave me time to sit with the story and think about it. I’m indebted to Buried in Print for inspiring me to approach short stories differently.

81bZLWAAi0LThese stories have a typically Alexie-like tone, a mixture of sadness and humor, a wry, understated humor. They often contain magical elements, dreams, visions. They are about broken families, life on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation (Alexie uses the term Indian throughout, not Native American.) They are about drunkenness, losing and finding love, powwows, friendships, basketball, quests, stories.

Uncle Moses gave no thought to his passing on most days. Instead, he usually finished his sandwich, held the last bite of bread and meat in his mouth like the last word of a good story.

“Ya-hey,” he called out to the movement of air, the unseen. A summer before, Uncle Moses listened to his nephew, John-John, talking a story. John-John was back from college and told Moses that 99 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible to the human eye. Ever since, Moses made sure to greet what he could not see.     

91AYFwSXGoL._SY679_This was a strong collection, with hardly any clunkers. One of my favorite stories was “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” the bones of which formed the movie Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for it, which I didn’t know back when I saw it in 1998. (I watched it again last week, and it was still good. It’s a bit more comedic than the stories here, but still worth a watch.) Anyway, the gist of the story is that Victor’s father, who had left the family long ago and moved to Phoenix, has died. Victor wants to go get his ashes and a little money his dad left him but doesn’t have the money for the trip. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is another Indian on the reservation who grew up with Victor. They were friends for a time, but as they grew older, Thomas started having visions and his stories started weirding people out. He was a “storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to.”  He offers Victor the money to collect his father’s ashes, but in return wants to accompany him on the trip.

“Victor, I’m sorry about your father,” Thomas said.

“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.

“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.”

It’s a quietly beautiful story about Victor learning to see the father who left him in a little bit of a different light, through a story that Thomas tells him. It’s a story about two former friends making peace with one another but not quite becoming friends again.

“Wait,” Thomas yelled suddenly from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”

Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”

“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.

“Just once?”

“Just once.” 

Victor waved him arms to let him know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor has ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.

Alexie’s writing is simple in style but complicated and hefty in substance. I love reading a story where things aren’t tied up neatly in a bow, but instead feel like a mixed bag of emotions. Those kinds of stories ring true, feel like life. I am so glad I finally read this (one of my own books – yay!) I want to read everything Alexie has written and will write in the future. He’s a storyteller worth savoring.

Have you read this, or any other of Alexie’s works? Have you seen the movie Smoke Signals? Talk to me in the comments!

TTT: Ten Books I Really Liked But Can’t Remember Anything About

When I saw the subject for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) I had to chuckle, and then sigh in relief. Thank goodness I’m not the only voracious reader who struggles to remember books I read years ago and rated highly! Often I remember how a book made me feel and whether or not I liked it, but that’s it. I know I could fill multiple TTT’s with this category, so I’m just going to go through my Goodreads files and select a few:

Criminals by Margot Livesey. Read in 2007. Four Stars. Goodreads review only compares her to Ruth Rendell, a literary psychological thriller.

Something Rising by Haven Kimmel. Read in 2007. Five Stars. My review only mentions a “moving story and sympathetic lead character.”

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler. Read in 2008. Four stars. I remember something weird happened, a historical fiction tale with a sci-fi angle.

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead. Read in 2002, maybe? Pre-Goodreads. Four stars. I remember loving this. I know there’s a journalist covering a festival in honor of the mythic figure of John Henry. I know we get at least some narrative from John Henry’s POV. That’s all I got. This is one I’d like to reread.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. 2003, maybe, not sure. Four stars. Pre-Goodreads. I’ve read a few more Lively novels since then and I definitely enjoy her, but this one is a big old blank for me.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. Read in 2009. Four stars. I remember it was a historical fiction adventure, a page-turner, and I really liked it.  That’s it!

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier. Read – who knows?  2004? Four stars. I remember a dual narrative, one present-day and one historical, set in France. I read a lot of Chevalier and they kind of blend together in my mind.

Songs Without Words by Ann Packer. Read in 2007. Five Stars. I even marked this as a “favorite!” I remember it was about a friendship. Good grief.

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman. Read in 2003. Four stars. I was on a huge Lipman kick that year. (I remember that because I was reading her the summer I went through a bad breakup.) Anyway, I adored her books, so funny and smart, and I do intend to reread her novels someday. She’s lighter but so witty, which is a tough balancing act.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler. Read in 2009. Four stars. She’s one of my favorite authors, but I confess her plot lines tend to blur in my mind a bit.

What struck me as I out together this list was: 1) how white it was and 2) how much of an impact this blog has made on my book memory. I believe that the act of writing a review, even a mini-review, makes a book more memorable. Also, I think it’s okay that we passionate readers forget books. Unless you have a photographic memory or something, you only have so much space in the brain for books. You’ve got to remember song lyrics and movie plotlines, that U2 concert in 2005 and your high school class trip to New York City, your kid’s dentist appointment and where you put your phone and keys, right? Sometimes it’s okay to enjoy something and let it go. I think it’s still there somewhere inside of you, if it was a book that made you feel something. And if you want to badly enough, you can always reread it. 🙂

So what makes a book memorable for you? Do you think blogging (or Goodreads) helps you remember a book better? Have you read any of the books on my list and do you remember them better than I do?



Catching Up

I’ve done a dangerous thing:  I’ve started a free trial of Amazon Prime. Actually, I can blame my husband – he’s the one who signed up for it, thinking it would make his item come faster (it didn’t.) Well, I thought, since I’ve got this for 30 days, what can I watch? Ah, yes, Bosch!  I’ve always wanted to see how they developed Michael Connelly’s beloved police procedurals for the small screen!

MV5BNjZjNjMyNDctZDNhOC00ODFlLTlmYzYtYjc2ZWMxNjNmYmE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjI4OTg2Njg@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_Uh-oh, my friends. It’s AMAZING. Here I am, eight episodes in, and I can feel my desire to read just ebbing away like sands through the hourglass. Titus Welliver is mesmerizing as LAPD detective Harry Bosch, and the show is just as addictive as the novels. The political intrigue in the police department is just as as compelling as the cases Bosch works. I don’t plan on continuing the subscription after 30 days so I fear that my reading will take a bit of a backseat for the next couple of weeks until I get through the three seasons currently available. Good thing I’ve been on such a hot streak in 2018. I’ve read five books! And two of them are books I own, which means a great start to my small goal of reading at least 12 of my own books.

Let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve read so far this year. The longer I go between finishing a book and writing about it, the less I want to write a review. Here are some highlights of my January so far.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I love starting out the year with a five-star read!  This was just as lovely and moving as My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s set in the 51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_same universe (Lucy even appears in one story, about her and her siblings.) I don’t know how Strout does it, but she takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. She also seems to know how to manipulate my tear-ducts, as I cried on more than one occasion while reading these linked short stories. My two favorite stories in the novel were “Windmills” and “Mississippi Mary.” The latter is about the special bond between a youngest (and favorite) daughter and her mother. Mary (the mom) has moved to Italy, finally living her life for herself and experiencing true love with a younger Italian man. Angelina (the daughter) is middle-aged, having marital troubles, and has never gotten over her parents’ divorce or the fact that Mary has moved across an ocean.  It’s a story about shifting roles as parents age and whether or not a child can ever fully see a parent as a person in her own right. It’s just a knock-out. If you can get a copy of this and only have time for one story, read this one.

51ZCLMRv8nL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I listened to The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and what an uplifting audio book! Cowritten and narrated by Douglas Abrams, (two excellent voice actors narrate the parts of the Dalai Lama and Tutu) this book is the fruit of a week’s visit between the two spiritual leaders and friends in Dharamsala, India to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. Abrams asks the men to share their wisdom in conversations about cultivating joy in the midst of worldly troubles. I loved hearing how close the two men are, how they laugh with and tease one another. I laughed out loud quite a few times, and when it was time for them to say goodbye to one another at the end of the week, I cried. This is a five-star audio book, and I wholeheartedly recommend it for everyone, especially if you could use an emotional lift. I may end up buying a physical copy to refer to again.

My book group pick for January was Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg. Historical fiction, set in New York City in the 1920’s and ’30’s. This was a page-turner for me as I finished it in two days. Mazie, loosely based on a real-life woman, is a bold, unconventional young23245422 woman for the time, and I found myself empathizing with her even as she made some choices that I didn’t care for. There were some surprisingly sexy scenes in this book too! Our book group had a lively discussion about how successful the diary/interview format of the book was, and whether or not Mazie felt authentic to the time period. Personally I found her a big-hearted, vulnerable character who tried her best to make lemonade from the lemons that life threw her way. This was a solid four-star read, sad, but worth it.

Finally, I finished the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante with the final installment, The Story of the Lost Child. I had finished the third novel back in February of 2016 (!) and for some reason had put off reading the fourth. I do get easily bored reading too much of the 81V-4jCgCiLsame kind of thing in succession, and I probably just got distracted by other books. In any case, I was disappointed by Lost Child. I found it tedious and too long. What I loved about the other three novels, the complicated “frenemy” relationship between the two main characters, Elena and Lila, took a back seat to Elena’s love life. Boring! Her relationship with Nino was just painful; he was such a cad and Elena just dithered and dawdled about her decisions. Oh well. At least I’m done with the series, and it was a book I own too, so that’s a plus.

Right now I’ve just started reading Nella Larsen’s Passing, and Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Both are very good so far. And they’re both books I own!  I’m on a roll in that department. Right now Bosch may have stolen my attention, but I won’t let these gems linger for too long. Happy reading and have a great weekend, everyone!  Tell me, what books and television shows have caught your fancy this week?



Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (#AnneReadalong2017)

“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer, sometimes – only sometimes,” she added under her breath.  She had found it very hard to laugh after the three weeks she had just lived through – she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and so freshly.  And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare – Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much.  Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded?  Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing!  How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds!  And how wonderful she was with Jims.

“She really could not do better for that child than if she had raised a baker’s dozen, Mrs. Dr. dear,” Susan had avowed solemnly.  “Little did I ever expect it of her on the day she landed here with that soup tureen.”

433533What a way to end the #AnneReadalong2017!  I didn’t know what to expect from Rilla of Ingleside after the previous two books in the series, which for me were a two-star and a three-star read, respectively.  This one was a gem, darker and emotionally richer  than any other entry in the series.  Anne’s youngest daughter, Rilla, changes from a dreamy, aimless, fun-loving girl to a resourceful, courageous, dependable young women under the shadow of the First World War and its hardships.  We see how the community of Glen St. Mary rises to the occasion, offering its sons and brothers to the cause with bravery and grace.

There are many things to love about Rilla, from the trademark Montgomery descriptions of  beautiful landscape to the beginning exploration of Rilla’s young love life.  And I can’t forget to mention precious Dog Monday, Jem’s loyal furry friend who waits for him at the train station for the duration of the lad’s time at war.  I got choked up a time or two thinking about him getting excited every time the train pulled in and young men came home.  And one of my favorite characters from books past is in fine form here:  the formidable Susan, who isn’t shy with her opinions at all.

“When I wake up in the night and cannot go to sleep again,” remarked Susan, who was knitting and reading at the same time, “I pass the moments by torturing the Kaiser to death.  Last night I fried him in boiling oil and a great comfort it was to me, remembering those Belgian babies.”

“We are told to love our enemies, Susan,” said the doctor solemnly.

“Yes, our enemies, but not King George’s enemies, doctor dear,” retorted Susan crushingly.  She was so well pleased with herself over this flattening out of the doctor completely that she even smiled as she polished her glasses. 

Rilla herself is a marvelous character, growing and changing from a frivolous, happy-go-lucky girl to a young woman of great character and heart.  I love how she decided to take care of the sickly, orphaned baby Jims, whose mother died in childbirth and whose father was at war.  She made no pretense of liking babies at first, and I admired her honesty, but she grew to love little Jims as if he were her own, and it was sweet to see the change.  (SPOILER AHEAD) I was sad that she had to give him back to his father but happy that they would be so close and she could still see him often.  I also appreciated her maturation as it applied to her “frenemy” Irene Howard.  (Oh, Irene was just evil!)

Irene was not, as Mrs. Elliot would say, of the race that knew Joseph. 

We get to see what it was like to send away beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts across the sea to fight, to dread every time the phone rang or the news came in.  And Walter – oh, Walter!  I won’t spoil anything that happens with Rilla’s beloved older brother Walter, but his conflicted soul at the war’s outset was a deft portrayal of what many young men went through, probably.  His letter to Rilla broke my heart.

This book ended up on my year-end Best Of list because it captivated and moved me.  I feel like I’ve read quite a few books set during the Second World War but not as many featuring the First, so that was a welcome change.  It was especially poignant when characters near the end remarked on how humanity might change for the better and learn lessons from the horrors of this war – little did they know that just twenty years later they’d be facing similar heartache and loss.

I’m so glad I participated in the AnneReadalong2017, and I want to thank Jane from Greenish Bookshelf and Jackie from Death By Tsundoku for co-hosting this event!  I never would have made it all the way through the series on my own, without the framework of one book per month.  If I had quit, say, after book five, I would have missed this marvelous last book of the series.  For anyone who, like me, didn’t read this series in their childhood, I definitely recommend them – well, the first five books and the eighth book, anyway!  🙂  They are delightful, a real respite from the crassness and noise of our time as well as entertaining, humorous stories with characters to fall in love with.


At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

“Are you any happier here now, love?”  When she could not answer, he sighed.

“Oh, I am hopeless!” she said impulsively.  “I find it so difficult to be happy. I wish it were not so.  Are you happy?”

“Yes, on the whole, I am very happy.  I suppose this life suits me, interests me.”

“What would interest me, suit me, I don’t know.  I daresay I want life to always be pleasure – sitting in the sun, drinking.”

“Pleasure is not happiness.”

“No.”  But she still saw herself beneath a striped awning, at the edge of some pavement, a market square, and its cobble-stones full of shadows and high lights like a tubful of suds.  On the iron table was a glass still clouded with some frosted drink, there was the smell of sun-baked foreign newsprint; warmth, leisure, delight, relaxation, the frosted drink an illumination of contentment at the back of her head; across the table a shadow leaned forward and laid a hand over her hand on the iron table.

at-mrs-lippincotesElizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs. Lippincote’s is a treasure, a first novel (written in 1945) that sparkles with insight, wit, and a hint of melancholy.

Julia is married to Roddy, a lieutenant in the RAF who is stationed at a base somewhere in the south of England during WWII.  They have one son, Oliver, and they also live with Roddy’s cousin Eleanor, who is recovering from an alluded-to nervous breakdown. They’re renting a furnished home from Mrs. Lippincote, and Julia doesn’t hesitate to explore the drawers and cabinets, speculating about the photographs and mementos she finds.  Eleanor is somewhat in love with Roddy and silently resentful of Julia, whom she suspects is not the wife that she feels Roddy deserves.  Roddy is what you’d expect an RAF pilot from the 1940s to be – solid, conventional, kind of obtuse, and definitely not seeing Julia for who she really is or wants to be.

Julia and Oliver have an absolutely adorable relationship.  Oliver is quite precocious, a voracious reader with a tremendous imagination who for the first part of the book is ill and misses quite a bit of school. (The scene where he asks where babies come from is hilarious.)  Julia frets over Oliver as the mother of an only child would (I definitely identified with this!)

Lying back in her chair, she watched Oliver’s thin hands dealing out the cards with slow deliberation.  “Oh God, make him fat!” she prayed.  “Please God, if only you would, I’d believe in you.  For ever and ever, amen.”  As she picked up her bundle of cards, her mouth smiled, but her eyes flashed and swam with tears.

We follow Julia as she strikes up a friendship (mild flirtation?) with Roddy’s Wing Commander, an intellectual man who shares Julia’s interest in the Brontë sisters.  (He seems to observe Julia more shrewdly than her husband does.)  She also goes out occasionally for a walk and ends up chatting with a Mr. Taylor, an old acquaintance from their pre-war London days who is not physically or mentally well.  They have some interesting conversations but nothing untoward.  However, Roddy is hostile to him and doesn’t like Julia going out by herself at night.  He expects her to be more conventional and more attentive to his needs.

She exasperated him.  Society necessarily has a great many little rules, especially relating to the behaviour of women.  One accepted them and life ran smoothly and without embarrassment, or as far as that is possible where there are two sexes.  Without the little rules, everything became queer and unsafe.

Julia is a fascinating character – she is more direct and more moody than Roddy would like her to be and I love her for it.  She seemed authentic to me.  She adored her child but felt stifled in  her role as wife and mother.  She seemed to long for intelligent conversation and more freedom.  She sees Roddy much more clearly than he ever sees her, but she seems resigned to that role.  Perhaps she will lobby Roddy for more freedom, perhaps they will part… the ending is ambiguous, but I feel a strength coming from Julia for her future days.

This novel was a real treat to read.  This is an author that I suspect I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know.  She reminds me a bit of my beloved Barbara Pym, only more acerbic and a bit edgier.  I’m delighted to have finally discovered Elizabeth Taylor’s writing – and I’ve got THIRTEEN more of her novels to read!  Merry Christmas to me!

And Merry Christmas to all my blogger friends who celebrate, and if you have time off from work in the coming days, may your reading time be plentiful and satisfying!