Saturday, August 29, 2009

Size 12 is not Fat: Meg Cabot

A delightfully entertaining and easy read – a chick-lit mystery novel at its best, without pretensions to be anything else. Heather Wells is a former teen pop star fallen on hard times and has decided to go back to college. To earn her keep she takes a job as assistant residence hall director in New York City. A couple of undergrad female students die, supposedly ‘elevator surfing’. Heather decides there must be something else going on, and risks her own life to find out exactly what.

Cabot has an ear for language and gets it right, giving the story and setting an authentic feel. The plot moves along at a good pace and there’s plenty of humour involving all those little problems that women have to put up with: men who cheat, dress manufacturers who mislabel the dress size, and the impossible boss.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Things My Mother Never Told Me: Blake Morrison

I read this book, which for the most part also covers the same period of time, soon after reading To War With Whitaker, so comparison is inevitable. Both books are about strong women, one told in her own voice, this one written by her son, who also uses wartime letters between his parents to help tell the story of their courtship and eventual marriage after the war.

Morrison’s mother comes from a large Irish family – just how large only becomes known to him after his mother’s death. She had kept many details of her early life hidden from her English husband and children due to the discrimination experienced by Irish Catholics in England during her lifetime. She came to England soon after qualifying as a doctor, and worked in a string of hospitals throughout the war. Her work is difficult and demanding, and she’s frequently exhausted, often getting ill. At the same time, the courtship is carried on through letters and infrequent meetings, as Arthur Morrison, also a doctor, is serving overseas for most of the war.

It is Arthur Morrison who comes off least well in this narrative. His letters show him to be stubborn, insensitive, petulant, easily bored, and sexist. It grates that Kim (her real name is Agnes, but he gradually forces her to change it) is doing more interesting and demanding work than he is. He berates her for being a Catholic and refuses to get married in a Catholic church. Eventually he has a long-term relationship with another woman, for which he never apologises; nor does he ever acknowledge the hurt he causes his wife. The author repeatedly steps in, as if he could warn his mother against marrying his father, but I found this device tiresome and it does little to add any interest to the history of his parents’ relationship. In the end, for me, this is the story of a very ordinary man who ruins the life of a woman who might have gone on to achieve a more rewarding life had she grown up in different conditions and at a time when it was more acceptable for a woman to have a career. Directly following the war there was a lot of pressure on women to return to what was considered their proper domain in the home. Blake Morrison also wrote And When Did You Last See Your Father? but following what I’ve learned about his father in this book I feel no urge to read it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Natural Curiosity: Margaret Drabble

One of my unspoken complaints when looking for a good book to read is that it seems impossible to find a good novel that reflects my own life in any way. I would like to find a story that I can read with pleasure and identify with the main characters, find something of myself in them, read the questions that I have about life and learn how others in similar situations answer those questions.

In this novel the main characters are three women in their 50s in 1980’s Britain, and I wonder if any women readers were able to identify with these characters. Not me. These women are comfortably sure of themselves and of where they belong, they seem ‘very English’ to me, complacent, most of their questions in life answered. So, not great literature, no really big issues raised, just every day lives of comfortably well-off professional older women.

Is it a good read? The large number of minor characters becomes difficult to follow, but there’s enough going on, enough to keep us wondering what’s going to happen next, with a little bit of mystery thrown in, to keep the reader occupied and interested. Good enough.