The Marriage Portrait

Strong willed teenage girls have been in literature since Shakespeare’s thirteen year old Juliet. Maggie O’Farrell uses Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” and the Macchiavellian intrigue of the sixteenth century to create a fascinating tale of the young Duchess of Ferrara.

Lucrezia may be an outcast in her family, not quite fitting in with her dark haired subserviant sisters and her entitled brothers, but she has had the courage to face down a tiger in her father’s wild menagerie. Her feisty demeanor serves her well as she is promised at age twelve to an older duke needing an heir.

O’Farrell imagines the real Italian Duchess’s life within all the confines of male domination in that century, and bestows the gift of art to the young girl, who creates animal miniatures as an alternative to the embroidery usually required of young women of the time. I could relate to Lucretia’s appreciation of the back side of the embroidery hoop, with all the knots and stitches needed to create the perfect picture on the other side. Her life is full of those knots, but O’Farrell gives her an escape with the help of an unlikely hero when all seems lost.

The story bounced back and forth in time to keep the suspense. The fictional duchess in the story seems destined to meet the same fate as her real forebearer as O’Farrell once again creates a compelling and totally enjoyable story.

I looked for the text of Browning’s poem and found it with a short explanation. O’Farrell cleverly includes the white donkey as well as other details from the poem in her story. Here is the poem and a short analysis.

https://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/browning/section3/

Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favorite authors. Here are my reviews of other books by Maggie O’Farell:

Hamnet –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2021/06/16/hamnet-by-maggie-ofarrell/

The Hand That First Held Mine –

https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2010/04/28/the-hand-that-first-held-mine-maggie-ofarrell/

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

Being a commuter on a local train into the city was not one of the highlights of my career, but after reading Claire Pooley’s Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, I wonder if I may have missed something as I read my book or just dozed all those years, usually in a cramped seat, if I was lucky enough to get one.

Pooley’s character Iona reminds me of Calvin Trillin’s Tepper, available and willing to listen and offer advice when needed. Tepper was sitting in his car, saving his parking spot as he followed the elusive parking rules of New York City streets; Iona rode the commuter train into London. Tepper was usually reading the newspaper, while Iona judiciously observed her fellow passengers, offering her commentary when needed, or solicited.

While Tepper was relatively bland, Iona’s personality screamed out to be noticed, from her loud voice to her colorful clothing, to her companion dog sitting beside her. A cast of characters revolve around Iona’s commute, and like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, Iona figuratively hangs out her shingle to them all, changing their lives, and, at the end, changing her own.

From schoolgirl Martha, who overcomes an unfortunate decision promising to ruin her life, to Piers, the business man who has it all, to Sanjay, the nurse quietly comforting his patients, to Emmie, the naive beauty who seems to have found true love, the cast of characters each has a problem only Iona can solve. Pooley cleverly connects her characters’ lives, and adds a few who have practical skills for life improvement – Jake, the owner of a gym, and David, the lawyer.

Pooley’s witty observances carry the reader through familiar trials, and always finds a happy ending. I need happy endings these days, don’t you?

Related Review: Tepper Isn’t going Outhttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/tag/tepper-isnt-going-out/

Another book by Claire Pooley: The Authenticity Projecthttps://thenochargebookbunch.com/2020/10/03/the-authenticity-project/

Marmalade and a List of Books

Watching the Queen having tea with Paddington inspired me to make some scones. Alan Bennett might have written about the Queen’s proclivity for a good book in “The Uncommon Reader,” but surely she was having tea and scones while reading, or perhaps pulling out her marmalade sandwich. I always wondered what she kept in her purse; the best part of her tête-à-tête. with Paddington was the big reveal of the marmalade sandwich. What a lovely respite from news of war, shootings, and virus the Queen’s Jubilee gave us.

Tea and scones, and a good book – here are recipes for both.

Unremarkable Books I’ve Read Lately To Pass The Time:

  • Rosie Walsh’s The Love of My Life
  • Monica Ali’s Love Marriage
  • Julia Quinn’s The Bridgertons – the whole series

Reading Now – B.F. Shapiro’s Metropolis

Looking Forward To Reading Soon:

  • Ruth Ware’s The It Girl
  • Lisa Jewell’s The Family Remains
  • Tom Perotta’s Tracy Flick Can’t Win
  • Geraldine Brooks’ Horse
  • Kimberly Brock’s The Lost Book of Eleanor Dare
  • Jane Shemitt’s The Patient
  • Julia Glass’s Vigil Harbor
  • Jean Hanff Korlitz’s The Latecomer
  • Christina Soontornvat’s The Last Mapmaker
  • Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

And from Ron Charles recommendations in the Washington Post:

  • Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming
  • Michelle Huneven’s Search
  • Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These

As for the scone recipe, I found this easy one in the New York Times:

Ingredients: 2 cups of flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon sugar (increase to 1/4 cup if you want a sweet scone), 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, 1 1/4 cups of heavy whipping cream

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and position a rack in the top third of the oven. Thoroughly combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of this mixture, add 1 1/4 cups of cream and stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with a fork. Work quickly, stirring as little as possible, until a soft, shaggy dough forms. Add more cream, a tablespoon at a time, if the dough seems too dry.
  2. Use a large serving spoon or cup measure to drop the batter onto an ungreased baking sheet, allowing at least 2 inches between each scone. Brush the top of each with heavy cream and bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

And from NPR, a note to be sure to eat your scones properly:

“The grocery store Sainsbury’s showed a photo with a fruit scone smothered in cream and jam. The problem: the photo showed jam on top of the cream. Customers in Cornwall argued the jam must go first…Some Brits take their afternoon tea very seriously. That’s landed the grocery store Sainsbury’s in trouble. They put up a picture with a fruit scone smothered in cream and jam. That is normal. The problem is the photo showed the jam on top of the cream. In the county of Cornwall where the picture went up, customers were outraged. They argued that jam must go first. Sainsbury’s admitted its mistake, saying it has all scone wrong.”

You can eat your marmalade sandwich anyway you like, but for a proper marmalade sandwich:

” It must be made of the best marmalade you can find and fresh-sliced bread. (Paddington likes the chipped Seville orange marmalade, with chunks of pith in, but not everyone does.) Homemade ingredients are best, of course, with plenty of marmalade between two thick slices of bread.”

Recommendations for Independent Bookstore Day

Although it’s been a while since I’ve walked into a bookstore, or any store, I still like to buy my ebooks from independent book stores. And, yes, I still read – not as much as before – but here are a few books I’ve bought and recommend:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

For supporters of women in math and sciences, the obstacles the main character faces will ring true. Elizabeth Zott, after overcoming her miserable childhood, can’t seem to get a break as she tries to forge a career in chemistry. Sidelined by male colleagues at work and cheated out of a doctorate, she finds love with a rower and fellow scientist, only to lose him before their child is born. Her ongoing frustrations will be familiar to a generation of career women with children, but the character is also funny, ambitious, and determined. As she morphs into a modern day Julia Child, the laughs get better. A fun book with a message – as Elizabeth Egan noted in her review: ” She’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go.”

One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle

Ah, to be back climbing the steps of Portofino! Searle’s story will transport you to the beautiful Italian town, and you will instantly feel its charm. Having been there (for a cooking class), the descriptions of the food, the sea, the steps, the old women, brought me back and makes me want to go again. Katy Silver takes the trip to Italy she has planned with her mother. Her mother dies but with a heavy touch of suspending belief, you will meet her anyway as Katy discovers not only the beauty of Italy but also the unexpected joy of hanging out with her younger mother.

Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

I didn’t become a fan of St. John Mandel until I watched Station Eleven on Netflix. The Sea of Tranquility is another catastrophe story taking the reader through three worlds in three distinct time periods, The novel opens in 1912 when the son of an aristocratic British family is banished to Canada for some rash dinner-table remarks about colonial policy, and then vaults into the 23rd century for ‘the last book tour on Earth,” with an author named Olive Llewellyn, whose home is a colony on the moon, and whose novel about a worldwide pandemic has become a surprise blockbuster, and finally to Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a loner detective living on the moon in the 25th century in a colony called the Night City. Mandel connects the plots across time to examine what really matters. A good book for fans of science fiction but also If you just need to take yourself out of the present for a while.

French Braid by Anne Tyler

One of my favorite authors, Tyler uses an area I know well as her backdrop – Baltimore. With her quiet style, Tyler slowly weaves a story of family. Jennifer Haigh in her review for the New York Times, notes ““French Braid” is a novel about what is remembered, what we’re left with when all the choices have been made, the children raised, the dreams realized or abandoned. It is a moving meditation on the passage of time.” Read her review for more: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/20/books/review/french-braid-anne-tyler.html

The Club by Ellery Lloyd

Thrillers are always a great distraction to the world at hand, and if you are a fan of Ruth Ware, you will enjoy Lloyd’s ride. From Publisher’s Weekly: “The Home Group is a glamorous collection of celebrity members’ clubs dotted across the globe, where the rich and famous can party hard and then crash out in its five-star suites, far from the prying eyes of fans and the media. The most spectacular of all is Island Home–a closely-guarded, ultraluxurious resort, just off the English coast–and its three-day launch party is easily the most coveted A-list invite of the decade… as things get more sinister by the hour and the body count piles up, some of Island Home’s members will begin to wish they’d never made the guest list. Because at this club, if your name’s on the list, you’re not getting out.” A page turner.

The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley

If you know Lucy Foley from “The Guest List,” you will enjoy her latest. Like a game of Clue,  this story keeps readers guessing whodunit until the book’s final pages.

And here are a few books I have preordered and looking forward to:

Book Lovers by Emily Henry

Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin

The Lioness by Chris Bohjaloan

Love Marriage by Monica Ali

The Sentence and A List of Short Perfect Novels

Louise Erdrich is not one of my favorite authors but at the recommendation of a good friend, I have been trying to read her latest book The Sentence. Libby, my online librarian, first gave it to me as a hot pick – 7 days to read, but it came and went back without my looking at it and I ordered it again. Next, Libby offered it to me as a “skip the line” book – again seven days to read it. This time I made it to the second chapter before it whooshed back to the library, despite my effort to renew. Suddenly, it was there again – seven days to read – and I have been making an effort. The library may be sending me a message – I need to read this book. Slow and steady but only half way through with three days left before it will automatically return. Will I make it this time?

The story of an independent bookstore owner haunted by the ghost of a woman who died reading a book should be more than I need to keep me reading, but Erdrich, as she often does in her books, cannot resist incorporating endless pages of Native American history, culture, folklore, and more. I just want the story.

The pandemic suddenly came into the pages, and the craziness of the first few months of contagion and the ever changing survival advice was familiar, but before Tookie decides to close the store in March, 2020, her last customer comes in to hoard books instead of milk and toilet paper. Tookie creates a list of “Short Perfect Novels” I thought worth saving – some I have read. Added to the list is Jane Gardam’s Old Filth books, among my favorites.

Since I started writing this post, I did finish the book, and was satisfied with its happy ending. The author includes many lists of books mentioned in the narrative, including Lincoln in the Bardo in her list of “Ghost Managing Books,” Euphoria in her “Books for Banned Love” list, and titles for Indigenous Lives, Indigenous Poetry, Indigenous History and Nonfiction. My favorite list is this:

Tookie’s Short Perfect Novels

  • Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabel
  • Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • The Shadow Line by Joseph Conrad
  • The All of It by Jeannette Halen
  • Winter in the Blood by James Welch
  • Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle
  • The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
  • First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Fire on the Mountain by Anita Desai

Tookie says “these are books that knock you sideways in around 200 pages. Between the covers there exists a complete world. The story is unforgettably peopled and nothing is extraneous. Reading one of these books takes only an hour or two but leaves a lifetime imprint…”

The Sentence took longer to read, but I’m glad I finally did.