Suspend Belief and Enjoy “The House at the End of Hope Street” by Menna van Pragg

9781410461346_p0_v1_s192x300   As a fan of magical realism in literature, I thoroughly enjoyed an old book by an author new to me – The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Pragg.  The idea for the story was inspired by van Pragg’s yearning to establish a house for female artists to give them a year to fulfull their artistic ambitions.  This house, however, exists in its own dimension, only appearing to those who need it.

Van Pragg’s story revolves around three women who need motivation to follow their dreams – Alba, the youngest woman admitted to Cambridge who is betrayed by her family and her university advisor; Greer, who at thirty-nine has yet to achieve her goals of becoming an actress and a mother; and Carmen, the sexy singer with a murderous past.

Taking a cue from the Harry Potter books, van Pragg has portraits on the walls coming alive to speak and give advice.  These pictures, however, are of famous women,  from literary giants – Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Agatha Christie  – to esteemed scientists and suffragettes.  The stream of prominent women marching through the plot adds to the fun as each of the main characters faces her challenge and moves on to a better life.   Words stream by in banners, notes mysteriously drop from the chandeliers, colors surround characters in auras of emotion.  The House mysteriously and suddenly provides whatever its occupants need: a magical wardrobe (a nod to C.S. Lewis), shelves of books with titles constantly refreshed, a baby grand piano.

If you enjoy the tales of Erin Morgenstern, Sarah Addison Allen, and  Alice Hoffman, you might add Menna van Pragg to your list of happy diversions – magical realism with a British flavor.

When I discovered van Pragg had written a book with the irresistible title of Men, Money, and Chocolate (2009) – with recipes, I ordered it immediately as an ebook ($1.99).  The story is a little too heavy on schmaltz and not my style, but the recipes may be worth trying.    Van Pragg’s The Witches of Cambridge, (2016) looks like more fun  and is on my list, as is her latest from England to be published in the United States soon – The Lost Art of Letter Writing.  Unknown-2

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Sweet Tooth

Ian McEwan offers an unexpected bonus for bibliophiles in his latest book – Sweet Tooth. To embellish the main action of the beautiful young British spy, Serena Frome, whose reading taste ranges from Jane Austen to Jacqueline Susann, McEwan includes short stories seemingly unconnected to the main plot; each could stand alone while subtly revealing the underpinnings of the main character.

Reluctantly majoring in mathematics at Cambridge, Serena nurtures her love of novels and writes for an undergraduate newsletter. A middle-aged undercover agent, posing as a history professor, becomes her lover and recruits Serena into the British internal intelligence service after graduation – not a position of glamour or prestige for a woman in the 1970s. Her literary bent is noticed at the agency and she is promoted from file clerk to spy. Her first assignment is monitoring a fiction writer, Tom Haley, with an inclination to anti-communism. As preparation, Serena reads Tom’s short stories – clever extras provided by McEwan.

Of course, she falls in love with her target, and, you may now refer back to the book’s opening paragraph…

“My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost 40 years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. I didn’t return safely. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.”

The spy story is secondary to the author’s opinionated rambling, but the historical data, references to authors, and the intrigue of the deception may keep you reading.  Much of the rumination involves Serena’s interaction with her love interests: Tom, her suborned writer; Tony, her mentor and duplicitous double agent; Max, her elusive supervisor.  As Serena’s affair with Tom gains momentum, the possibility of her being discovered as an undercover agent increases.

If you remember the surprising conclusion to McEwan’s Atonement, the ending to  Sweet Tooth will be a disappointment in comparison.  The final deceit is uneventful, with universal betrayal as the theme.  I had the same feeling when On Chesil Beach ended  – regret; I may take a break from McEwan’s anticlimactic thrills for a while.