The Truth According to Us

9780385342940If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, you probably are also a fan of Downton Abbey and maybe Jane Austen,  so when Annie Barrows, co-author of Guernsey wrote her first adult book alone, The Truth According to Us, the bar was set high in anticipation.

My first foray into the book left me lacking and I put it aside, until a friend encouraged me to try again – and glad I did.  The writing echoes some of the aspects I enjoyed in Guernsey with smatterings of letters between characters and the historical facts – this time about the a New Deal program called the Federal Writer’s Project before World War II.  The style is the same yet different; Annie Barrows wrote Guernsey with her Aunt Mary Ann Shaffer, she wrote The Truth According to Us alone.

The plot is not a page turner but easy to follow: 

“In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck’s father, a United States senator, cuts off her allowance and demands that she find employment on the Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal jobs program. Within days, Layla finds herself far from her accustomed social whirl, assigned to cover the history of the remote mill town of Macedonia, West Virginia, and destined, in her opinion, to go completely mad with boredom. But once she secures a room in the home of the unconventional Romeyn family, she is drawn into their complex world and soon discovers that the truth of the town is entangled in the thorny past of the Romeyn dynasty.” Penguin Random House Publishers

But I am a sucker for child narrators – Flavia de Luce from The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Jack from Room, Susie in The Lovely Bones, Rosie in The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake.  Eleven year old Willa’s voice, until she loses it, in The Truth According to Us reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Willa’s perspectives shares the spotlight with Layla, a young fallen debutante who has been banished from the country club set to earn her own living in West Virginia and Jottie, the bright local woman who knows about “fierceness and devotion,” the town motto and the underlying theme of the story.  

It’s easy to be charmed with the romance, some adventure, a lot of soul-searching, and a good dose of humor.


The Madwoman Upstairs

9781501124211_p0_v2_s192x300With the mystery of Jane Eyre and the force of a modern romance, Catherine Lowell creates a satisfying plot in The Madwoman Upstairs.

Samantha Whipple, new student at Oxford University, is the last living descendant of the Brontë sisters.  Home-schooled by her father, Tristan Whipple, a scholar who “spent his entire life trying to deconstruct” the writings of his famous relatives, Samantha, at twenty, is well-versed in the famous novels.  Lowell generously sprinkles excerpts from the well-known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the less famous The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

At her father’s request, Samantha’s residence at Oxford is an isolated tower, often the site of campus tours.    When her father’s copies of the Brontë  books mysteriously arrive on her doorstep, encrypted with her father’s obscure notes referring to her inheritance, a collection of writings and paintings, including the “Warnings of Experience –  that may have been left to her by her father, she enlists the help of her tall, dark, handsome Oxford tutor to help her decipher the clues.

If you are a fan of the the Brontë  sisters, the references to the famous novels, and Lowell’s dissection of some of the plot lines may prompt you to reread the original texts.  References to the Brontë  treasure may have been inspired by the recent uncovering of a lost book containing poems and snippets from the Brontë  children –

“The Brontë Society has recovered the treasure for £170,000 from a seller in America where it has been for more than a century…it was originally sold following the death of their father Patrick Brontë  in 1861″…the Telegraph, 2015

If you are a student of literature, you will enjoy Lowell’s notes on literary criticism and intellectual pursuits:

  • “The great reward given to intelligent people is that they can invent all the rules and equate any dissent with stupidity.”
  • “…what everyone wants: meaning. Happiness in some sense, is irrelevant.”
  • “…the interpretation of a novel depends on the reader far more than it does on the text or the author’s intent…”
  • “Reading teaches you courage. The author is trying to convince you something fake is real…”

If you have never read a Brontë book – or only seen one of the many movies – and are looking for a romantic interlude with the trappings of an intellectual discussion, The Madwoman Upstairs has a story to keep you reading, while you sigh through the passion and try to decipher the mystery.


The Summer Before the War

9780812993103_p0_v3_s192x300The cover of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War evokes a breezy romantic tale, but if you’ve read her last novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you’ll know to expect more.  The key figure in the tale is Beatrice, aptly named for her Shakespearean qualities of intellect and strength, with her ability to manage her own life despite the hurdles thrown at women who dare to aspire to be financially independent.  Do I hear the ghost of Jane Austen whispering between the lines?

Beatrice, the daughter of an acclaimed professor, speaks several languages and has a formidable education, thanks to her father’s upbringing.  When he dies, she is forced to live with his family until she escapes to the position of Latin master at an East Sussex  country school in Rye outside of London.  Simonson sets the scene in the first part of the book with bucolic descriptions and a hint of a romance with the local medical student, Hugh, whose wealthy aunt is sponsoring Beatrice as the first woman Latin master in the school.  Beatrice secretly aspires to writing a novel to create an independent income; her inheritance can only be released when she marries but she is determined to make a life on her own.  The plot seems sublimely formulaic, as it did in the beginning of Pettigrew, until the war threatens normalcy and the refugees from Belgium appear – a switch reminiscent of Downton Abbey from the first season to the realities of World War I.

The shift to the war and its effects is abrupt, but the principal characters carry the story through the bloody front lines as well as the stark changes in the little town of Rye.  Lives are changed by the war.  Hugh enlists to use his medical training at the front, and rejects his ambition for a rich medical practice.   Simonson creates a nod to poet soldiers in her depiction of the Rupert Brooke like character of Daniel, Hugh’s best friend and cousin, and Snout, the bright student from the wrong side of the tracks, holds the promise of success, yet his life is not romanticized into a happy ending.

Simonson carefully addresses unpopular topics through her minor characters: Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee, whose father has more regard for preserving the culture than caring for his daughter; the mayor’s wife, who almost reverts to stereotypical prejudice and sadly leads others to her way of thinking; Agatha, the free thinking aunt of Hugh and Daniel, who quietly rebels against narrow mindedness, yet manages to preserve her place as the wife of Mr. Kent, the esteemed foreign officer.

Although the war overcomes the story in most of the book, the varied minor plot lines offer relief in romance, adventure, even some mystery.  And, in the end, The Summer Before the War is really about the people in this small town – representative of many who survived through the war to understand what is really important in their lives, and mourn missed opportunities for those who did not survive.

If you enjoyed Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and her Austen-like style of writing, you will find The Summer Before the War to be a satisfying read.

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Lolly Willowes

9780940322165_p0_v1_s192x300A surprisingly modern treatise on women’s rights written in 1926, Lolly Willowes came to my attention through Helen Macdonald’s interview in the New York Time “By the Book.”  Macdonald is the author of H Is for Hawk – a book I have on my to read list.

Helen Macdonald summed up Lolly Willowes in her interview:

“What’s the last great book you read?

I’ve read a few this year, but the one I’ll be pressing into people’s hands forever is ‘Lolly Willowes,’ the 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It tells the story of a woman who rejects the life that society has fixed for her in favor of freedom and the most unexpected of alliances. It completely blindsided me: Starting as a straightforward, albeit beautifully written family saga, it tips suddenly into extraordinary, lucid wildness.”

As a spinster at 29, Laura (known as Aunt Lolly) has a prescribed life with very little to do.  When she breaks away in her mid forties to “take rooms” in a small town in the country, Lolly finds freedom until her nephew decides to come to live with her.  Finally, she finds the courage to drive him out – in an unconventional way – and reestablish herself as an independent woman.

Without proselytizing the rights of women, Warner quietly affirms her views on the condition of women in the early nineteen hundreds.  Edith Crawley, the second sister from Downton Abbey who asserts her right to manage a publication and raise an out of wedlock daughter, would be proud.  At times, the scenes reminded me of a Downton Abbey episode:

When she awoke , the day was already begun…the maid who brought her morning tea and laid the folded towel across the hot water…after lunch there was a spell of embroidery…dinner was half-past seven {with} a sensible rule that only sensible topics should be discussed.

Although I rarely read introduction to books, Alison Lurie’s introduction is worth noting.  Lurie’s comparison of Sylvia Townsend Warner to Virginia Woolf drew me in:

“If a woman is to be more than a convenient household appliance, if she is to have a life of her own, and especially if she wants to be a writer, she must have freedom and privacy and ‘a room of one’s own.’  {Woolf} spoke, we know now, for thousands of woman then and in years to come.  But Sylvia Townsend Warner had spoken for them first.”

This slim volume has three parts, and the language reminded me of a Jane Austen novel.  Phrases were like antiques, pleasing but dated. I found myself mesmerized by the diction and enthralled with the theme – a nice reminder of how hard a person needs to work to ignore society’s expectations and maintain a sense of self.

Easy and Entertaining: First Frost and more…

9781250019837_p0_v2_s260x420First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen

First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen charmingly continues the story of the magical Waverley sisters, with the cranky apple tree still throwing its apples and the house still locking its doors. Allen includes a coming of age tale and cautionary advice for anyone seeking fortune over family. And, as always, she has a few bon mots to treasure. For fans of “Garden Spells” and its sequels, First Frost is a welcome addition.



As You Wish by Cary Elwes with Joe Layden9781476764023_p0_v6_s260x420

Cary Elwes, the star of the movie The Princess Bride reconstructs the making of the beloved film in As You Wish.

A little hokey and at times strung out – just like the movie – but funny and informative with pictures and insider notes from the actors and Director, Rob Reiner.  Makes me want to see the movie again.

The Plight of the Darcy Brothers by Marsha Altman

Altman continues the story of “Pride and Prejudice” with a few non Austen plot twists, including devout Mary Bennett sowing her wild seeds, Darcy gaining a few brothers from his father’s secret indiscretions. Sisters Jane and Elizabeth have children and manage their respective households as well as their gentlemen husbands. An easy and quick read – The Plight of the Darcy Brothers is a fun read for Austen fans. Thanks to my friendly librarian for the book