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

Related Reviews:

International Women’s Day

9780230294011_p0_v1_s114x166Today marks International Women’s Day, a celebration of women around the world that has been observed since the early 1900’s. .  In some places like China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, International Women’s Day is a national holiday.  In Britain, Professor Elisabeth Kelan will discuss her book – Rising Stars – an examination of the next generation’s female leaders.

Books to read to celebrate the day… what books would you add to the list?

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant 9780312427290_p0_v3_s114x166

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver9780060786502_p0_v3_s114x166

Cleopatra: A Life  by Stacy Schiff9780316001946_p0_v1_s114x166

Girl Reading

In a series of vignettes from 1333 through to the twenty-first century, Katie Ward examines the feminine mystique in Girl Reading. Each story stands unconnected and alone, assessing different roles of women – mother, child, victim, lover, object, caretaker, professional. The common element is a picture of a woman reading, but at a different stage in history. Without knowing this, and with the absence of quotation marks to identify when the character is speaking, the book can be confusing at first, with some chapters more engaging than others.

Immediately clear is the underlying role of women throughout history – from subservient supporter to independent decider. The first story, set in a medieval town, focuses on an orphaned girl who is chosen by the clergy to pose as the Madonna for a politically dangerous fresco. When the artist discovers that the girl, who is destined for the convent when she comes of age, is pregnant, the author poses anachronistic choices, and frames the argument about her future as well as a modern debate. The chapter ends with nothing decided.

The book then jumps to 1668 with a deaf and motherless servant girl as the focus of an artist’s love. Comparison with The Girl with the Pearl Earring may be tempting, as the artist, a contemporary of Rembrandt, immortalized the girl in his painting.

Other stories include a woman painter in 1775 who helps a lonely Duchess reconcile the death of her female lover, followed in 1864 by a story that includes a photographer, a medium, a copy of Mrs. Beeton’s book on “Household Management,” and a twin with a unique gift. As Ward proceeds into current time, her story set in 2008 is hard to understand, until you read the last one set in 2060. If you’ve wondered how the world will cope with the continuing explosion of technology, and its effect on reading in the not too distant future, Ward offers a clever response through her seventh and last story – one that finally explains the preceding six chapters.

Each episode carefully reveals accurate historic context, as new characters appear with each story and into the future. Using stream of consciousness and first person narrative, Ward effectively reveals her characters, but their disjointed thoughts sometimes make the action difficult or nonexistent.

More like a series of short stories – with O’Henry endings (ambiguous and sometimes surprising) – except for the resounding theme underlying the whole, Girl Reading is worth examining. Ward offers a contemporary voice within this historical framework. Sprinkled with a little romance and intrigue, the stories are good too. And her message is clear – reading books is important.

Pilgrimage – Annie Leibovitz

The first time I saw an exhibit of Annie Leibovitz’s photography in Washington, D.C., I felt I knew her subjects intimately.  Leibovitz’s art captures her famous targets as posed but vulnerable.  When I found her book with Susan Sontag – Women – the images amazed me for their familiarity and honesty.

Her new book – Pilgrimage – reviewed by Dominique Browning for the New York Times in her article A Pilgrim’s Progress, comes out today – with no people in it.   The book opens with shots of Emily Dickinson’s house “that Ms. Leibovitz took, casually…on a family visit.”  Even on her off days, Leibovitz takes amazing pictures.

“She took her camera to Virginia Woolf’s house, photographing the surface of her writing table, and into the garden, capturing the wide, rolling water of the River Ouse, in which Woolf drowned herself.  She photographed Dr. Freud’s sumptuously carpeted patient’s couch in London, and Darwin’s odd specimen collection.  Eleanor Roosevelt’s bedroom with its simple white coverlets, in her cozy cottage, Val-Kill, stands in contrast to a silver serving dish, its rich patina rippling with light.  Abraham Lincoln’s elegant top hat and white kid gloves…Louisa May Alcott’s house…the view from Emerson’s bedroom window…”

More than another coffee table book, Leibovitz offers…”something about integrity, staying true to a vision…”

Her ad for Sears with the Kardashian sisters – not so much…but photographers have to pay their bills too.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

Summers at the family beach house in Maine with all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, and cousins lovingly connecting – singing Irish songs, racing into the surf –  sounds ideal, but, of course, family gatherings always have an undercurrent.  In J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, it’s all about the dysfunctional relationships among the women and the beachfront property won in a war-time bet.

In the first half of the book, Sullivan prepares the foundation for the story, introducing each of the women in her own voice with her own chapter, revealing loyalties and jealousies, fears and traumas – they look fine but are all a mess under the surface.  Mother Alice is a hard woman to like; in old age, she’s retained her beauty as well as her prejudices about anything and anyone who does not meet her conservative standards.  Her daughters, Clare and Kathleen, have escaped her influence but try to retain a respectful silence while seething in private about her.  Anne Marie, the daughter-in-law, always trying to please, has Alice’s favor on the surface, but seems ready to crack under the pressure of being perfect.

Sullivan uses religion and Irish family ties as a caustic undercurrent.  Everyone prays, but the church offers little comfort and a lot of Catholic guilt.  Alice, trying to make up for an old sin against her sister, donates the Maine property to the church – without telling her children.  Her daughter, Clare,  gets rich selling First Communion medallions and other religious artefacts on the internet.  Daughter-in-law Anne Marie prays more than the others – when not obsessed with redecorating her dollhouse.  Kathleen, the black sheep – divorced and “living in sin” in California, has a worm farm and battles the old family curse of alcoholism. Her daughter, Maggie, is the frontrunner of the next generation: Maggie is pregnant and unmarried, Cousin Fiona is gay  – but no one is telling Grandma Alice.

Sullivan cleverly teases with secrets, forcing the reader to slog through chapters of angst, personal grudges, and family drama, hoping to uncover why Alice blames herself for her sister’s death in a fire, what horror happened at the patriarch’s funeral, when Maggie will tell about her pregnancy, how Alice will finally implode…    She reveals the family secrets slowly in flashbacks and finally offers reasons for the bitterness and despair.  Eventually, the women come together at the beach in Maine – Alice, Kathleen, Anne Marie, and Maggie – resolving the issues they have with each other and with themselves.

Like any Irish saga, this one is full of anxiety, despair, and drinking – but Sullivan offers her own brand of redemption and adds some humor.  Alice’s decision to leave the million dollar beach property to the church seems in character, and perhaps every family’s nightmare – that grandma will die and leave it all to the church – but, in the end, the decision saves everyone.   The story was too long, with too much anxiety for me, but the characters reflect women’s universal fear – will I become my mother?