Friday, March 24, 2017

Classics Club: Five-Year Check-In

Exactly five years ago today I posted my list of 75 classics I want to read for the Classics Club. I'm proud to say I finished 69 of the books from my list, and reviewed 58 of them on this blog! Here's a link to my original list, with dates completed and all my reviews.

There are six books from my list that I still haven't completed:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell
Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson

In my defense, I have actually attempted to read all of the final six at one point or another and just haven't gotten inspired enough to finish any of them. I haven't given up on them entirely -- maybe it's just not the right time for those books. I'm still hoping to tackle Portrait of a Lady this year for the Victorian Reading Challenge. 

Girl Reading, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Of the 69 that I did finish, here are some that I really enjoyed:

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
One of Ours by Willa Cather
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
Lady Chattereley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Elephant
The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Kipps by H. G. Wells

And of course, just about everything on my list by Anthony Trollope, who rarely disappoints.

Least favorites:

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
Theater by W. Somerset Maugham
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
Nana by Emile Zola

Molly Reading a Book by Rose Mead
What surprises me most about this list is that includes books by some of my all-time favorite authors -- Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton and Emile Zola. So I guess there are no guarantees, even your favorite authors can fall short sometimes.

Now I'm trying to decide whether I should start another Classics Club list -- the books I want to read is never-ending! Bloggers, how is everyone else doing with their Classics Club lists?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Prettiest Town in Alsace-Lorraine

A few weeks ago there was a school holiday and I had cabin fever, so my daughter and I took a little road trip to Colmar, France, which is about 2 1/2 hours away, over the border in Alsace-Lorraine. It's about an hour south of Strasbourg. I'd heard it was the prettiest town in the world and was the model for Belle's village in Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast

I was able to get a good rate on one night in a hotel so we left on Sunday and got there just in time for dinner. Our hotel was adorably cute.

As I was driving, I passed a lot of vineyards and shops that advertised foie gras, which is a regional specialty. There's some really amazing food in Alsace and our hotel had a really good restaurant. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner. (Yes, my teenaged daughter will eat foie gras which is goose liver.)

That's the half-sized appetizer portion which is served with brioche and lovely breads. It's incredibly rich and we were barely able to finish it and our entrees as well, which were not large by American standards. Also I forgot that French restaurants include the service charge in the bill so I needn't have rushed downstairs at 10 p.m. to give them a tip which I realized I'd forgotten. At least I wasn't wearing a baseball cap and fanny pack.

And I found out the next day the reason our hotel room was so cheap was because everything in Colmar is closed on Mondays during the off-season. Except restaurants and museums, which I didn't visit because I was with a teenager.

Nevertheless, we walked around for a couple of hours until it was time for lunch. Even in winter, it's really cute. Many of the buildings date from the 1600s and even earlier. 

It's called Little Venice because there's a canal that runs right through town. I think it's only about two feet deep and apparently you can take boat rides. Didn't see anyone boating that day but it must be stunning in the summer. 

Basically the only places open were food-related. We wanted to eat at this restaurant but it didn't open until noon and we were starving, so we found a little cafe and the ultimate comfort food for a cold morning. 

This is called tartiflette and it's very popular. Basically, it's a casserole with potatoes, cheese and cream, with various add-ins. Ours had mushrooms and it was the perfect thing for a dreary, chilly day. The two of us could not finish it. 

Thus sustained, we shopped at the only stores open: the foie gras store (yes, there is such a thing) and the grocery store. As you'd expect, even the grocery stores are better in France. Even the canned goods are classy. I've never had salsify but apparently it's a root vegetable. 

There are lots of charming architectural details everywhere. This is a fountain outside the covered market, which dates from 1865. Closed on Monday, of course. 

Basically, this adorably cute town is a tourist magnet and has tons of restaurants, so there's great food and scenery. Even if you don't want French food, you can find something else to eat. 

Yes, that is a sushi restaurant. I think I saw Indian and Mexican food as well. 

I really want to go back and spend more time here -- on a day when there are more shops open, and I have time to visit all the historical things I missed. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Victorian Reading Challenge

I thought that two challenges this year would be enough, but the other day I stumbled upon this  Victorian Reading Challenge from Becky's Book Reviews and I don't think I can resist. The goal is to read at least four Victorian books, which will be easy for me -- I've already completed two lovely fat Victorian novels this year. Including nonfiction and translated books, I read 14 Victorian books in 2016, so I'm sure I can read that many in 2017, if not more. Here are the challenge categories, with the books I want to read for each (books with hyperlinks are already completed). 

  1. A book under 200 pages: The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott; The Rector & The Doctor's Family by Mrs. Oliphant
  2. A book over 400 pages: Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau
  3. A book that REALLY intimidates you: Portrait of a Lady by Henry James.
  4. A book you REALLY want to reread: Oliver Twist or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  5. A new-to-you book by a favorite author: The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon 
  6. A book with illustrations 
  7. A book that was originally published serially: A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott.
  8. A book published between 1837-1849: The Kellys and O'Kellys by Anthony Trollope
  9. A book published between 1850-1860: The Bertrams by Anthony Trollope
  10. A book published between 1861-1870: The Belton Estate by Anthony Trollope
  11. A book published between 1871-1880: The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens; Kept in the Dark by Anthony Trollope
  12. A book published between 1881-1890: The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
  13. A book published between 1891-1901: Who Is Lost and Is Found by Mrs. Oliphant
  14. A book published between 1902-1999 with a Victorian setting: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters;  To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
  15. A book published between 2000-2017 with a Victorian setting: The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
  16. A book by Charles Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood;  Pictures from Italy
  17. A book by Wilkie Collins: Basil
  18. A book by Anthony Trollope The Prime Minister, Kept in the Dark
  19. A book by Elizabeth Gaskell: Cousin Phillis
  20. A book by George Eliot: Adam Bede
  21. A book by a new-to-you male author: Esther Waters by George Moore
  22. A book by a new-to-you female author: Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondely
  23. A book translated into English: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane
  24. A fiction or nonfiction book about Queen Victoria: Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rapport or Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard
  25. A book that has been filmed as movie, miniseries, or television show: The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott
  26. A play OR a collection of short stories OR a collection of poems: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde, After Supper Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome
  27. A Biography, Autobiography, or NONFICTION book about the Victorian era: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin
  28. Genre or Subgenre of your choice (mystery, suspense, romance, Gothic, adventure, western, science fiction, fantasy) The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells; The Fixed Period by Anthony Trollope
  29. Book with a name as the title: The Claverings by Anthony Trollope
  30. Book You've Started but Never Finished: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot; The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells.
  31. A children's book: The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit
  • Fiction or nonfiction.
  • Books, e-books, audio books all are fine.
  • Books and movies can be reviewed together or separately.
  • You can create a reading list if you want, but it's not a requirement 
  • If you do make a list, consider adding a list of five books you'd recommend to others
  • If possible try to try a new-to-you author! I know it can be really tempting to stick with familiar favorites.
  • Children's books published during these years should not be forgotten! 
  • Rereads are definitely allowed if you have favorites!
  • A blog is not required, a review is not required, but, if you don't review please consider sharing what you read in a comment with one or two sentences of 'reaction' or 'response.' 
  • Any qualifying book reviewed in 2017 counts towards the challenge. If you're like me, perhaps you try to schedule posts a week ahead of time. So if it's reviewed in 2017, it counts. Even if you finished the book the last week or two of 2016! 
There are more than 30 categories and I know I can't possibly finish that many Victorians but I'm making good progress on both the European Reading Challenge and my own Back to the Classics Challenge, and some of them can cross over. I'm also in an online Trollope reading group so I can count some of those for this challenge.

Bloggers, have you read any of these Victorian novels? Which are your favorites? And is anyone else signing up for this challenge?

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

She loved studying and books, the way other people love wine for its power to make you forget. What else did she have? She in a deserted, silent house. The sound of her own footsteps in the empty rooms, the silence of the cold streets beyond the closed windows, the rain and snow, the early darkness, the green lamp beside her that burned throughout the long evenings and which she watched for hours on end until its light began to waver before her weary eyes; this was the setting for her life.

After her unpublished novel Suite Francaise was discovered in the early 2000s, many of Irene Nemirovsky's works were republished. I've read five of her books so far, and am so glad that they are getting the attention they deserve, because I've loved every one of them so far. My latest Nemirovsky read, The Wine of Solitude, is her most autobiographical work and was originally published in 1935. 

Born in the Ukraine in 1903, Helene Karol is a lonely child, ignored by her vain and shallow mother, and loved but dismissed by her absent father. After losing a job, he leaves the family for two years to manage a Siberian gold mine and winds up making a fortune in speculating. Gambling is his passion, whether it's the stock market or the roulette table. The only one who truly seems to love and care about her is her governess, Mademoiselle Rose. As Helene grows up, she sees how her father's gambling and her mother's infidelities are destroying them. She becomes a keen and sometimes reckless observer of the dynamic between her parents and her mother's younger cousin and lover, Max, who basically lives with them. 

She stopped, twiddled the pencil round in her hand and a cruel, shy smile spread across her face. It made her feel better to write these things down. No one paid any attention to her or cared about her. She could amuse herself in any way she pleased; she continued writing, barely pressing down on the pencil, but with a strange rapidity and dexterity she had never experienced before, an agility of thought that made her aware of what she was writing and what was taking shape in her mind simultaneously, so they suddenly coincided.

The family moves back and forth between Ukraine, France, Russia, then flee to Finland during the Russian Revolution. During the 1920s they return to Paris where things finally come to a tragic climax and Helene is forced to make a decision about her future. There are a lot of terrible mothers in Nemirovsky's works and if her childhood was anything like Helene's, I can understand why. 

This is book was both sad and beautifully written, and I really liked it. So far my favorites of her books are Suite Francaise and her excellent short story collection, Dimanche and Other Stories. I do want to read the rest of her works and fortunately most of them are available through Overdrive from my library's online catalog. There's also another short story collection that was published last year called In Confidence and it's available from Raglan Books, an independent publisher in Ireland and I've just ordered it. I was really trying to cut back on my book purchases this year but already I'm failing miserably.

I'm counting this as for my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and as my Ukrainian read for the European Reading Challenge

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Dinner by Herman Koch

I've read hardly any contemporary fiction the last few years -- I looked back on my 2016 reading and I think I average only about a book a month that was published in the last ten years, and quite a few of those have been nonfiction. I think that reading the classics has sent me on a reading path where I keep finding so many older books and authors that I'll never catch up.

The Dinner was a huge hit when it was published a few years ago, but I never got around to reading it. However, I'm always intrigued by books in translation, and now that I'm living in Europe, I feel like I should read more Euro-centric reading, which is partly why I signed up for the European Reading Challenge. The base library has a decent selection which included this book (which I've actually checked out several times before I finally took a crack at it the other day.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, as there are some pretty big reveals and twists in this book, as there are some real shockers. Set in Holland a couple of years ago, this is the story of two couples having dinner together, ostensibly to discuss their respective teenage sons and a particular troubling incident. Most of the action take place during one evening at an upscale restaurant, with a number of flashbacks, and we get a lot of insight into the narrator, Paul, and his family dynamic. It raises a lot of questions about parenting, marriage, and personal responsibility. This is definitely a book that I would love to discuss with someone but I don't want to reveal too much -- a major plot point was actually spoiled for me while I was searching for books set in the Netherlands. I thought that would ruin the book for me but there's so much going on it actually didn't, though I definitely would have preferred not knowing ahead of time.

It's not a very long book, but there's a lot happening, some of it quite shocking. It's one of those books like Gone Girl or Girl on the Train that would be great for a book discussion group (though it's definitely far superior and more plausible than either of those.) Once I got started, I could hardly put it down because I needed to find out what happened, and I was easily able to finish it in a few hours. However, once I was done I wanted to return it to the library right away because it made me really uncomfortable having it around. How far should people go to protect their children, and where do you draw the line at personal responsibility? This book was really insightful in parts, but it's also quite disturbing. However, I am glad that I read it.

I'm counting this as my book set in the Netherlands for the European Reading Challenge.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley

Another beautiful Virago cover. It's Regina Cordium: Alice Wilding by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Red Pottage is a Victorian novel that is sadly under-appreciated -- it has less than 100 ratings on Goodreads! I probably first heard of it from Simon at Stuck in a Book -- all I know is that I've owned it for at least five years, and the cover is really pretty. But this is one time the book even transcends the Pre-Raphaelite artwork on the cover. It's a smart, well-written novel with great character development and plot twists, and I think it rivals my favorite Trollope novels.

Written in 1899, this is the intertwining story of two life-long friends, Rachel West and Hester Gresley. Rachel was the daughter of a self-made man who lost his money to an unscrupulous business partner. As a young woman, Rachel struggled to make a living as a secretary and then suddenly became an heiress when the remorseful partner left his fortune to her. She's had her heart broken and is wary of loving again until she met Sir Hugh Scarlett, a dashing man-about-town with a past. He'd been trying to disentangle himself from a love affair when he met Rachel, and the repercussions from the affair continually haunt his attempts to win Rachel.

Rachel's oldest friend, Hester Gresley, comes from an old family whose fortunes have declined, but she's done quite well for herself as a writer. After the death of an aunt, Hester has moved in with her brother's family in the country. James Gresley is a minister and a pompous know-it-all (he does a lot of mansplaining in the novel), and though Hester loves his brood of children, she doesn't get on all that well with his wife. Hester is working hard on a new novel despite the distractions of nosy country neighbors, her judgmental brother, and a houseful of kids. Like most Victorian novels, everyone knows everyone else, and Rachel's story keeps overlapping with Hester's. There's a lot going on in this novel but it really captured my interest and once I got going, I zoomed through it in just a few days.

One could describe this as a satire, but it's also a feminist novel. There are also bits that remind me of a Victorian sensation novel, but much better written and with far better character development. Parts of this book are extremely witty. I can't quote the best lines because they would ruin the plot, but here is an example. A minor character named Sybell Odom is throwing a country fete and is welcoming the country society:

Sybell raised her eyebrows, and advanced with the prettiest air of empressement to meet her unexpected guests. No, clearly it was impossible that the two women should like each other. They were the same age, about the same height and coloring; their social position was too similar; their historic houses too near each other. Lady Newhaven was by far the best looking, but that was not a difference which attracted Sybell towards her. On this occasion Sybell's face assumed its most squirrel-like expression, for, as ill-luck would have it, they were dressed alike.

This was a surprise success for its author, Mary Cholmondeley. Sadly, none of her novels (including this one) are in print any longer, but they're all available for free downloads from Project Gutenberg and on iBooks.  It's a shame that nobody reads this novel any more because I thought it was just brilliant.  I'm quite sure this will make my list of top reads at the end of the year. 

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge

Monday, March 6, 2017

Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

I'm a big fan of NYRB Classics -- they are really attractive and I'm always a fan of re-discovered classics. Skylark by Deszo Kostolanyi is one that had been on my to-read list for several years, and I was determined to read it this year because it dovetailed perfectly with the European Reading Challenge. 

Written in 1924 but set just before the turn of the century, Skylark is the story of a family living in a small Austro-Hungarian town called Sarszeg (inspired by Kostolanyi's own hometown of Szabadka, in which is now present-day Serbia). It's a dead-end place where not much happens. The Akos family consists of a husband and wife, Akos and Antonia, and their 35-year old spinster daughter, nicknamed Skylark. Akos is in his late fifties and is retired, spending much of his time researching ancient lineages and family histories. Skylark does most of the cooking and housework, and basically life revolves around her. Life is dull and routine, but one week in late summer 1899, Skylark takes the train to visit family for a week, and Akos and Antonia are left on their own.

This is another one of those book in which not much happens -- and yet, everything happens. Without Skylark, Akos and Antonia do things they haven't done in years. They eat out in restaurants and attend a performance in the theater, which never happens when Skylark is around, since she her cooking is better than any restaurant meal. Akos visits his gentleman's club, drinks, smokes cigars, and plays cards with his cronies -- before, Skylark wouldn't have approved.  Antonia plays the piano, which has barely been touched in years, since Skylark never really took to playing.

This description makes it sound like Skylark is some kind of tyrant, but I don't think she is. Kostolanyi is up-front about the fact that Skylark is a spinster because she's unattractive, which is why she's never married. While she's away from her parents, all three of them face some painful truths about themselves and their relationship, and I really found it rather sad, especially because that was an era when women had so few choices. Skylark is educated and hardworking, and in another time, she could have had a career -- even 15 years later, she could have been a nurse and served during WWI.

The publisher described this book as magical but I just found it really sad.

I'm counting this as my Hungarian read for the European Reading Challenge.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Pastor's Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim

Another beautiful Virago cover.
I thought it was Seurat but it's actually "La Couseuse" by Theo van Rysselberghe.
The other day I was looking for audiobooks set in other countries that I could download for the European Reading Challenge, and I came across one of my all-time favorites, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. I definitely want to read it again (or listen) but it occurred to me that Elizabeth von Arnim spent much of her life in Germany and set many of her books there, and that I could choose one of those toward both the European Reading Challenge. Also, many of them are available for free digital download -- another win-win!

I downloaded three or four of her books, and randomly chose The Pastor's Wife, published in 1914. Here's the setup: young Ingeborg Bullivant, aged 22, is alone in London, sent by her family to visit the dentist. Her father, a rather overbearing bishop, has given her ten pounds and insisted she has a bad tooth dealt with; Ingeborg has been miserable for days and unable to help her father. Though taken for granted at home, she is an indispensable, unpaid secretary for her father, chaperone for her beautiful young sister, and basically does everything for her mother, who doesn't seem to get up off the couch much.

The dentist solves Ingeborg's problem at once and all of a sudden she's alone in London (supposedly chaperoned by an aunt) with 10 pounds burning a hole in her pocket. On a whim, she signs up for a week's vacation tour to Lucerne, Switzerland, where she meets Robert Dremmel, the pastor of a rural German church. He promptly falls in love with her and after an unconventional proposal, they are engaged -- honestly, I think she's just too polite to turn him down. To the dismay of her family, she marries this unsuitable German and leaves home, where her new husband benignly ignores her and is obsessed with improving the soil for the local farmers. She really only gets his attention when she's producing babies. After several years of this stifling life, Ingeborg meets a visiting artist who is quite taken with her and tries to tempt her into running away with him to Italy.

I really enjoyed this book but parts of it were much darker than I expected. Some of the situations are quite funny and others are incredibly heartbreaking. All the men in Ingeborg's life take her for granted and assume they know what's best for her -- they think of Ingeborg only as how she can be useful to them, and not one iota of what she wants and needs. Von Arnim also had quite a bit to say about women and pregnancies in the Edwardian era -- there's a lot of discussion about procreation that I wasn't expecting. I would not be surprised if it wasn't rather shocking for the time period (much like my previous read, The Wreath by Sigrid Undset).

One thing I didn't like about this book was how naive Ingeborg was. I realize that she had a very sheltered upbringing as a bishop's daughter, and was then stuck in a small town as a pastor's wife, but she read books and newspapers, and would had some idea about the morals of the time. And the way the men in this book treated Ingeborg made me want to throw the book across the room.

I've now read three of Von Arnim's works of fiction, and I've noticed a recurring theme of women who are breaking the boundaries of conventions. In Love, the main character shocks everyone by having a love affair with a man young enough to be her son; in The Enchanted April, the four women break free and go off by themselves to rent an Italian villa for a month (not so shocking, really, but pretty gutsy for the time). Elizabeth Von Arnim was actually married to a German aristocrat and had a rather unhappy marriage. I don't know many details of her life but I do know some of her early works are semi-autobiographical and I wouldn't be surprised if Herr Dremmel was loosely based on her own husband.

I'm counting this as my German read for the European Reading Challenge. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

The cover art of this edition is just beautiful -- anyone know the name of the painting?
In the past couple of years, I've been quite fascinated with Scandinavia -- a co-worker at the library got me hooked on Scandinavian TV series (I started with Bron/Broen, then quickly moved on to Borgen and Arvingerne). Watching these great dramas has inspired me to read more Scandinavian literature, so I chose a Norwegian classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

In 1920,  Sigrid Undset published the first novel in the Kristin Lavransdatter series, Volume I: The Wreath. Set in Norway during the Middle Ages, about 1300, The Wreath is the story of a young woman's coming of age. Though she wrote contemporary books as well, Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928 primarily for this trilogy. I'm always looking for interesting books in translation, and Nobel prize winner made this a win-win selection for me.

The story starts out with Kristin as a young girl and oldest surviving child of her father Lavrans (hence her surname, Lavransdatter, which literally means Lavran's daughter; at that time, Norwegians used the patronymic naming system which is still in use in Iceland today). Kristin's parents have lost three young sons, so she is the great hope of the family. They assume she will marry well and when she is fifteen, she is betrothed to Simon, the son of a neighboring landowner. After a tragedy, she is sent to a convent school for a year, where she falls in love with the dark and dangerous Erlend, a handsome man with a bad reputation. The majority of the book is about Kristin's struggles between following her heart and disappointing her parents or pleasing everyone by marrying a man she doesn't love. Kristin also struggles with the moral implications of Erlend's past and her involvement with him. She's been raised as a devout Catholic and often turns to the priests for moral guidance, which she doesn't always follow.

This cover is from On the Plain by Erek Werenskiold
This book was written nearly a hundred years ago, and I was surprised at how frankly Undset wrote about some of the issues that Kristin was facing -- there's a lot of discussion about Kristin's virginity, children born out of wedlock, and even priests with illegitimate children. Undset was writing in the early 1920s when the role of women worldwide was really changing; I'll have to do more research but I'm pretty sure this book must have been quite controversial.

I read the Penguin classics version which was newly translated in 2005, and I found it a very easy read. It did start a bit slowly in Kristin's childhood, but once she got betrothed to Simon, the plot really started moving and I finished it very quickly. I've always enjoyed historical fiction but I've read very few books set in the Medieval period. Undset did a lot of research and her descriptions of life in the period are excellent. Parts of it actually reminded me a bit of Game of Thrones, especially life in Winterfell (but without the dragons and White Walkers). I definitely want to read the next two books in the series, The Wife and The Cross. I really hadn't been planning on starting another book series (I still haven't finished the last two books in the Poldark series) but Undset really brought Kristin and her world to life. Luckily they're available as free digital downloads from my library so I may just zip right through them.

I'm counting this as my Award-Winning Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge and also as my Norwegian read for the European Reading Challenge.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer

After my previous read for the Back to the Classics Challenge (a nonfiction memoir about life in a Russian gulag). I was in dire need of something fun to read. When the going gets tough, the tough need comfort reads. I'm not a big romance reader, but I've read a few of Georgette Heyer's Regency romances, but her books are fun, frothy light reads. 

Published in 1956, Sprig Muslin is a charmingly silly screwball comedy set in the Regency era. After his fiancee died in a tragic accident years before, Sir Gareth Ludlow put off marrying until his older brother dies, leaving him the heir apparent. On his way to make an offer of marriage to the quiet and steady Lady Hester Theale, he stops at an inn and encounters a young girl, Amanda whom he soon realizes is running away from her family so she can elope with her young swain, an Army officer. Sir Gareth knows that she's out of her depth and needs protecting, but with completely noble intentions. He takes her along to Lady Theale's estate, where naturally her family assume young Amanda is his paramour. Naturally there are lots of mistaken intentions, escape attempts, and snarky comments about the fashionable Regency set. Of course all comes right in the end. 

Heyer's books are frequently recommended to fans of Jane Austen, and though the settings are in the same era, the similarities end there. Heyer is no Jane Austen, and after six or seven of her novels, I'm starting to see basic characters and situations repeating themselves -- the charmingly impetuous ingenue who is running away (often from an arranged marriage); a loyal young man who befriends the ingenue to get her out of a jam; a handsome, eligible bachelor (with a title, naturally) who saves the day; and a patient, quiet woman who ends up marrying the hero. 

Bits of it became a little tedious -- Amanda is really headstrong and spoiled, and she can't stop making up stories to convince people to help her -- and she gets away with everything because she's so pretty, which is truly annoying. That's not to say I didn't enjoy this book. I don't know if it's the best book I've ever read by Heyer (so far I think The Grand Sophy and Sylvester are my favorites so far) but it was very enjoyable. 

I don't usually read romances but sometimes one needs a break from reality -- and I'd much rather read one of Heyer's comedies than yet another Jane Austen knockoff. Heyer wrote more than 40 Regency romances and a dozen detective novels. They are funny and Heyer did extensive research into Regency history and society, so her descriptions and references to Regency life are very accurate.   I also own a recent biography of Heyer that I found at the Half-Price Books last year and I'm hoping to get to that soon. 

Has anyone else read a good romance by Georgette Heyer? What romances are you reading for the Back to the Classics Challenge?