The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

One of my goals for this summer was to read one of the best American novelists, Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937). I was torn between two of her most famous novels The House of Mirth (1905) and The Age of Innocence (1920), but I was keen on making use of the school’s library during the summer semester. One last hurried visit to the library helped me make the decision, as The House of Mirth was available on the public section and ready to be brought home.

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The House of Mirth has been a controversial and shocking novel ever since its publication in 1905. It tells the story of Lily Bart, a young New York socialite who, at 29 and still unmarried, is both admired for her beauty and criticised for her single status. Despite her looks, and her charm, Lily was brought up by a superficial mother who made of Lily’s beauty her supposedly only attribute. After her debut at the age of 18 Lily has had many suitors –one of them an Italian prince – but decided not to settle down. The novel takes place on her 29th year, as she struggles to make sense of her waiting, her present and her future.

Even though the idea of becoming an ostracised spinster at age 29 may seem a joke in 2016, when Wharton first published The House of Mirth she shocked the American public by exposing the dark truth behind young women. Wharton openly questions the validity of marriage as a tool for women to lead a socially respectable life through the eyes of Lily, who sees how the husbands of her friends flirt with her. Not only that, but she also sees her female friends engage in affairs with younger men not so behind closed doors as we may believe in the 21st century. Lily, as an outsider and spectator, questions whether she wishes to follow this path, and why she cannot live alone like her male friends do.

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Edith Wharton (Undated) From Beinecke Library, Yale University

From a feminist point of view The House of Mirth is a subversive novel that stands with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a subversion of traditional and patriarchal narratives. Both Wharton and Chopin created female main characters that offered readers a different take on marriage and motherhood. Throughout the novel we are presented with Lily’s love for life and her need to open her wings and escape the golden cage of marriage and traditional femininity. In her own awakening, Lily ponders on her role and her agency realising she is not free to act upon her wishes with Wharton’s fixation on capitalist femininity as a double-edged sword that compromises beauty and limitations:

“She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”

“She had no tolerance for scenes which were not of her own making.”

“I was just a screw or cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else.”

In her search for happiness and agency Lily encounters a suitor that could make her happy were it not for the social restrictions and her own upbringing. In the height created by the last days of Victorian morals and manners and the American capitalist system, could a woman brought up to be beautiful forget her upbringing and marry for love? Wharton makes Lily’s search for love as interesting as possible by including money, social status, and traditions into the equation. Far from perpetuating a traditional view on romantic love, Lily ponders practically on who to marry and the reasons to do so, or not.

“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”

The struggle between her own desires, society’s expectations and her social, historical and economic context creates one of the best novels in American literature. Lily Bart is the first attempt by an American female writer to create a strong, subversive woman who wishes to live her life according to her own desires and needs. As a crime fiction reader, I could not but see Lily as a first attempt at creating Amy Dunne, from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, although this comparison may be far-fetched and highly influenced for my love for Flynn’s novel. In any case, throughout the novel we see how Lily’s attempts fail and life erodes her will and her lively attitude:

“She felt a stealing sense of fatigue as she walked; the sparkle had died out of her, and the taste of life was stale on her lips. She hardly knew what she had been seeking, or why the failure to find it had so blotted the light from her sky: she was only aware of a vague sense of failure, of an inner isolation deeper than the loneliness about her.”

In order to keep this review free of spoilers, I will not discuss the ending, although it is not difficult to imagine for feminist readers. To those who have read it, I would love to hear your opinions, and those of you who have not, The House of Mirth is one of the best contemporary novels in the Western tradition. I cannot still understand how Wharton was not included in any of the programmes in my English and American degree. If this were the case with anyone, I would encourage readers and students alike to pick up Wharton’s books on their own as they are a pure joy to read. And if you are not a literature student, this book will change your life as well as it portrays a long-lost time of decadence, over-spending, and the rigid and the still contemporary battle against a system of values that tried to restrict women to their roles as wives and mothers.

This is review #4 for my  20 Books of Summer project

First Time Reading a Classic: And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie

Confession time: I had never read or watched any adaptations of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie. Except for the Family Guy double episode, Psychs and the many other references in popular culture and media that I have watched. But, the original? Nope, never. It does not help that we have kept a literal translation of the original title Ten LIttle Niggers  in Spanish – click here to see it – and when I looked for an English second-hand review copy on Abebooks, I could find none. But, after some failed attempts, and some research, I found the original title, and after last Christmas’ super successful BBC adaptation I knew I had to give it a try.

And Then There Were None cover

Because the book is such a masterpiece and a cultural landmark, I will divide my review in different sections so that I can deal with everything that I have noted down. Also, please keep in mind I am not an expert in Golden Age crime fiction, and my analysis is not an academic one.

The characters

I was really pleased with the presentation of characters. When we have 10 main characters, it can be quite difficult to get a glimpse into who they are, but Christie devoted a paragraph to each of the main characters at the very beginning of the book. Having said this, I had to make a list with their names and a defining quality – profession, age, gender, etc– and,again, Christie made it very easy to put a label on each of them. But, this does not mean that the characters were plain, in fact, as the story progressed, I could see they were more multi-faceted than expected.

Out of the ten characters, ten were women, and although I was not impressed by them, I was not offended either. If we take into account the lack of racial sensibility of the original title, one could expect a very misogynist book, which was not the case. Having said that, I was obviously very interested in Vera Clayhorn’s story because she was a young, single governess and her story reminded me of The Turn of the Screw so much, I wonder now if Christie was inspired by James’ novel.

The crime

One of the things that disturbs me the most about Golden Age crime fiction is that I do not like the detectives at all. I find Poirot petulant and snobbish, and the few Miss Marple mysteries I have read have not left enough of an impression on me, meaning that I was probably not impressed by her. Luckily for me, there is no detective in And Then There Were None: the story is told by a third person, omnipresent narrator who does not get involved in the story. And, as the title suggests, by the end of novel, no one remains alive.

The Setting

I was most impressed by the setting for two reasons: one is that I love the sea, and the sea-side, and the second is that I am not usually captivated by settings, except for Indridason’s dark and twisted tales in Iceland. But, the cold, and misty English weather gave me nightmares about the sea for three nights in a row. There is something magical about the way Christie makes the environment an accomplice in the crime.

I was also really surprised to find out that the house in the novel is described as modern, with electric lights and white (art deco, I guess) style. In popular adaptations the house is usually represented as a nineteenth-century mansion, three or four stories high and relying on candles.

The ending

Do not worry, no spoilers here! I was surprised by the ending and did not see it coming at all although it was the most logical and reasonable solution to the mystery, and now that I think about it: Of course. Of course!

The verdict

And Then There Were None is a classic in 20th century English literature, not only in the crime fiction tradition. The many, many adaptations of the story have made of it a popular story and a  landmark in contemporary popular culture. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading, and who has seen any of the adaptations.

Now I can’t wait to watch the BBC adaptation, which comes highly recommended by every reader I trust. If you are late to the party too, here is the trailer.

I love how they are making it as dark and twisted as the original text, leaving besides popular believes about it being a ‘cosy’ story. it is not. The sea, and the house will haunt readers in their dreams like modern serial killers haunt their victims. If you have ever taken for granted Christie’s talent – like I did myself – And Then There Were None will surprise you, and then remind you why Christie was labelled the Queen of crime.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

We all have that one author we can always go to when we do not know what to read, or when we need some quality comfort reading. For me, that author is Margaret Atwood. I fell in love with her novels when I found Alias Grace, and although I have had some trouble with some of her other works – such as The Robber Bride – she never disappoints.

I bought Cat’s Eye (1988) at my local bookshop a few months ago after a particularly bad morning at work. If there is anything that makes life beautiful, that is beautiful books, and I could not resist this paperback edition that only cost 10€. Then, when I included it on one of my Book Haul posts everyone told me that Cat’s Eye was a masterpiece. So, when my Christmas break started, I did not have second thoughts on which book to read.

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Cat’s Eye tells the story of Elaine Risley, from her early childhood until her current middle-age life as a respected Canadian painter. This childhood is remarkably similar to Atwood’s, as the daughter of a forest entomologist who took his family with him on his research travels across Canada. It is certainly a point of departure from many other main characters, and the connection with Atwood’s own story makes Elaine’s much more precious, even suggesting some complicity between Atwood’s faithful readers, who would know about her early years. However, that nomadic life comes to an end when Elaine’s father is offered a lecturing position and they move to a developing suburb in Toronto. It is in this new home that Elaine meets Cordelia, the person who will model her life from that moment onwards. Neither very intelligent, nor very pretty, Cordelia manages to psychologically subject and torture Elaine for years. If you have been to school, you know what this means, even though you may have not been the victim, you have seen it. The power, the discourse, the behaviour, the incomparable cruelty of children against each other. And where does that come from? What makes Elaine a victim?

The story is told in the form of flashbacks from Elaine’s present – the 1980’s, back when the novel was published – although these flashbacks are chronologically organised, allowing the reader to easily slip into the novel’s main theme: the construction of identity. Atwood makes a great effort to show that both space and people play a key role in helping us become who we are. Or, rather, that the constant influence of different spaces and people shape our identity. However, my first reading of Cat’s Eye – I do think this is the kind of text that you have to revisit in every decade of your life – suggests a rather static identity, mainly influenced by events that took place in your childhood and early adulthood. For Elaine, Cordelia is the main constant of her identity related to the city of Toronto, and all the excerpts that take place in her present show her obsession for that childhood bully, turned friend, that shaped her school years.

However, the novel explores many other themes that I found very interesting, such as what it meant to be a woman artist during the Second Wave of feminism, the construction of motherhood, the ways in which patriarchy subjected Generation X’s mothers to a capitalist and domestic construction of femininity, and so on and so forth. I was especially delighted to read about Elaine’s turn to Christianism at the beginning of the novel as a way to blend in with her friends, and how her parents allowed her to try it, even though they did not attend church themselves. This allowed Elaine to explore what it meant to be middle-class in post-WWII Toronto, and it also introduced her in the imagery and symbolism of Christianity, which will be key in her later works of art.

Cat’s Eye is definitely the masterpiece you all told me it was. Even though Atwood has not commented on the similarities between her and Elaine, I think the novel makes a great job of re/presenting Atwood’s trajectory as a Canadian woman artist, but also as a woman who has seen two waves of feminism question and challenge what it means to be a woman, and an artist.

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell

Last November I was feeling quite disappointed with my PhD reading, basically because I kept reading theories and analysis of classic crime fiction novels that I had never read. So, I emailed by every lovely professor to talk about my frustration and she said of course I could take a break and read two of the most important women authors in 20th century crime fiction: P.D James and Ruth Rendell. You can check my review of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman here, but today, I’m all about Rendell’s first novel in the Wexford series, From Doon with Death. I got this book from the publishers, since they were re-printing it for the 50th anniversary.

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From Goodreads:

No one believed Mr. Parsons’ fears for his missing wife. Until two days later, she was discovered in the woods, her face swollen and her clothes damply clinging to her lifeless body.

With no useful witnesses and a victim known only for her mundane life, Chief Inspector Wexford has only one clue — a lipstick found at the scene. To find the killer, Wexford must first discover a motive. Because what he can’t understand, is how such an unassuming woman became the victim of such a passionate and violent crime.

I had never thought about the magical moment in which Golden Age crime fiction turned into the ‘modern’ crime fiction that I know in which DNA and science play a key role. So, I was very glad to get to know the 1970’s feminist crime fiction by James and Rendell, because not only do they cover this interesting period of time and crime investigation, but they also pay attention to the 1960’s feminist wave consequences. James created a woman detective whose worries and problems still resonate – although not too loudly – with nowadays women investigators. But Rendell created a classical, middle-age police-man… and then she gave him a twist.

From Doon with Death is not an open feminist crime novel, or at least not in the way we know them now after the 1980’s and 1990’s productions. In this novel, the victim is a woman and her death is investigated by two policemen. However, both the victim and the policemen are more than they seem. Rendell plays with the reader’s expectations and gender constructions in crime fiction in a way that shows the author’s thoughts on women’s representation and how, with time, she will get to change them, for Wexford will become a man with a family and a personal life, not a solitary drunk.

My 50th anniversary edition is preceded by an afterword by Rendell that helped me a lot to understand the real value of this book back when it was first published. Since I am quite strict with spoiling anything on my reviews, I will only say that this afterword reveals how much she wanted to change crime fiction for women and how, if she were writing this same story nowadays, it would not be possible to have it this way, and she is quite glad of it.

So, I highly recommend From Doon with Death. First of all, because it is a landmark in crime fiction, but also because it is the first installment in one of the most emblematic and well-known crime fiction series in the UK.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D James

Back in September I bought three books for my PhD because I knew they were landmarks in crime fiction and I could not allow myself to start writing about female investigators without having read those classics. One of them was An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972) by P.D James:

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From Goodreads:

Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder.

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces P. D. James’s courageous but vulnerable young detective, Cordelia Gray, in a “top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way”

The very first thing that marks this book as a classic in crime fiction is its title. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman contains gender, social and class prejudices about work, space, identities and women’s intelligence and strength. The main character in the novel, Cordelia Gray, inherits her mentor’s private detective business at twenty-two and she decides to keep the agency open. As many people tell her, this is not a job suitable for her, because she is a woman, because she is young, because she needs to make a living out of detecting… and can she do it? If you are familiar with James’ work, you will know that Cordelia is capable of this, and much more, and that her looks and the social prejudices they evoke are only an advantage to her job.

What else can I say about Cordelia Gray? She has become one of my favourite female detectives. She is young, she knows it, and she lacks the experience and the looks of the typical middle-age, male detective. But she does not let this stop her at all. She works really hard and proves that young people may lack experience, but they have enthusiasm, passion and drive enough to change things. James also makes a point of making her realistic, so she includes everyday worries (what should I wear?), life-long worries, especially related to her new job as private eye, and, also, a very interesting personal history. What I loved the most about Cordelia is that she was educated all over Europe by a Marxist father who, despite his liberal politics, could not help assign his own daughter domestic and care duties, even though she sometimes acted as a spy. But Cordelia herself sees beyond this genre-biassed education and sees herself – and eventually constructs herself – as capable, able, and professional as any young man her age would be.

The case she solves, I found very interesting. Its depiction is a bridge between cozy, domestic and rural Golden Age crime scenes, and more modern and overtly violent and shocking scenes. This should not be a surprise, since P.D James is sometimes included as a late Golden Age writer because of her style and her writing, but her inclusion of drag and nudity in the crime scene shows an evolution in the genre that will end up with the overtly violent and scientific crime scenes we are used to see in the 21st century. So, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman can be both labelled classic and modern crime fiction, and I think it will appeal to fans of both styles as well. There are no visits to the morgue, no open chests, no blood, but Cordelia is allowed the mobility and freedom modern female detectives enjoy: she has a car, she drives, and she happily wanders around Cambridge looking for clues.

In conclusion, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is one of the best books I have read this year, and one great crime fiction novel. I knew I was a huge P.D James’ fan when I read her sequel to Pride and Prejudice – called Death Comes to Pemberley – exactly two years ago. Some critics say that James enjoys the genre difference and that her female investigators play with this difference, but I have found her books extremely feminist and ground-breaking in the best way. Maybe she does write stereotypically feminine women, but in the case of Cordelia, her intelligence comes partly from acknowledging this and using it to her advantage.

So, go ahead and pick up An Unsuitable Job for a Woman if you have not yet, because it is such a great, empowering and inspiring reading that you will not be able to lay the book down. I, for one, read the book in three evenings, and I wish I could have made it last a little bit longer so that I could spend another day with Cordelia Gray.

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

I have spent the last two weeks reading Murder by the Book by Sally Munt, a book published in the 90’s exploring feminist crime fiction. As you can imagine, there are constant references to classics, so I saw myself stopping my study routine to read two wonderful crime fiction classics that had been on my to-be-read list for quite a long time: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie and Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers.

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From Goodreads:

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane knew all about poisons, and when her fiancé died in the manner prescribed in one of her books, a jury of her peers had a hangman’s noose in mind. But Lord Peter Wimsey was determined to find her innocent as determined as he was to make her his wife.

I have to say, Strong Polson (1930) made me use my e-reader again and this time I did not dread the reading process. Sayers’ mastery of plot and narrative is so excellent that I did not notice I was reading on my device, something that I am still struggling with. Also, Strong Poison is the fifth in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, but I had no problem getting acquainted with the characters in any way, which pretty much tells of Sayers’ ability to create great characters.

As a crime fiction reader, there is nothing that I like most than a meta narrative, and Sayers produces the reader with the perfect story here: a female crime fiction writer that is accused of killing her partner with whom she was illicitly living. I loved reading about a woman crime fiction writer in the 1930’s and all the connotations that it implied. Harriet Vane’s literature is regarded as unimportant and unsuccessful even though she makes a living as a writer and her works were much more well-known that those of her partner, who by the way, wrote better literature, or so the rest of the characters say. It was also very interesting to read about the prejudices that such a woman had to face, one of them being that she was angry at her partner for not wanting to marry her, when it was actually the other way round. Murder by the Book describes Harriet Vane as the first example of a sexually active and independent woman in crime fiction and I cannot but agree. I have to admit I was shocked at how Harriet very much set the tone for the relationship and was the main bread-winner in the family.

As for Lord Peter Wimsey and his family, I fell in love immediately with them. I even pictured his mother as Maggie Smith in her role in Downton Abbey as the dowager. They seemed quite an unusual family for the 1930’s, so I really want to learn more about them. But, Wimsey as a detective was one of a kind. He is an aristocrat, but he is funny and quirky and I loved how direct he was when he confessed Harriet he wanted to marry her. I could not but think of these ladies portrayed in TV shows as crazy for wanting to marry serial killers! At first I was shocked that he would bring up the marriage issue so quickly, but Sayers makes Harriet an independent woman when she lets her ponder her answer. Also, the conversation he and Harriet had about their previous sexual encounters was very sincere and I think Sayers did a great job at making them equals and setting the tone for – I hope – a future relationship based on equality and respect.

Sayers’ books are often accused of being racist and classist. I could see the classist prejudices in the same way I could see them in Christie’s: the servants appear as rough and uncultured. There is also a lack of racial diversity, but taking into account Lord Peter’s social status, this is no surprise. So, as you can see I am actually more willing to let certain things pass in Sayers’ stories that I am not in Christie’s. This only shows how much I loved Strong Poison and I really plan on reading the following installments.

So, I would recommend this crime fiction classic to everyone. As a product of the crime fiction Golden Age, there are not shocking scenes, too many corpses or forensic details. Strong Poison is what I would call a cozy crime novel, and a very good one.

Want another opinion? Keishon from ‘Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog’ also loved Strong Poison. Click here to read her review.

It also made it to Marina Sofia’s post on the best Sayers works at Crime Fiction Lover. Click here to read the post.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Last week I started reading for my PhD and one of the books mentioned and explored Agatha Christie’s classic The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I have to confess I am not a big Golden Age fan regarding crime fiction, so, no, I had never read Roger Ackroyd, but I knew I had to. It is usually referred to as Christie’s most surprising work. I have to say, not so much. The following review contains spoilers.

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Buy at Book Depository:

In the village of King’s Abbot, a widow’s sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study–but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow’s blackmailer. King’s Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd’s wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim’s home. It’s now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retired to King’s Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd–a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard, and by Sheppard’s ingenious sister, Caroline.

There are two things that keep me from reading Golden Age detective stories: one is the clear division between good and evil (and how endings are always correct, so that there is no room for negotiation of moral values) and another one is women’s representation. While reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd I encountered both: the narrator – James Sheppard – is a petulant and self-centered middle age man who thinks himself better than his sister, Caroline. All throughout the novel there are constant references to Caroline’s gossip and constant domestic worries, because she is a middle aged woman who has never married and, as a consequence, a ‘spinster’. Her brother, however, is a doctor, a ‘man of science’ whose life and everything that he says, are more valid just because he is both a man and of science. However, Caroline was proved to be a much better detective and have much better intuition and social skills than the narrator. I wonder why Christie planned the story this way, but taking into account the ending, I also wonder whether Caroline’s lifestyle is eventually preferred and considered better than James’. There are also social class and racial issues, but these are not as directly targeted as women’s representation. For example, when talking about a poison, it is suggested to come from South America, so that it is something exotic, something secret and hidden that modern, Western science cannot detect because it is foreign. The servants are also presented as rough people, mere tools for their masters. I have learned, however, that this is typical of Golden Age detectives and one has to leave modern concerns behind to enjoy the story.

Regarding the crime, I still believe the line separating good and evil is too clear for my taste, but I was really happy to see that Christie played with something that would not come into literature studies until the second half of the 20th century as part of the postmodern movement: silences. While Poirot investigates, he questions everyone’s alibis and motives except the narrator. Why is that? Why do readers do not stop and ask themselves about it? It is because we are used to reliable narrators. This silence, however, becomes more and more obvious and it is very easy to figure out who the killer is in the last 60 pages or so. I was shocked at the ending taking into account how suicide is constructed as something illegal and immoral, but it was ‘the right’ and politically correct ending for James after everything blackmailing and killing Roger Ackroyd.

So, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a classic in detective fiction and I am happy that I read it. However, it was not the kind of story that appeals to me. The day I finished it I started Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers – another classic – and that I did enjoy. There is still hope this reader will become a Golden Age fan.