…and possibly my favourite of the series (#1 is marvellous too). Montclair takes the narrative threads set up in book one, The Right Sort of Man, and brings them to some resolution. In The Unkept Woman, Iris Sparks finally reckons with her past and Gwen Bainbridge gains in strength and resolve, which go a long way to bring her closer to regaining custody of her finances and son (as we learn from book one, Gwen had what would be deemed in post-war England a “nervous breakdown” and was declared “incompetent” [legal term] losing custody of her son, Ronnie, and finances, given over to her conservative, draconian in-laws. Gwen’s emotional collapse came at the death of her husband, Ronald Bainbridge, in WWII). But in the latest volume, Sparks’ past returns: she is the eponymous “unkept woman”, having broken off from the married man she’d been having an affair with, on and off, during and post war-time intelligence training and action. But things are more complicated than what I’ve described so far. (more…)
As I make my way towards this coming winter of discontent, my reading is as slow and endless as February. Here I am, in early December, and I’ve read one book this past month. One. Sad. On the other hand, it’s a GREAT book. I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, what you’d get if Shirley Jackson had written Downton Abbey, crossed it with James’s “The Turn of the Screw”, and tossed in a touch of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.
The Little Stranger is one of the most compelling and disorienting novels I’ve ever read and I kind of loved it. At times, I resented it, felt it was built only on relentless plot that remained impenetrable. Yet I couldn’t put it down and resented work, family obligation, and mundane household tasks keeping me from sitting down and reading through to its end.
Set in post-WWII Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is narrated by a country doctor, Dr. Faraday. Of humble origins, Faraday’s parents (long dead when the novel opens) gave up everything to educate him and yet, now he is “risen” above their station, he remains at most a modest success, treating his small-town patients’ ordinary ills and keeping an uninspired bachelor apartment above a store. In his late thirties, his life is circumscribed by his practice and the occasional dinner with his partner’s family. All is stodgily quiet until he is called to Hundreds Hall, a Downton-esque estate where his mother worked as a maid when he was a child, to treat the ailing servant-girl, Betty, who, in the end, may or may not be the “little stranger” and whose part in Faraday’s and the Hundreds’s family’s, the Ayreses’, tragedy may have played a part, or not. That is the most maddening and brilliant aspect of Waters’s novel, even reaching its final words, I wasn’t sure exactly what happened, or why. (more…)
It’s too bad I started reading Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man when I returned to work after the holidays because I wanted the luxury of inhaling it in hours instead of days. First, it came recommended by MissB’s reader, Barb, always spot-on; second, it held much tropish goodness: historical, check; mystery, check; women forging paths in post-war-England, check; engaging voice, check; witty, rapid-sharp dialogue, check; glimmers of love interests, check. And, I cannot say this enough: it’s moving without being lugubrious and the characters grow in believable, positive ways. (More than anything, my ugh with litfic is the latter. If you have any recs about this, they’d be welcome.)
Montclair creates a pair of female amateur sleuths who start a marriage bureau agency in post-WWII London. They’re an unlikely, contrapuntal pair whose professional relationship grows into a friendship. If you’re keen on romance tropes, they’re an opposites-attract version of female friendship. Montclair opens her novel, cleverly-like, with the victim, one Tillie LaSalle, seeking a match from Gwen Bainbridge and Iris Sparks’s Mayfair matchmaking establishment, The Right Sort Marriage Bureau. We soon realize Iris and Gwen are as unlike in personality as they are in height. Gwen is the willowy, still-grieving widow of would-have-inherited-a-title Ronald Bainbridge and mother to six-year-old Ronnie. Iris, on the other hand, a former ton-ish wild girl about town, did some secret service work during the war and has derring-do recklessness to Gwen’s methodical care. (more…)