Category Archives: English/British

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

How could I not love The Painted Veil? W. Somerset Maugham is a superb storyteller with a keen eye for human behavior and is at his best in this novel. Through his strangely likeable protagonist, Kitty Fane, Maugham wields a powerful story that triumphs the human capacity for change and redemption.

The Painted Veil opens as Kitty is deplorably caught in the act with her lover, the handsome, shallow government official, Charles Townsend. Over the next hundred or so pages, Kitty’s husband, serious bacteriologist Walter Fane, develops a plan to sever Kitty’s relationship with Townsend and take her away with him to Mei-tan-fu, a cholera-infected province of China, where he has volunteered himself to serve as a physician and researcher.

Uncomfortable as it was to witness Walter’s plan come to fruition, this section of the novel serves another purpose by providing the reader with background information about Kitty’s childhood and her courtship with Walter. Essentially, the beautiful Kitty was bred to wed and ultimately had to settle for a man she did not love due to fickleness and indecision during her period of “presentation.” Kitty’s mother is an ambitious woman whose aim it was to set her daughters up for a life of sophistication she herself was unable to obtain. When Kitty marries the unimpressive academic Walter Fane, she feels slighted, and her affair with Townsend offers her an escape from her disappointing reality.

All things considered, Kitty Fane should not be considered a sympathetic character. However, due to Maugham’s expert pacing and character development, Kitty’s behavior is perfectly logical. Kitty was brought up with the understanding that one’s marriage is the determinate of one’s self worth. And because Kitty’s match was not ideal—both romantically and fiscally—she demonstrates little loyalty to it.

However, what makes this novel great is Kitty’s ability to grow and change. Kitty’s self-confidence and sense of worth is destroyed by her actions. Yet surprisingly, she accepts responsibility for her actions and looks to improve circumstances for future generations of her family. I sympathized with Kitty at her lowest moments and rooted for her as she picked herself up and found a way to start over despite everything that had happened to her.

Overall, I really loved The Painted Veil, one of Maugham’s many classics. Due to the many favorable reviews of the movie adaptation I look forward to seeing it sometime soon.

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

I tend to avoid short novels. I’m either in the mood to work through a collection of short stories (with their clearly defined stopping points) or spend a good chunk of time with a big, meaty novel. Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, has taught me that the novella deserves a place in my reading life as well. Strange and concise, Spark’s best-known work offers a unique perspective I had yet to encounter in literature, and one that I am now glad to have read.

Miss Jean Brodie is the unconventional teacher of ten-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a stuffy Catholic school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1930s. At first, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods are relatively harmless: she selects six girls—the “Brodie set”—to serve as her “crème de la crème” as she encourages them to appreciate Beauty and Culture by escorting them to concerts and museums and reading Jane Eyre aloud to them. However, once the girls graduate from her tutelage to the Senior School, Miss Brodie’s behavior becomes increasingly inappropriate and serves not the girls’ well-being, but her own selfish aims. Though one of her own ultimately betrays her, the girls of the Brodie set are forever influenced by the lessons they learned as teenagers from their Machiavellian instructor.

What I loved most about this concise but psychologically complex novella is the fresh perspective that it offers. World War I shocked the United States and Europe with the barbarity of its violence and the unprecedented number of casualties the new style of battle bred. As a result, a myriad of new voices emerged from the war telling stories that American and European literature had never heard before. Amazingly, the experiences of the women affected by the decimation of so many young men have largely been ignored. The story of Miss Jean Brodie helps to remedy that deficit.

As a young woman when the war began, Miss Brodie, like many women, suffered the loss of her fiancé. Also like many other women of her time, Miss Brodie is unable to secure another prospect and dedicates the abundant energy of her young adulthood—her “prime”—to the education of the girls she instructs at the Marcia Blaine School. However, the loss of her fiancé, and thus the family life she had surely imagined for herself, tinges Miss Brodie with a bitterness that cultivates the manipulative, selfish behavior she exhibits. Miss Brodie’s actions are disturbing, but her motivations are realistic considering her experiences, and therefore surely worth telling.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a strange but intriguing book. The length and contents of the novel seem perfectly suited for film adaptation so I look forward to checking out the movie soon!

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

You know you’ve read a good book when you care enough about it has to say that you disagree with it. I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, but I’m very glad I changed this with The Sense of an Ending. Winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its “thoughtfulness”, The Sense of an Ending is a short novel that forces the reader to review his/her own life through the lens of the story.

After a brief period of excitement in adolescence, Tony Webster glides complacently through life. He marries a nice, predictable woman, finds a decent career, fathers a healthy, if unexceptional, daughter, amicably divorces and quietly retires. Rather than considering himself a “coward” in life, the now middle-aged Tony contends that he possesses “an instinct for survival, for self-¬preservation”. However, when his college girlfriend’s mother, referred to as Mrs. Ford, bequeaths to him a modest sum of money and the rights to an old school friend’s diary, Tony begins to question his reading of the past and the decisions he has made.

Much of the narrative of The Sense of an Ending is tinged with regret. Tony clearly considers his adolescence and college years spent with fellow idealists Colin, Alex, Adrian and Veronica his high point. He fondly and vividly remembers philosophically charged exchanges with teachers and discourses on living an existential life with his friends, all the while glossing over his relationship with his now ex-wife and the birth of his daughter. Even when the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest begins to unravel, Tony never ceases to regret the course of his own life. Frustratingly, even at the end, Tony is incapable of finding meaning or beauty in the choices he has made and the life he has lead.

My frustration with the protagonist in The Sense of an Ending is the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I expected that once Tony uncovered the truth of the events of his youth, he would come to appreciate his own life and relationships. When he did not, I found myself dissatisfied and had to ask myself why this was the case. I love that Barnes leads his readers on a journey through Tony’s life for 163 pages and then asks them to continue that journey for themselves when the story ends. The Man Booker Prize is much deserved for this “thoughtful” novel.

‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have just finished up When We Were Orphans, yet another great read by the incomparable contemporary stylist, Kazuo Ishiguro. Like the Ishiguro works I have read before, The Remains of the Day and Nocturnes, When We Were Orphans reads beautifully, each impeccably chosen word flowing effortlessly to the next. Similarly, this novel is also home to another unreliable narrator, this one striving to uncover the mystery of his parents’ disappearances many years ago.

When We Were Orphans opens with Christopher Banks, a recent Cambridge graduate, as he begins his career as a private detective. The novel then careens through time, flashing back to Banks’s childhood in Shanghai as he meanwhile achieves increased success in his profession. Motivated by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his parents when he was adolescent, Banks travels back to Shanghai to resolve the case local officials failed to conclude years ago. However, the city Banks encounters as an adult is nothing like the Shanghai of his youth: the Sino-Japanese War having ravaged it beyond recognition. Consequently, as Banks sojourns through what he considers his hometown, the circumstances of his parents’ disappearances, and ultimately his memory itself, become increasingly unclear.

Ultimately, When We Were Orphans is a coming-of-age story, albeit unconventionally told. Like other heroes of the bildungsroman genre, Banks is astutely capable of isolating the moments of his life in which the innocence of youth is betrayed. For example, when a young Banks rushes home fearing that his mother has been kidnapped, he finds his amah, or nanny, alone and in tears, lacking authority for the first time. While this memory clearly shakes his childlike view of the adult world, Banks’s maturity proves not yet to have reached its apogee as he naively searches for his parents decades later in war-torn Shanghai.

One of the reasons I was compelled to read When We Were Orphans over the other Ishiguro novels I have yet to read was its unique title. The use of the plural “We” and past tense “Were” was interesting to me, all but guaranteeing a happy ending. However, the ending of the novel and the fates of Banks and Jennifer, Banks’s foster daughter, are hardly assured. In fact, even if many of Banks’s delusions about his past are ultimately reconciled, Jennifer’s final statements about marriage and children can be interpreted as the negative consequences of her foster father’s parenting.

When We Were Orphans is yet another example of the fine writing one can expect from Kazuo Ishiguro. While each of Ishiguro’s novels and stories differ in theme, his style of prose is consistently excellent. This novel is recommended to anyone with an interest in contemporary literary fiction.

‘Brooklyn’ by Colm Tóibín

A note to readers: Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn gets better with age. The novel opens up sleepily in the town of Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford, where the reader is introduced to Eilis Lacey, a young woman unable to find work in Europe’s post-World War II economy. Soon, however, Eilis is transported to the United States and the action of the novel becomes increasingly more engaging. More than simply an immigration tale or coming-of-age story, Brooklyn ultimately makes a statement about human nature that is difficult not to identify with.

In her small Irish village, Eilis Lacey lives with her recently widowed mother and beautiful older sister, Rose. After the death of the family patriarch four years before the action of the novel begins, the Laceys systematically sacrificed each of the family’s three sons to England for the chance to make a living. As a result, the three women are left alone to fend for themselves. Soon, however, it becomes clear to Rose that Eilis has little hope for wealth or happiness in Ireland. Along with a family patron, Father Flood, the elder Lacey women decide that Eilis’s best hope for success is found in a trans-Atlantic move to America.

Eilis differs from most immigrants of her time in that her move is reluctant. Eilis is young and inexperienced enough that she isn’t disillusioned with her home country. As such, she has no reason to romanticize America as the “land of opportunity” or a coveted “second chance”. However, once she arrives in Brooklyn and overcomes a painful but beautifully written bout of homesickness, she begins to assimilate. Eilis performs well at her job as a salesgirl at a Fulton Street department store, achieves high marks in her accounting classes at Brooklyn College, and falls in love with Tony, an Italian Brooklynite she meets at a local dance. Her new American life, however, is forced to a halt when she receives devastating news from home, obliging her to return to the life and people she left behind in Enniscorthy.

As Eilis resettles into her childhood home, she finds it increasingly difficult to return to the life she created for herself in Brooklyn. As a result, she delays her departure, binding herself evermore to her home country. Eilis’s difficulty in deciding whether to return to America or remain in Ireland demonstrates our penchant as humans to settle into our surroundings, whether we have chosen them or not. Because Eilis has put down roots in both Enniscorthy and Brooklyn, she must ultimately prioritize her affiliations and make the difficult decision of where to make her home. Like Eilis, we must all make these tough decisions at some point and thus cannot help but identify with Eilis’s plight.

Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn started slow for me, but took off and wouldn’t let up once the plot got going. This book comes recommended to readers of all types, but especially to those interested in Irish or period literature.

‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen

I have to say, I enjoyed Persuasion a whole lot more than I did Pride and Prejudice. Like the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion’s Elliots are a self-important clan, making for some great comedy when in opposition against their rebelliously modest daughters. However, unlike Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot is an adult, and therefore much more equipped to comprehend and analyze the action of the novel in a mature, comprehensive way. Anne’s thoughtful take on both society and love render her a heroine to truly admire.

The plot of Persuasion begins eight years after the ill-fated relationship between the young Anne Elliot and upstart seaman Frederick Wentworth has reached its demise. Anne, the daughter of a proud father and the favorite of her late mother’s closest confidante Lady Russell, allows herself to be persuaded to end the relationship. Sir Walter, Anne’s father and head of the Elliot family, disapproves of Frederick’s lack of wealth and prestige and Lady Russell, Anne’s most trustworthy advisor, condemns his unproven, yet excessive, ambition. However, much to the entire society’s surprise, eight years after Anne ends the affair Frederick returns as the wealthy and accomplished Captain Wentworth.

While the focus of the novel revolves around the rekindling of the romance between Anne and Captain Wentworth, Austen’s novel is at its best when it allows Anne to discourse on subjects ranging from redemption to poetry to passion in men and women. Atypical of most romantic heroines, Anne is considered a bit older at twenty-seven. However, instead of detracting from the appeal of the romance, Anne’s maturity succeeds in adding thoughtful insight to the charming affair that unfolds.

While I still do not consider myself one of Austen’s greatest fans, Persuasion did much to improve my opinion of the renowned author. I look forward to reading others’ reviews and comments on what I now consider to be Jane Austen’s best work.

Waugh’s English Gentleman

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

I really do enjoy reading Evelyn Waugh. In his novels, Waugh’s privileged Depression-era English society becomes alive on the page and relevant to the modern reader in all of its satirized glory. The wonderful “tragicomedy” A Handful of Dust is certainly no exception as Waugh demonstrates his keen ability to parse a society he found frivolous and vapid and expose it in a way that is at the same time hilarious and grave.

A Handful of Dust is the story of Tony Last, a relic of England’s not-so-distant pre-World War I past. The list of Tony’s pleasures in life is simple and brief, consisting of: Hetton, his beloved family estate, and Brenda, his adored but wholly incompatible wife. In an elite society growing increasingly obsolete due to both the War and Depression, Tony’s prized lifestyle begins to feel archaic and boring to the abominable Brenda. To entertain herself, Brenda seeks out an affair with social bottom-feeder John Beaver and begins consorting with a vacuous circle of friends comprised of memorable characters with names like Lady Polly Cockpurse and Princess Abdul Akbar. The affair is, as one would expect, “hard cheese on Tony”, and once he becomes privy to it he sets out on a journey that results in Twilight Zone-worthy consequences.

One of my favorite features in A Handful of Dust is Waugh’s surprising compassion for his hapless protagonist. While Waugh is unrelentingly critical of the beastly Brenda and her vapid London social circle, he is uniquely sympathetic to Tony and his plight. In fact, at the end of the novel Waugh even ventures as far as to honor Tony’s disappearing lifestyle as cousin Teddy fondly attempts to restore Hetton to its pre-War glory.

Finally, any praise of A Handful of Dust is certainly incomplete without an homage to its brilliant dialogue. The clever, Dorothy Parker-esque exchanges make the novel not only very enjoyable, but also very quick, to read. In fact, the novel is so replete with dialogue that I found myself savoring Waugh’s descriptive paragraphs all that much more. Overall, I found A Handful of Dust to be an excellent novel; can’t wait to move on the next in Waugh’s oeuvre!