This the third of Kate Atkinson’s books I’ve read and as in reading the others (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) I discovered it takes a nimble mind, some patience, and a lot of trust. The author likes to play with the traditional rules of story arcs, time, and points of view. She weaves back-stories and other bits of ephemera into the narrative, picking up a thread here and there. This book includes “footnotes” which are referenced as the story moves ahead and tell stories of secondary characters who likely think they are main characters. And as is so often the case, the family secrets they reveal hold keys to understanding seemingly inexplicable behaviors.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins in 1951–at the very beginning– with Ruby Lennox, the omniscient narrator saying, “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock…I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter…my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments.”
Atkinson is expert in infusing her writing with period details, especially the habits, standards, and expectations of middle class women of that time in England. However, I was glad to have read this on my Kindle so that I could easily look up unfamiliar British slang and products of 1950s and 60s. Ruby’s description of her beloved Mobo horse tickled me, as my husband’s Mobo is one of our prized possessions.
I’m torn between advising you to savor this book or read it fast. There are several generations of characters to keep straight and if you wait too long between readings–as I did– you might forget who the heck they are. Another advantage to the Kindle–its x-ray feature allows you to easily backtrack. I think a long day of travel or a rainy weekend in a comfy chair would be just about right.
Reading Atkinson—at least these three books—reminds me of looking at a pointillist painting. The big picture doesn’t emerge until you step back from it. Nonetheless, her wry humor and use of language are definitely worth the effort.
As a newborn in the nursery, Ruby tells us:
“We lie in our cots, wrapped tightly in the white cotton-cellular blankets, like promises, like cocoons waiting to hatch into something. Or little baby parcels.”
On discovering Catholicism with her friend:
“I’m more than happy to help out—banking up good deeds with the Lamb, for although He is meek and mild He is also (inexplicably) part of the trio that can consign you to the Inferno.”
And imagery after a long, cold walk home:
“By the time we get back to the Shop there are frozen roses in our cheeks and little shards of ice in our hearts.”
After the loss of her sisters:
“I’m an only child now with all the advantages (money, clothes, records) and all the disadvantages (loneliness, isolation, anguish). I’m all they’ve got left, a ruby solitaire, a kind of chemical reduction of all their children.”
And a difference of opinion:
“’The past is what you leave behind, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”
I’ve been reading and enjoying Anne Tyler’s books for decades, beginning with Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Her quirky, yet somehow recognizable characters always make me smile.
Vinegar Girl is no exception. It is a contemporary retelling of “The Taming of the Shrew” and is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which respected and diverse authors take on Shakespeare’s best-known stories.
Here, Kate Battista finds herself stuck teaching preschool and running the house for her widowed, eccentric research scientist father and pretty teenage sister, Bunny. Being a scientist, her father has an efficient system for just about everything, from loading the dishwasher to doing laundry. He even thinks cooking just once for the entire week simply makes sense. Watch for his formula for “meat mash.” Naturally, Kate’s forthright and somewhat prickly manner means she’s almost always offending someone.
Trouble starts when Dr. Battista, who is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough that could help millions, has his lifetime of research threatened by the imminent deportation of his foreign-born lab assistant, Pyotr. What to do? An arranged marriage, of course! Kate reluctantly agrees only after it is made clear that the marriage will only be on paper. They just need to convince the Immigration authorities. But then…
Tyler writes some funny and poignant situations around the issues of romance, getting acquainted, family dynamics, and feminism. It’s a comedy with a heart, to be sure.
Pyotr explains something about his country:
“In my country they have a proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’”
This was intriguing. Kate said, “Well, in my country they say that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously…But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.”
On Pyotr’s odd attempts at flattery:
“He had a foreigner’s tendency toward bald, obvious compliments, dropping them with a thud at her feet like a cat presenting her with a dead mouse.”
An excerpt from Kate’s big speech on men:
“Women have been studying people’s feelings since they were toddlers; they’ve been perfecting their radar—their intuition or their empathy or their interpersonal whatchamacallit. They know how things work underneath, while men have been stuck with the sports competitions and the wars and the fame and success. It’s like men and women are in two different countries! I’m not ‘backing down,’ as you call it; I’m letting him into my country. I’m giving him space in a place where we can both be ourselves.”
There are lots of reasons to recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to you. First, it is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that pioneer of the romantic comedy genre. The writing and the humor are fresh and lively. While it is a longish read, it’s broken into many very short chapters, which kept me turning virtual pages on my Kindle long past my bedtime.
If you’ve read P&P or even seen any of the cinematic treatments, you will recognize members of the Bennet family and the rest of the quirky cast. Darcy and Liz take an instant dislike to each other, of course. Bingley is a recent contestant on a Bachelor-like show, called—what else?–“Eligible.” Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up as Kathy, a Gloria Steinem-like icon of feminism.
The inciting incident here is Mr. Bennet’s heart attack. Liz Bennet, a journalist, and sister Jane, a yoga instructor, are in their late thirties, single, and living in New York City. Their father’s illness and recovery bring them back to their Cincinnati home, which is in a sad state of disrepair. While Mr. Bennet remains sardonic, he is unable to see a way out of the mounting financial difficulties which have caught him by surprise. Mrs. Bennet is still petty and worried about appearances. Her prejudices are only lightly veiled and she appears to have developed a problem with catalogue shopping and hoarding. The younger sisters have remained at home. Reclusive Mary is always studying, except for a mysterious Tuesday night commitment. Lydia and Kitty are unemployed, unmannerly, and vain.
Since what was shocking in Regency Era England, might be pretty ho-hum today, all the scandals and social issues have been updated. Think IVF, LGBT, CrossFit, reality TV, and what can happen to a family’s wealth when they don’t have health insurance. Oh, and there is a lot more casual sex. Even “hate sex.”
I found Eligible to be great fun.