The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands (Natasha Solomons)

“Looking at the three abashed faces, Juliet felt more tired than cross. She supposed they all thought she was square because she didn’t talk about sex, sex, sex. Maybe she was frigid—it had been so long since George that perhaps she’d caught it through enforced celibacy. Celibate. Such an ugly smug word. Everybody else was busy doing it. The boys declared that they did it all the time, with girls, with boys, with themselves and had absolutely no qualms in discussing sex endlessly in her presence. And now the studio was absolutely chock-full of young people eyeing each other up, wondering who to pick to do it with later. Even the Chislehurst crowd did it from time to time. They might not talk about it, but she suspected that Mr and Mrs Nature found time between lokshen puddings to do it. After all everyone did it. Except her” (153).

In the spirit of gynoary (and because this book is worthy), let’s talk about The Gallery of Vanished Husbands!

Often these days (usually after encountering some or other clickbait thinkpiece), I worry about my powers of concentration. (Have smart phones ruined my brain? Am I locked in a cycle of Facebook-Tumblr-email-repeat? Will I ever form a coherent sentence again? Can I ever finish this blog post?) Novels like Gallery, though, soothe my troubled spirit: I didn’t move for four hours, reading it all, start to finish. This wonderful novel is a fantastic portrait of the life of Juliet Montague (yes), a young Jewish woman in London in 1958 who, on her thirtieth birthday, spends the money intended for a refrigerator to commission a portrait of herself. This impromptu decision sets the course for the rest of Juliet’s life, as over the years she befriends a group of young painters, opens her own gallery, raises her children alone, takes a lover (le gasp!), and slowly fills her home with portraits.

A lovely novel, through and through, but one scene (if I had to pick) does stand out (and is quoted at this top of this post): Impressed and mildly intimidated by the beautiful women of London’s art circles, and in an attempt to join their in-crowd, Juliet perms her hair. The result is a disaster, for “[t]he perm transformed women into chic sophisticates, but Juliet is one of them” (150). To avoid “sitting in the loo and succumbing to tears” (150), she goes to the gallery, seeking support from her friends, only to find that the boys have been holding life-drawing classes without her, afraid of shocking her sensibilities. Juliet’s embarrassment, her frustration that her friends think of her as a “maiden aunt” (152), are expertly drawn—A perfect rendition of the awkward sadness of the outsider.

If you liked this, check out:

  • The Innocent Traveller (Ethel Wilson)

Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads. (It’s been a busy, bookish time round these parts!)

Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread (1) by Nathan Edmondson and Phil Noto

The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy edited by Brady Web

Hello, comic books! Thanks to the glorious institution of the public library, I’m at last able to get my hands on comics I’ve long wanted to read! This is the first volume of the series, itself the latest (it launched earlier this year) in a long history of comics about everyone’s favourite red-headed Russian spy, Natasha Romanov. I’m particularly taken with the relationship between Natasha and her manager (agent? accountant?), Isaiah, as well as Noto’s art, and thanks to both libraries and online shops like Comixology, it’s easier (and cheaper) to read comics than it has been in a long time, so you can check them out, too! I also picked up a copy of The Definitive Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), thinking a “definitive” anthology was as good a place as any to jump in, but the collection itself wasn’t too inspiring. It included the 1977 first appearance of the character Starlord/Peter Quill and I enjoyed getting my hands on a copy of those older issues, but still: A man swears vengeance after his mother his murdered by a giant lizard-man? Not my cuppa. (It was an unspecified illness in this summer’s film adaptation, but either way his mom was fridged. Sigh.) Similarly, in the anthology’s most recently published piece (Annihilation: Conquest: Starlord, vol.1—Wikipedia is your friend, when it comes to sorting out titles), the youngest character on Quill’s team—the lot of them in pursuit of a Borg-like enemy—follows an arc which sees him deal with killing a team-member in friendly fire: She attacked him, the story tells us. She was asking for it. Gorgeous art, but sigh. Take me back, Natasha!

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Blood is the eight in Gabaldon’s Outlander series, begun in 1991 (yes, 1991! Readers have been waiting for this latest instalment since 2009). The novels—which follow the life of combat nurse Claire,  sent back in time from 20th-century Scotland to the Scotland of the 18th—are meticulously researched, beautifully written, and richly characterised: No one goes to waste and no one is forgotten. Blood is no exception, following the entanglement of Claire, her family, and her friends in the American revolution, and it’s the history, here, that really sings. If you’ve not read Outlander, but are wary of committing to a multi-novel, multi-decade series, that first novel itself can be read alone. (Once you get there, though, you won’t want to stop; Trust me.)

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club  (Genevieve Valentine)

In Kingfisher, Valentine retells the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a fairy tale in which twelve sisters sneak away from their father at night to dance. Valentine’s wonderful novel, though, recasts the story against Prohibition-era America, and her sisters—led by the oldest, the self-sacrificing Jo, called “the General”—escape their abusive rather to dance the night away at speakeasies. I had heard that Valentine did impressive work maintaining twelve distinct characters in the sisters and I was not disappointed: The balance is incredible and the story itself compelling even if you’ve never heard the tale at its foundation. The girls grow older, fight, fall in love, dance, marry, run away, come home, and more, but always, sisterhood is at the novel’s heart. Valentine also runs a superb media review blog.

The Elite

The Elite (Kiera Cass)

“I slammed the book shut, confused and frustrated. Was I missing something? Collapsing what system? Lording over people? Was the structure of our country not a necessity but convenience” (231)?

The Elite is the second of Cass’s Selection trilogy, which begins in a dystopian version of the United States, following America Singer through a national lottery/beauty pageant in competition to marry the prince, while the pageantry itself is complicated by anti-government rebellions. (I wrote about the first novel, The Selection, last year.)

In Elite, America continues to be unengaged with the conflict destabilizing her country, distracted by half-hearted waffling between two boys—the prince, Maxon, and her “lower-caste” ex, Aspen. For particular example, much of the novel’s plot revolves around America’s illicit access to the private diaries of her country’s founder (and first king)—but even with these at her disposal, she is easily bored: She puts the book away at cliffhanger intervals (revealing, unfortunately, the novel’s mechanics).

More seriously, though, while The Selection novels start from an intriguing premise—Cinderella x Miss America x The Hunger Games—it is inextricably bound up in building America as a “Cool Girl”—that fantasy who “isn’t like all those other girls.” (Here, Rachel Simon at The Bustle talks about Gillian Flynn’s use of this trope in her novel, Gone Girl.)

Being the “Cool Girl” is—of course—impossible, because it relies on you “admitting” that while every single other girl may be boring/not funny/uptight/self-centred/catty/have no guy friends/etc. you, in fact, are not, a position which you will then have to reinforce for the rest of your days to people who don’t actually like or respect you. America does this in The Elite, disliking the other girls simply for playing the same game that traps them all—The same game that she herself plays. The only other competitor constructed sympathetically is ejected from the competition as punishment for sexual transgression: After being caught having sex with one of the guards, both she and her lover are publicly beaten, then exiled. America Singer needs a wake-up call (or better yet, a consciousness-raising!).

Instead of this, check out:

The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil (W. Somerset Maugham)

For readers 14 years and up

“I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made” (212).

First published in 1925 (the film, starring Naomi Watts, was released in 2006), The Painted Veil is the story of an upperclass English women—Kitty—who moves to China after an impetuous and hasty marriage to a shy bacteriologist. When her husband discovers she’s begun an affair, he moves them both from the city to a remote village, intent on fighting a raging cholera epidemic. Then removed from everything she knows, constantly at risk of lethal illness, and living with a husband she neither likes nor understands, Kitty struggles to find direction and purpose for her life.

If one were to go by the back of the book, one would see that The Daily Mail (for what that’s worth!) remarks that the novel reveals “an understanding of women” as well as that the novel tells “a classic story of a woman’s spiritual awakening.” This would certainly be enough to put me off—who can claim to understand all women? and a male writer at that?—but it’s worth persevering. The Painted Veil succeeds with a protagonist compellingly sympathetic as well as unlikeable, reminding me quite a bit of Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (and as with Wind, unfortunately and upsettingly, such thorough and complex portraits of white women come at the expense of women of colour). Veil also richly portrays the French nuns who refuse to abandon the stricken village, markedly contrasting the Reverend Mother—a French aristocrat who abandoned her wealth and title for religious vocation—with Kitty, who while not inherently unkind is unused to challenge and to not getting her way.

Also fascinating to read through are Kitty’s ongoing attempts to understand her husband’s motivations. While he works near-constantly to end the epidemic and recognises Kitty’s lover for the shallower manipulator that he is, he also moves himself and Kitty to rural China with the intention of risking her health. He is not kind and the two are hopelessly, painfully, brutally mismatched. Yet—to my surprise and delight—the novel never breaks focus with Kitty, tracing the couple’s entire dissolution through her eyes and experiences, never expecting her to forgive or love him, nor vice versa. The Painted Veil is a brief read, but an interesting one, well worth a spare afternoon.

As a final thought and as a point of comparison, I would certainly recommend the film, particularly to consider the changes made. Most significantly, both Kitty and her husband are nicer onscreen. In the film—unlike the novel—Kitty does not briefly resume her affair upon returning to the city, and she and Walter ultimately reconcile; it is a romance, while the novel is the coming-of-age of a grown woman. (The film, too, makes Kitty’s child a son, whereas the novel—while leaving the question unanswered—sees her so desperately want a daughter.) For further reading, Miriam Burstein at The Little Professor does a superb comparison of the novel and film, noting that while the former is interested in personal and interpersonal development, the latter is more interested a post-colonial reading.


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In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country

In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (Kim Barnes)

For readers 14 years and up

“I saw that something had begun its slow possession. How could I be both healer and sinner?”

“She’s a beautiful girl, her light blue eyes brilliant against the smooth brown skin inherited from her Cherokee grandmother.”

Barnes’s memoir follows her family’s move into the logging communities of Idaho in the mid-20th century, but while the early parts of the book do discuss her early childhood in the logging camps, the meat of the memoir follows the sharp and severe emotional and physical changes undergone when her parents convert to conservative pentecostal Christianity. Not only does the family leave rural Idaho, but they also grow close to the exclusive and abusive family that runs their church, trapping the young Barnes between crushing religious guilt and impulses to rebel socially, religiously, and sexually as she tries to shape her own identity.

Barnes’s story is a compelling one and, for the most part, told well. While I would counsel readers to be aware of triggering content (sexual, physical, and religious abuse), I think this could be an important read for—particularly North American—women raised in conservative Christian settings, especially where those settings have been harmful (in whatever varying degrees). There is something powerful and reassuring in seeing one’s experiences shared with another person, and Barnes delicately tries to untangle—simply put—both her negative and positive thoughts about religion.

Unfortunately, though, Barnes’s content is hampered by repeated, lazy characterisation dependent on racist tropes. For example, consider the quote at the top—”the smooth brown skin inherited from her Cherokee grandmother”—or other descriptions, including “dark lashes gave her an exotic appearance” (46), “dinners of exotic dishes Lola [a missionary’s daughter] had learned to cook from one native tribe or another” (86), and “she possessed the kind of exotic appearance that made the town girls looked bleached and cause the farm boys to imagine spice on their tongues” (154). I wanted Barnes’s memoir to be a powerful peek into growing up as a woman in conservative Christian America, but unfortunately, this seems to often come at the expense of other women exoticised and sexualised.

Instead of this, check out:

* Non-fiction/memoir

Friday Round-Up

The Friday Round-Up features quick reviews of recent reads.

Romola by George Eliot 
For readers 14+
I have a fondness for old books that were considered historical in their own time (Jane Eyre, anyone?), and this combined with my abiding love for George Eliot, is making Romola a treat. The novel is set in late 15th-century Florence, where the prophetic ascetic Girolama Savonarola is rising to power and Pope Alexander VI  rules the Vatican. (All those hours I spent watching Holliday Grainger and François Arnaud raise hell in The Borgias are paying off!) In Eliot’s novel, though, we follow Tito Melema, a usually well-meaning but dangerously selfish young Greek, and his Florencian wife, the well-educated and stifled Romola. My Kindle tells me I’m only 40 per cent in; there’s no telling how things will play out, but knowing the period, I’m worried. Check it (and Eliot’s other novels) out at Project Gutenberg.

The Summer Prince

The Summer Prince (Alaya Dawn Johnson)

For readers 14 years and up

“I squeeze my hand into a fist. No. That’s a story a little girl tells herself to fall asleep at night, and I am done with fairy tales. I want art, pure and clean and uncompromising. I want Gil to be happy and I want to be happy for him. I can love Enki as the summer king without without dreaming of his kisses.”

In the futuristic city of Palmares Três (in what we would call South America today), a young artist named June seeks love and artistic success, but is drawn into political games that challenge her values and identity—and even her life. Palmares Três seems, in many ways, a bright spot in the novel’s post-apocalyptic world: Unlike other countries, its citizens are generally healthy, with widespread access to services, technology (automated services are run by a computers called “City,” while June and her classmates are never without their “fonos”), art and music, and education, and open acceptance of varying sexualities. As June comes to realise, though, these privileges of the ruling class—those who live, literally, at the top of society—is dependent on the labourers who work at the bottom, in “the Verde.”

Johnson also establishes a unique history and power structure for Palmares Três: The city is ruled by a Queen and a cabinet of women (called Aunties), while each year, young men compete to be elected as the “Summer King.” The winner enjoys a summer of excess and fame, but at the end, his throat is cut in ritual sacrifice, and he “elects” the new Queen by marking her with his blood. This ritual (first implemented as the early inhabitants of Palmares Três attempted to rebuild after their civilization’s collapse) goes unchallenged until a young man from the Verde, Enki, is elected as the Summer King. June, our narrator, is drawn into Enki’s life when he begins a relationship with her best friend, Gil, and her own desire to be “the best artist in Palmares Três” becomes entangles Enki’s mysterious technological modifications to his own body as well as his escalating rebellions against the Queen.

Johnson draws on history to build her futuristic world. As she tells us in The Summer Prince itself, describing the origins of the ritual,

“I [the first Queen] take from the world I know: Candomblé, which always respected a woman’s power. Catholicism, which always understood the transformation of sacrifice. And Palmares, that legendary self-made city the slaves carved themselves in the jungle, proof that a better world can be built from a bad one.” (For more about Palmares, start at Wikipedia.)

The Summer Prince takes on much, but does it well and richly, building a compelling and believable world, and never falling prey to simplifying the issues she tackles, including:

  • post/trans-humanism: Palmares-Três enjoys a strained relationship with Japan, where many inhabitants have abandoned their bodies to live in the Cloud, a data-stream, and Enki similarly experiments with his own body;
  • racial, gender, and sexual hierarchies: In a subtle detail, for instance, we learn that it is considered socially unacceptable for women to cry, rather contrary to some current cultural norms);
  • youth activism and age discrimination: Thanks to medical advances, humans live well into their hundreds, making it extremely difficult for young people, or “wakas” to work or otherwise earn distinction); and
  • relationships between friends, family, and lovers: June mourns her dead father, fights with her mother and step-mother, falls in love with Enki, cares deeply for her best friend, Gil, even while resenting his relationship with Enki, and struggles to understand her rising social consciousness while wishing, also, simply to succeed as an artist.

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