Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2018, The Classic Club

The Shuttle – Frances Hodgeson Burnett

Classic
3*s

The Classic Club Spin number 18 picked The Shuttle by Frances Hodgeson Burnett for me which was one of my choices of children’s authors who had written books for adults too. Once it was picked I then decided to investigate a little more – you can read my full post here.

So I was a little concerned about the length of the book and with good reason given that I only finished the last page shortly before leaving for work this morning! But I was very impressed to find out that the garden at Great Maytham Hall near Rolvenden, Kent, as inspiration for the setting of this book, and The Secret Garden – more of that later.

Great Maytham Hall Garden by Stephen Nunnery

So what did I think of the book. Well although it was long at well over 500 pages most of the time the story flowed along although I have to confess there were times when the lengthy descriptions so common at this time wore me down but there were plenty of surprises, maybe not so much plot wise but I found the attitudes given the time that this was written in 1907 far more forward thinking than I expected.

The story opens in New York with Sir Nigel Anstruthers meeting the young and fairly insubstantial, in build and character, Rosalie Vanderpoel. Rosalie is an heiress of magnitude and Nigel Anstruthers was seeking just such a young woman to marry with the aim of using her wealth for the upkeep of Stornham Court. Nigel meets the parents, the younger sister Bettina and the couple soon tie the knot. As Sir and Lady Anstruthers they set sail for the UK and then by train to Kent where Stornham Court is far more dilapidated than Rosalie expected. But since by that time her husband has failed to keep his brutish nature under wraps she is already on edge. Meeting the dowager does nothing to improve her feelings and it soon becomes apparent that she is trapped.

Many years later her younger sister Betty comes to find her. In the intervening years the house has fallen into even more severe disrepair as all the money has been spent on Sir Anstruther’s own entertainment. Rosalie is in just as bad shape, having also fallen into disrepair, her one surviving son who has a deformity being the only meaning in her life. Betty is shocked but a strong-willed and ‘business-like’ young woman who takes the house and her sister in hand.

With echoes of what would become the healing nature of plants and flowers in the Secret Garden within this book as one of Betty’s first actions is to hire a Head Gardener to oversee the many younger men to bring the garden to life. There are walks round the garden, descriptions of various flowers and a sense that this beauty breathes life into her sister’s soul.

There is also the inevitable romance playing out alongside the younger sister’s careful plan to extricate her sister from her awful marriage. This is a very modern woman who while approaching life somewhat differently given the slightly less rigid American lifestyle to that expected in an English village must surely have spoken to the Edwardian women who read this book at the time of publication. That along with a cautionary tale to those in America not to be taken in by a title alone. There is much said about what constitutes a married woman’s property what separating would mean for a woman not only in terms of her standing in society but that she would lose custody of her child. I couldn’t help but wonder what those women who were living under just such a regime took from this story.

There are dramatic scenes before the climax of the book which definitely allude to the particular power a man has over a woman, even a strong and clever woman, which while not in any way explicit was quite unexpected.

So in conclusion this was a good choice as one of  my Classic Club reads as there was much to enjoy within these pages that include travelling salesmen, hop pickers and magic wands aplenty in the form of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of money. I did mark it down by one star because it was a little bit of a slog in places but in all honestly I don’t think I’ll forget the many and varied characters I met during this read.

The Shuttle is number 46 on The Classics Club list and the seventh of my fifty choices that I’ve read and reviewed.

First Published UK: 1907
Publisher: Persephone Books
No of Pages: 536
Genre: Classic Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

The Conversations We Never Had – Jeffrey H. Konis

Historical Fiction
3*s

I instantly got the feeling that Jeffrey Konis has written this beautiful book with a sense of guilt and regret. The pages are full of the stories he imagines his Grandmother’s younger sister, Grandma “Ola” would have told him if only he’d asked the questions, alongside this are a few too many descriptions of the hard work he was doing to establish himself at law school as justification for not doing so.

The first section describes Jeffrey moving into the brownstone house with Olga when she was an elderly lady, to help him out with accommodation while he studied and for him to provide company to the woman who had taken on his father following the end of the war when he was alone in the world. Olga took the young boy from the farm where he was found in Poland to America after surviving the Holocaust. It took me a while to become comfortable with the mix of fact and fiction in this book. This was mainly because it is presented as a story as told in parts by an elderly lady, complete with breaks where her memory fails or the details are simply too hard to express, when of course we know that these painful conversations never happened. However, there is a large element of truth regarding the ‘big picture’ which is sadly all too common to many Jewish families following the Holocaust.

Once the first section is over and Grandma Ola is describing what happened during the war, the trip by railway to a concentration camp being one of those that was only too realistic, then the details flowed off the page less self-consciously. The author delves back into Olga’s past from a childhood through to the early days when the Jews were viewed by suspicion by their neighbours right through to herref move to America and the fresh start with her husband and Jeffrey’s father.

The author also uses the book to explore the meaning of being a Jew in the modern world, including the exploration of whether marrying someone out of the faith is really feasible, for both parties, even should the woman choose to convert. This isn’t an author that doubts his faith, but rather is questioning what it means in terms of values that are shared in the community and that they are woven into the thread of the person from the earliest of days.

With its interview style the Jeffrey Konis adopts a somewhat more formal style than you would imagine family members would usually converse in although the author works hard to minimise this with descriptions of cookies served up each time he sat down with his imaginary notebook to listen to Olga’s stories.

I found that the part devoted to the war years easily the most powerful section of the entire book and perhaps because his questions became sparser allowing the imagined dialogue of Olga to proceed without interruption, the most readable section of the book.

An interesting book presented in a novel way that gets down and personal with a generation of people whose lives were changed forever.

This book is the ninth in my Mount TBR 2017 Challenge having been purchased in September 2016 to qualify.
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First Published UK: 2016
Publisher: Outskirts Press
No of Pages:  208
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US