It was such a relief to feel normal again when the migraine finally lifted. Friday I felt as tired as though I was convalescing after a long illness, but I was fully recovered on Saturday. And so commenced the weekend’s reading.
The Complete Tales of Earthsea – Ursula LeGuin
I bought myself the 1000+ page hardback, with illustrations by Charles Vess and a ribbon marker. I read the whole thing through over Saturday and Sunday and while some was pleasingly familiar, the fifth and sixth volumes were completely new to me. I don’t remember how old I was when I first encountered the trilogy but I’ve always found them dark. The shadow that Ged unleashes when he tries to summon a spirit of the dead, the darkness of the Labyrinth, the misery of Ged and Lebannen’s journey to the Wall and struggle back to life. And yet, I read and re-read them in my teens and again in my 20s when Tehanu was published.
I absolutely didn’t know that LeGuin was doing something new with fantasy when she wrote A Wizard of Earthsea, and I definitely didn’t appreciate Tehanu. Like thousands of other readers, perhaps, I wanted more stories of the heroic mage. This encounter had all the joy of familiarity, but I appreciated the continuation of Tenar’s story and I realised she is the heroine of The Tombs of Atuan. I had thought Ged saved her, but first and then last, she has to save him.
LeGuin wrote what eventually turned into six volumes over the course of 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. It’s a master work of world building, dismantling and rebuilding that also deliberately redefines some of the tropes of fantasy as it goes. I loved reading it and that was 20 or so hours very well spent.
1984 – George Orwell
Why did I do this to myself? Why? But, unsurprisingly, 1984 has come up in conversation a couple of times recently and seemed due a re-read. Ugh. Contemporary parallels oozed unpleasantly off the pages: fabrication of news, doublethink, Newspeak, the existence of a (probably fake) state-sponsored enemy. The Two Minute Hate is just the obverse of a 1 Minute Clap for the NHS or whoever is in favour this week. Don’t forget to dob your neighbours in if they don’t clap!
I was also reminded of one of the narratives in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I now can’t find on the shelves but in which I’m pretty sure there’s a fake rebel group, created by the government as a focus for any malcontents.
What’s more worrying is that I don’t believe Trump is intelligent enough to pick up any novel and use it like a playbook. But Johnson could, and apparently is, and if you aren’t genuinely scared then you aren’t paying attention.
Red, White and Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston
I needed a mental sorbet after 1984, so I bounced over to this again. And it did the trick nicely. It’s a great romance, the twist being that the eventually happy couple are the first son of the (female) US President and a handsome UK prince. So, not modelled on any of our actual princes.
Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann
Trawling through Backlisted Podcast’s backlist, I found an episode on The Weather in the Streets, also by Rosamond Lehmann. So I listened, and it discussed both books and I was reminded of how after I first encountered Lehmann I gradually tracked down all her novels. Invitation to the Waltz was her second novel and it tells a very simple story of one young girl’s preparation to attend a dance. I’ve never read anything else as good on the awkwardness and misery of attending a social event and it just not working for you.(Which is still my experience of all parties or group events where there are a lot of new people and is why I desperately avoid them.)
Olivia Curtis is 17 on the day with which the book opens, an unfinished, naive girl who is somewhat in the shadow of her more savvy older sister, Kate. Kate has wafted effortlessly through her preparations for the dance, from making herself a beautiful dress to manicuring her nails, and once arrived she is fortuitously introduced to the man she most wants to meet.
Olivia has simply not figured it out. The local dressmaker has botched her dress so it’s badly cut and ill-fitting, and various unfortunate partners are found for her so that she at least gets a few dances. She suffers a series of difficult conversations, because she has no idea what to say and isn’t pretty enough to be charmingly gauche. Her only positive interaction is when she escapes onto the terrace and meets Rollo Spencer, glamorous, older son of the house.
It’s not a coming of age story, because Olivia is just starting on that journey. But it’s a beautifully drawn family story, it’s insightful about class distinctions and the relationship between the sisters as well. Lehmann was hugely successful and critically acclaimed in her day: my copy is a US first edition and includes a review that compares her with Tarkington (clearly still well enough known at the time not to need his full name). This novel is an accomplishment of literary legerdemain.
The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann
Which picks up Olivia’s story some 10 years later, by which time she has drifted apart from an unsatisfactory husband. On the train home from London to see her father, who is suffering from pneumonia, she meets Rollo Spencer again. He is married, seemingly unhappily, and they quickly embark on an affair. The books charts the course of that affair, the dark restaurants and borrowed rooms, not-quite-successful weekends away and one bitter occasion when Olivia goes to Rollo’s home.
Of course Rollo maintains that he’s not sleeping with his wife. And, of course, he is, so the affair is fractured when he leaves Olivia in Austria on the pretext that he’s been called home on business. In fact, his wife is pregnant but Olivia doesn’t find that out until what seems to be the definitive break point.
The discussion on Backlisted concluded that Rollo and Olivia are kind to each other, and that Rollo isn’t a cad. They are for the most part, kind to each other. But while the narrative switches from first person to third person for Olivia, it’s always third person for Rollo. Olivia hides nothing from the reader, but Rollo is hiding some of the facts from both Olivia and the reader. When the revelations come, they cast a different light on stages of the affair and on Rollo’s past and present behaviour, and motivations.
The quote on the cover of my Virago Modern Classic edition is Carmen Callill saying ‘The Weather in the Streets was our Bridget Jones’s Diary‘. I was a big fan of Bridget and maybe the quote serves to make the book seem friendlier, but… no. That is to overstate Bridget Jones and underplay Lehmann.