“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.
I am a fan of middlebrow women’s fiction, and though I rarely write about it, I certainly read my share of popular novels. With a cup of tea in the middle of the night and none of the men awake to tease me, I curl up with the novels of Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Gaskell, Monica Dickens, or Mary Stewart.
I also try lots of contemporary women’s fiction.
Sometimes middlebrow contemporary fiction is a good fit for me, sometimes not. I can’t for the life of me read Jennifer Weiner or Joshlyn Jackson.
I intend to be honest, and hope you will find some good books here, some by famous people, some barely known.
And so here’s the round-up of middlebrow novels for January:
1. Emma Tennant’s Confessions of a Sugar Mummy. This delightful “chick lit” novel is for women of a certain age, or at least for women who know they may someday be that age. The witty Confessions are narrated by a sixtyish interior decorator who falls in love with a 40ish man. She tells us that Freud discovered the Oedipus complex, but failed to invent the Jocasta complex, “to look at the situation from the point of view of…his mother.” In her work as an interior decorator, she meets the gorgeous French tile maker, Alain, and immediately wants to sleep with him.
But she gives us very good advice.
“On no account rush to the loo and apply Touche Eclat or whatever the ruinously expensive foundation is called, the one that claims to remove your wrinkles and fill in the vertical lines down to your mouth, the result of a fifty-year nicotine habit. You will look strangely different, it’s true, but not for the better, as they claim.”
She considers trying Botox, settles for a new facial creme, and then resolves to interest Alain by making a fortune selling her flat in her gentrified neighborhood. She thinks she can buy a house for herself, Alain, and possibly his wife. He is very interested.
Yes, she’s out of control, but she’s very, very funny. B+
2. Hilma Wolitzer’s An Available Man. You might think it is no coincidence that I read a novel about a man in his sixties after reading a novel about a woman in her sixties, but I assure you I’m still clinging to my spry half century. Hilma Wolitzer is the mother of Meg Wolitzer, one of my favorite writers, and Hilma’s light, romantic novels are usually quite good, so I picked up a copy.
When retired science teacher Edward’s children place a personal ad for him in NYR under the name Science Guy, he is annoyed, because he has not gotten over Bee, his late wife, and he doesn’t want to date. But he goes ahead with it, and meets several women who are not quite right for him, among them a teacher who jilted him years ago; a beautiful older blonde whose extensive plastic surgery repulses him; and a widow whose insistence on showing him photos of her dead husband makes him feel he is at a bereavement brunch.
Edward is a kind, sensible, “nice” character, and this short entertaining novel is very “nicely” written. Occasionally an unpredictable moment redeems this novel as we see Edward change and grab life again. B+.
3. Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life. This novel was compared to Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, and though it was nothing like it, I very much enjoyed Huth’s shrewd observations of her characters’ rocky marriages and realignments of love. My favorite character is Rachel, a charming woman who spends her days sleeping on 300+ count sheets in a beautifully redecorated bedroom, because there are certainly days when I, too, would like to dream all day. Her husband, Thomas, who is quite nasty to her, has affairs with younger women and falls in love with an artist’s work and schemes to seduce her. Rachel embarrasses herself at a party making a pass at a man, but that is not the end of the world.
We meet other characters, among them unhappy Frances Farthingoe, who gives a lot of parties and decides she needs a custom-made gray awning at her ball, while her quiet husband takes refuge in studying badgers at night.
Marriage is not the end-all when you’re ill-suited, and that is what Huth shows us so charmingly. Grade: A-
4. Sherry Jones’s Four Sisters, All Queens. Sherry, a Friend of Our Blog , was kind enough to send me a copy of her historical novel, Four Sisters, All Queens. As a fan of Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton, and Philippa Gregory, I knew I’d enjoy this novel set in the 13th century about four queens.
I enjoy historical novels about queens to the point that I once considered spending a year reading only historical novels…but I did something else!
And I ended up racing through Sherry’s well-researched, deftly-written novel. She spins the story of the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy, the countess of Provence, who raised and educated her daughters as sons, ensuring that they would learn Latin, French, history, and other subjects that would help them participate in the political process.. She was the “queen maker” though she would have preferred to make kings, and her four daughters were expected to make political marriages. Indeed, Beatrice married them so well that it should have strengthened Provence.
The four sisters grew up to be Queen Marguerite of France, Queen Elenore of England, Queen Sanchia of Germany, and Queen Beatrice of Sicily. Marguerite’s husband, Louis IX of France, is impotent. His mother has a way of showing up in the garden as they are kissing. Marguerite also has to contend with this evil queen politically, as she tries to edge Marguerite out of meetings and sends Marguerite’s uncles home.
My favorite character, Eleanore, has to walk a treacherous path: her coronation is crashed by a madman who claims the coronation is illegal because Henry is betrothed to his daughter. Henry was engaged to her, and broke it off, saying she was too closely related: The Pope is reviewing the document. Marguerite tries to stay cool, and is astonishingly smart, managing to attract all the attention back to herself.
The other two queens, too, have problems, and as they grow older, the politics are even more complicated.
This novel is fascinating, great vacation reading, take it to the Caribbean (in my case the couch). Sherry, a former journalist, is an excellent writer.
5. Jo-Ann Mapson was kind enough to send me a copy of Finding Casey, the well-written sequel to her award-winning novel, Solomon’s Oak. In Solomon’s Oak, Mapson tells the story of Glory, a grieving widow who bakes pirate cakes and plans weddings to support her farm; Joseph, a retired wounded cop with pain management problems; and Juniper, a rebellious adolescent whose sister disappeared some years ago. In Finding Casey, Glory and Joseph have married and adopted Juniper and moved to Santa Fe, and there isn’t at first much tension in their happy family life. Glory is pregnant, Joseph volunteers on the board of a women’s shelter, and Juniper is in college.
But a new character is introduced, Laurel, a brainwashed young woman who has been horribly abused by a cult leader at “the Farm,” and when she secretly brings her daughter to a hospital against the wishes of the sadistic Seth, she finds help from a social worker.
Mapson has a calm voice and a simple, poetic style. She understands suffering and describes it quietly. I did figure out the plot almost immediately, but that isn’t a bad thing. Though there is suspense, you know she will help her characters.
Finding Casey continues the story without much ado, and perhaps doesn’t quite stand alone. Is is more loosely plotted, because we already know the characters.
So read Solomon’s Oak first. It’s just better to read them in a row.
I like the photo of you. A good idea, the bimonthly feature. E.M.
There’s nothing wrong with a bit of middlebrow every now and again. I remember a wonderful short story by Emma Tennant that I used to teach with my first year undergrads, so I’ll definitely be looking out for her novel and the Sherry Jones sounds like my sort of thing too. Tanks for the recommendations.
Yes, Ellen, I like the idea of a bimonthly feature, though I didn’t manage to fit in all the writers I had planned to. It’s probably best this way: I didn’t have anything crappy to complain about!
Alex, I do like middlebrow maybe once a week. I don’t know Emma Tennant’s short stories, but she seems to write everything from literary novels to sequels to Jane Eyre and this comedy. I would like to read more by her, too.
All these books sound terrific, especially mine, haha! Seriously, thank you for your kind review of “Four Sisters, All Queens.” Did you notice, as I did, how closely the sisters correlated personality-wise to the March sisters in “Little Women”? Eleonore was the boldest, with the most going for her, just like Jo. My favorite sister is Beatrice because of her snark — she was so much fun for me to write.
I encourage you, Kathy, to read “White Heart,” my e-novella prequel to “Four Sisters, All Queens,” written from the point of view of that wicked mother-in-law Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France. She was also a hoot for me to write. I think characters like Beatrice and Blanche are the most fun for me because they allow me to channel my Inner Bitch. 😉
Sherry, I had no idea there was a prequel! I’ll get out my e-reader! I’m sure it will be fascinating to read about Blanche’s past.
Yes, all these books were good in different ways. I decided to bunch them all together instead of by genre, so there’s something for everybody here!
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