I came out of the womb and started reading.
No, you could not read Edward Lear’s alphabet books too often.
My mother got stuck reading a book called Baby Farm Animals again and again.
It was a huge relief when I could read.
Recently I thought of sending a thank-you letter to my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. W., a charming woman who loved children’s literature and took over the formation of our literary taste after our mothers decided we were old enough to read to ourselves. This lovely, enthusiastic young woman with a ’60s beehive hairdo and lots of mascara on her already-thick eyelashes read to us daily from such classics as Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (recently reissued by NYRB), Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast (one of my favorite books of all time!), Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, Borden Deal’s A Long Way to Go, and Emily Cheney Neville’s Berries Goodman.
Of all my teachers, I think Mrs. W. would have been the best book blogger! Still, I am sure some would have surprised me with their secret reading.
I’ve been so busy reading that I haven’t blogged much about books here lately.
So here’s a catch-up post.
I adored Elizabeth Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz. If you’re not familiar with Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries, you should check out this Amazon-published reprint series. Nancy Pearl, a famous librarian, author, and NPR book commenter, has selected the novels for the series. These books, which were originally published from 1960-2000, had fallen out of print and were revived by Pearl. She has exquisite taste, and the four I’ve read in this series are brilliant.
Savage’s The Last Night at the Ritz, set in the late ’60s, was published in 1973. The action takes place in one day, and centers on a reunion of four friends at the Ritz in Boston. The unnamed narrator has stayed in touch for decades with her college roommate, Gay. Long ago, she briefly dated Len, Gay’s husband. Wes, the narrator’s former lover, is the fourth at the party.
In the course of one boozy day, the friends have lunch at the Ritz, take naps afterwards (they rent one room for the guys and one for the gals), and drink and dine heavily into the night. Unsuspected secrets are revealed and there are some twists we don’t see coming. As the narrator delves into the past and reveals the seeds of the present, it morphs into a college novel. Gay, a hardworking student, obsessively read, wrote, and kept note cards because she wanted to go to a good graduate school, but the narrator’s own approach was more casual: her academic career was undistinguished, except for winning the poetry prize.
When the narrator thinks she might be pregnant, she tries the gin and hot bath thing generations of women used to try in lieu of an abortion. Savage makes the escapade humorous, whereas Marge Piercy would make it intense and overwrought.
The gin was horrid. I had taken the precaution of bringing a Coke to cut it with but naturally I hadn’t thought of a glass. And didn’t dare to waste any of the gin–it might be just that one swallow that would make all the difference–so I slugged the first of it down straight and then tried to pour the Coke into the gin bottle. The warm Coke didn’t help the warm gin all that much and after a while it got harder to pour, too; a lot of the Coke went into the tub, which seemed to me exquisitely funny. I giggled and eased the Coke bottle down upon the floor.
Naturally, it is Gay who finds her in the tub and helps her out of the tub and back to their room. Later, she has her period. Obviously, she was never pregnant.
The two girls are so close that they share each other’s text books “because neither of us could afford them all, which was fine until it came time to divide them up.”
I love the narrator’s sense of humor.
“Now that we can buy anything we want we seem to read detective stories.”
Gay and Len, now an editor, seem reasonably happy, though they worry about their oldest son Charley, a draft dodger in Canada. The narrator was happy with her first husband, but since his departure and subsequent death, she has been less happy. She never had children, nor did she miss them, because she has always thought of Gay’s son Charley as partly her child. When Gay was in the hospital having a second baby, she helped cover up an incident of violence–Len’s striking Charley out of terror after the child got lost. She observed that the violence was unacceptable but she understood the love and fear it came from.
Pearl’s introduction is not scholarly. She muses on her own emotions about the book when she first read it, and how much it meant to her when she met someone else who loved Elizabeth Savage. I especially like her thoughts on the close friendship between the narrator and Gay.
It’s a friendship that began in college and now, more than a quarter century later, still continues as strong as ever, having withstood distance, secrets, time, and betrayal. Tolerance, disapproval, forgiveness, and understanding are all woven into the close connection of between these two characters; indeed, without those the friendship likely wouldn’t have endured. Perhaps it is the kind of friendship that only exists in novels, though I don’t really think so, although I’ve not been fortunate enough to have (or have had) that sort of friend myself.
I feel that way myself. I did have close friends in college, but the friendships ended a few years after, because we were all too “geographically challenged” to keep them going.
Savage is a bold, yet vulnerable, writer, and I very much enjoyed this beautifully-written novel
If you like Viragos, you will very much like this series of reprints. Perhaps Nancy Pearl is our American Carmen Calil, and these are our Viragos.