I used to love writing “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” posts.
They were fun and no pressure, short columns in which I bunched together five or six books.
But my reading has been so eclectic lately that it is difficult to group the books. And so I am “doubling up” with two completely dissimilar books, Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object: Selected Stories, and Dodie Smith’s comic novel, The New Moon With the Old.
1. I expected great things of Edna O’Brien’s new book, The Love Object: Selected Stories. And she delivers, so I ended up buying the hardcover of this stunning collection as well as the e-book. I prefer her lively early stories, many of which are set in Ireland, to the sophisticated stories that portray women in love with powerful men in London. These heroines are often wispy and forlorn. Yet O’Brien’s writing is always lyrical and sensual, and her development of characters is rich. This collection of 31 stories, written between 1968 and 2011, is a classic.
In “Sister Imelda,” two characters from O’Brien’s charming 1960s trilogy, The Country Girls, are resurrected (or perhaps born?). I love the voices of Caithleen, the narrator, and her rebellious friend, Baba. When they return after the summer to their convent school, they are surprised that a pretty nun with flashing eyes is teaching geometry and home-ec. Why would someone so attractive be a nun?
O’Brien has a gift for comedy, and Caithleen is a hilarious narrator.
She was a right lunatic, then, Baba said, having gone to university for four years and willingly come back to incarceration, to poverty. We concocted scenes of agony in some Dublin hostel, while a boy, or even a young man, stood beneath her bedroom window throwing up chunks of clay or whistles or a supplication.
Geometry is Caithleen’s worst subject, and Sister Imelda becomes so irritated that she throws a duster at her. But she gives her a holy card after she loses her temper, and soon there is a strong attachment between the two.
Sister Imelda pursues the friendship too intensely, and one pities Caithleen, stuck in a girls’ school. At the end of the year, Sister Imelda believes Caithleen will return and become a nun, but Caithleen flees and never writes her a letter. (We are much relieved.) A few years later, she and Baba pretend not to see Sister Imelda on the bus.
O’Brien is eclectic. She is adept at comedy, but she she can make it realistic or surreal. In two short stories about the character, Mrs. Reinhardt, O’Brien proves her mettle.
In “Number Ten,” Mrs. Reinhard “sleepwalks” and has a secret dream life. O’Brien begins,
Everything began to be better for Mrs. Reinhardt when she started to sleepwalk.
The pictures she sees in her dreams are more compelling than those in her husband’s art gallery. One day she is sorting laundry and finds a little golden key in the pocket of her husband’s seersucker jacket. Soon she “sleepwalks” into a taxi and goes to a mews house, Number Ten, which turns out to be her ideal house, especially the bedroom. But Mrs. Reinhardt’s interpretation of the dream/sleepwalking may be different from the reader’s. What really is Number Ten? We have our suspicions.
In “Mrs. Reinhardt,” the heroine has separated from her husband, who is having an affair with a younger woman. At a beautiful hotel, she cries and misses her husband, but enjoys the gorgeous scenery, walks in the woods, and unwisely wears her expensive necklace in the dining room. O’Brien connects this story to “Number Ten” by saying she was “like a sleepwalker ”
After a brief affair with a handsome man she meets in the woods, she panics (and, I might add, so would we). She has difficulty surviving on her own. But, lo and behold, it is a comedy and has a happy ending
In “Paradise,” a beautiful young woman becomes involved with a millionaire who has a villa on the Mediterranean. She enjoys the luxury, the beautiful view of the harbor, and the tranquility of the household created by servants. (She takes tranquilizers, too.) But there is a problem: the guests are snobbish about her inability to swim. And so her lover, who is equally appalled, extravagantly hires an English swimming instructor. As she fearfully learns to swim, something happens: she begins to feel disconnected from the man and his guests.
In the title story, “The Love Object,”a young woman wmeets a married lawyer at a party. Going to bed with him is bliss, but he is not often available. He calls the shots, and at one point they break up. But the heroine has strong needs. Will she keep away from him?
O’Brien is a prolific but extremely accomplished writer, and I savored each of the 31 stories. This collection is truly a classic, and I can’t say that about many modern books.
The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith. Smith is best-known for her children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, but we adult fans love her charming novel, I Capture the Castle.. (It is in print, thank God.) Narrated in the form of a diary by 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, it tells the story of her family’s colorful life in a crumbling castle the father is an indigent writer, who hasn’t written in years; the artistic, affected stepmother used to be a model; the beautiful older sister, Rose, knows no men and has learned to flirt from old books; and the younger brother, the intelligent Thomas, goes to school.
Smith wrote other books, but we had to scour the internet for them until a few years ago when Corsair reissued them as paperbacks and e-books. My favorite of her novels is The New Moon With the Old , a 1963 pop masterpiece that has fallen below the critical radar.
The New Moon With the Old is a fairy tale about work, a subject seldom treated in novels. Even better, the fairy tale is about unconventional jobs. The novel begins with the arrival of Jane Minton, the new secretary at Dome House. She has seldom been so excited by a job: she is half in love with her new employer, the businessman Rupert Carrington, But a few days after she arrives at Dome House he flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to tell his four children, and cope with the household. The novel is the story of what happens to Jane and the four Carringtons afterwards, when all must fend for themselves. (Three of the four children are adults.)
Smith divides the novel into five Parts, one for Jane and the other four for the Carringtons. The novel is held together by Jane, who must get another secretarial job but stays on to organize the penniless household. All must find jobs, and the results are very comical. Fourteen-year-old Merry, a talented actress, is kicked out of her girls’ school, runs away, has her hair dyed red and teased by a provincial hairdresser, and finds a job directing an aristocratic family’s amateur theatricals. Nineteen-year-old Drew becomes a companion to a 70-year-old woman who is slavishly trapped in an Edwardian life-style (he is writing a novel about Edwardian life.). Clare, 21, who wants to be “a king’s mistress” (because she has read so many Dumas novels), is really fit for no job. But she becomes a companion to an ex-king in London (she reads aloud to him), and finds love (not with him, though).. The oldest son, Richard, a composer, is the most tedious of the lot, and is briefly pursued by his father’s mistress, but even he finds his way to work eventually.
Smith is just so damned funny. This is a book you laugh out loud at, and one you’ll want to read again.