Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life

Invitation to the Married Life huth 516137F8QKLThere are some books I read again and again:  Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin,  Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Sometimes a small perfect book can give as much pleasure as a classic.

Angela Huth’s Invitation to the Married Life is another of my favorite rereads.  In this charming novel, which has the feel of a Shakespearean comedy, Huth explores the changing face of love in middle age.  She tells the story of four married couples, two of whom are contented, two wretched.  As they receive invitations to a ball in Oxford to be given by the wealthy Fotheringoes (perhaps the novel’s least happy couple)  in four months, their reactions tell us about their relationships.

Rachel Arkwright, my favorite character, a neglected wife and mother of two grown children, opens the invitation at breakfast while she is waiting for her irritable husband, Thomas, to go to work. She must open letters quietly and turn pages slowly so as not to disturb him, but is so excited about the invitation she forgets.

There he was, a caricature of a husband, almost completely hidden–guarded against her–by the Daily Telegraph (he had presently switched from The Times).  Two pinkish blobs of fuzzy-backed hands held the pages wide open.

When she opens the invitation and asks Thomas if she should accept, she is suffused with joy when he ungraciously says,

I suppose so.  You obviously want to go.  Though what the middle-aged want to give balls for I can’t imagine.  A more ridiculous way of spending money–“

Invitation to the Married Life huth Rachel has a secret life:  she sleeps every afternoon in her beautifully-refurbished bedroom with its soft bed and expensive linens.  She has a degree in law, but here is a woman who has her priorities right. The nap rejuvenates her, and makes her happy.

Thomas thinks parties for the middle-aged are absurd because he does not find middle-aged women attractive:  he is fixated on younger women, and has no idea that he has grown fat and less attractive to the young.  Planning to break up with his current girlfriend, he wanders into an art gallery and falls for an etiolated young woman who rejects his advances.  But  she is the daughter of the artist, R. Cotterman, whose paintings he buys, and she sends him to her mother’s house.  He is determined to fall in love with Rosie Cotterman before he even meets her.

Mary and her husband Bill, a retired naval man obsessed with time tables, are busy with the upkeep of their country house and the woods.  They are happy with their quiet life, and Mary is not excited about the party.   But Bill insists that she must go to London for a new dress, and reminds her that they can stay at their  daughter Ursula’s in Oxford. When Bill dies and Mary attends the party with her neighbor, Rosie, everyone supposes she must be devastated. But Mary is still happy and peaceful, and is relieved to know that she can continue living happily on her own.

Angela Huth

Angela Huth

The gorgeous Ursula needs the party less than anyone.  She has a perfect life:  she is madly in love with her husband, Martin, an Oxford don,  is the mother of two charming children, and has a friend, Ralph, who believes he is in love with her. Ursula likes her work as a garden planner, though she must compromise with clients who know nothing about nature.   There is just one flaw in her happiness: she hates living in Oxford, and her husband, who works there, sees no reason to move. And then she is often annoyed by Ralph’s lovesick puppy-dog manner.  She teases Ralph,

You know why I think Frances has these parties?  Apart from something to do?  Her real reason is so that she has a chance to dance with you.”

No man and woman can be less compatible than Toby and Frances Fotheringoe. Toby is a computer genius and a nature lover who watches badgers at night in the woods. Frances is a very lonely woman who plans parties to have something to do and to be noticed.  She pays almost no attention to her daughter.  She wants very badly to find some kind of work, perhaps as a designer in the theater.  But at the party itself, she will hook-up with the band leader, who thinks he can find her work as a party planner.  And as for Toby…well, we don’t see that coming.

Who belongs with whom?  Some of the answers are quite surprising.  A ball in middle age shakes people up just as much as it does in youth.

Well, I don’t actually know.  I’ve never gone to a ball, have you?  But I do like Rachel’s reaction.  She finds a bed in a spare room and curls up and goes to sleep.

Rachel has a chance of happiness…

Angela Huth’s Virginia Fly Is Drowning

Virginia Fly Is Drowning angela huth 51Hj6TSxrvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_One  of the perks of having an e-reader is access to e-books from Bloomsbury Reader, which publishes middlebrow classics by Monica Dickens, Lettice Cooper, and Norman Collins.

And so I have been bingeing on Angela Huth’s charming novels.

Huth is best-known for Land Girls, a delightful novel about three young women who work as land girls on an English farm as part of a program to replace male farm laborers who are away fighting in World War II.

Some of Huth’s novels are even more entertaining.  I especially enjoyed Virginia Fly Is Drowning, a brilliant comedy about a 31-year-old virgin.

Angela Huth

Angela Huth

Virginia Fly, a teacher at a girls’ school, lives with her parents and is still a virgin at age 31.  Although she is reasonably attractive, she has little social life and few prospects of meeting men. Occasionally she goes to concerts with an elderly music professor.  She also has an American pen friend named Charles, who has promised to visit England.

Meanwhile, she has wild fantasies about meeting a beautiful young herdsman in a field of buttercups.  He tears off her clothes and they have to hurry, because the cows are about to go into the road.

And when a researcher for a TV show wants Virginia to represent virgins on an interview show about modern love, she agrees.

The whole interview is very funny.  Virginia is practical and in control.

…Virginia sensed that she disappointed Mr. Wysdom.  Was she happy in her virginity?  Yes, she was.  He looked a trifle downcast.  Was there no private, promiscuous being within her trying to get out?  No, there wasn’t.  Then how was it, in this day and age–he was a master of the softly spoken cliche–that she maintained her unusual state?  Simply, that, believe it or not, Mr. Wysdom (she refused to call him Geoffrey, though he kept calling her Virginia) the occasion for ending that state had never arisen.  No one had ever asked her.

Although we’re thinking, Poor Virginia!  we’re also laughing.  She isn’t doing too badly for herself.

Virginia Fly hardcover 510E6JE79KL._UY250_But the TV interview does help her in a way.   Rita Thompson, a 50-year-old widow and a former courtesan, whom we first meet dressed as a  fairy godmother as she comes home  from a volunteer performance of Cinderella at the old folks’ club, sees Virginia on TV and  writes her a letter.  When Virginia comes to visit, Mrs. Thompson takes her to a bar and introduces her to a handsome salesman.

Virginia’s  life is at times comical, at other times very painful.  After her brief encounter with the salesman, she looks forward to  meeting  her pen friend from Utah.  Then there is the professor, who pities her after seeing the TV interview.

The ending is darkly comic–life isn’t a fairy tale for former virgins.    And what Cinderella might have settled for isn’t quite what Virginia hoped for.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson

“Mirabile Does Middlebrow” is a new bimonthly feature here.

Mirabile in 2000

I’d rather be reading middlebrow!

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:

Confessions of a Sugar Mummy1.  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+

An Available Man wolitzer2.  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+.

Invitation to the Married Life huth3.  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-

Sherry Jones four sisters4.  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.

Finding Casey

Grade:  B+

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.

Grade:  B+