What to Read When You’re Ill: Mary Wesley, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Jacqueline Susann, Mary McCarthy, & Pushkin

Many years ago, on an idyllic vacation in the northern woods, a spider bit me My swollen ankle turned black with necrosis, I developed clonus (involuntary muscle spasms, symptomatic of neurological disease),  became delirious, and spent three weeks in the infectious disease ward of a hospital.  I was given every test:  MRIs, EMGs, EKGs, etc., etc.   Was it encephalitis?  I did not respond to the medications at first.

Slowly, I recovered.  Very slowly.  One afternoon, encouraged by a kind nurse, I ventured down to the  cafeteria, forgetting to change out of my pajamas.  When I scooped the money out of my pink bathrobe pocket, I was embarrassed to realized I wasn’t dressed. In pajamas, not fully cognizant.   I consoled myself : Who cares?  I’m a sick person in pajamas at a hospital.  And I ate my sandwich in front of a fountain, marveling at the rush and flow of water.

Since I could not yet go home, I found refuge in books. One afternoon,  as I sat in a chair by the window with its gloomy view of the hospital complex, I became lost in Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, one of my favorite books.   A doctor  came in, asked me what I was reading, and was obviously relieved to see me becoming human again.  He said I was well enough to go home.

“But what was the disease?” I asked.

He said that it is not always necessary to identify the disease.  Not all diseases follow a typical course. They had tried different medications until I responded.  They did not think I’d had encephalitis.  I’d had a serious infection.  I did not have brain damage.  I should not worry.

Many years later, I try not to think of this illness.   Everything was much harder for me for a month or two than it had ever been.  At first I could barely walk to the corner and back. nd, paradoxically, I was hesitant about lying down, because I had trouble getting up again.  I was in my thirties.  I regained my health, little by little.

Books help with pain.   One day after coming home, I lost myself in Mary Wesley’s novel, An Imaginative Experience The novel opens with a stopped train: a sheep is lying on its back in a field, and a young woman, Julia Piper,  who is returning from the funeral of her young child and estranged husband,  pulls the emergency cord on the  train so she can help the sheep. Two men watch her from the window:  Sylvester Sykes, a charming editor whose wife is divorcing him, and  Maurice, a  sinister birdwatcher/stalker (yes, really) who reeks of tobacco and alcohol.

Although the novel is a love story, the prospective lovers, Julia and Sylvester, do not meet till near the end of the novel.  Sylvester wonders who the plucky sheep rescuer is, but Julia is not thinking of men.  Her young son Christy was the love of her life;  her irresponsible husband, Giles, whom she had veen in the process of divorcing, had had his license revoked and should not have been driving.  Her mother had lent Giles the car.

Sylvester’s pain is less intense, but it is still pain. His  wife  has left him to return to her first husband, who has grown very rich.  Sylvester once loved her, but has a slightly comedic attitude toward their five-year marriage:  sex had been their only connection, and she had dreadful taste. He  especially hated a plaster cupid in the garden.   When he comes home from the train, he smiles to see a taxi in front of the house, and his wife heaving the TV  into the trunk, cursing  the driver for not helping.    Although she has taken almost everything he owns, he is glad to start over again, with his own things.

Sylvester and Julia come together accidentally:  Sylvester needs a cleaner for her house, and Julia responds to his  ad at the grocery store they frequent.  Julia has a key and cleans when he is at work: they communicate by note, and never meet.  And when he writes that he would like his garden tidied up, she creates a kind of secret garden.  Each had assumed the other was old:  when they meet, they are startled.

The now underrated Mary Wesely, who published her first novel when she was 71, had a reputation for perspicuity, a graceful style, and sharply drawn characters.  Her witty novels are short and well-plotted. As a writer, her work falls somewhere between the very literary short novels of Penelope Lively and the buoyant popular fiction of Elizabeth Jane Howard.  Second Fiddle is my favorite Wesley novel:  I wrote about it here.


1  Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I posted about here.)

Muriel Spark’s mordant comedies are the flip side of P. G. Wodehouse’s featherlight farces.  Ballad, published in 1960, makes you wonder who exactly the angels and the devils are in Spark’s light satire. The hero, Dougal Douglas, a Scottish trickster, moves to Peckham and, without a twinge of conscience, accepts two jobs from rival textile companies.  The company directors, Mr. Druce at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, and Mr. Willis at Drover Willis, say they want him to bridge the gap between art and industry in his new position as assistant personnel manager.

Dougal is so outrageous that the reader cannot feel sympathy for him.  Although he has a deformed shoulder–I kept thinking of Richard III– he uses it to get sympathy from women.   He has no compassion:  he refuses to visit his fiancee, Ginny, when she is ill, especially when she is in the hospital, because his “fatal flaw” is an intolerance of illness. Ginny doesn’t think much of his fatal flaw, and drops him. But Dougal uses this breakup with Ginny to get to know women at work:  he has a crying breakdown in the canteen, and the women pity him, comb his hair,  and tell him their stories.

I love everything Spark wrote, and this satire is perfect light reading.

2.  Dodie Smith’s The New Moon with the OldFans of Smith’s charming novel, I Capture the Castle, will love  The New Moon With the Old, a kind of fairy tale of work.   It begins when  Jane Minton, the new secretary of busineesman Rupert Carrington, arrives at Dome House to take up her duties. His four children are charming:  Richard, a composer; Claire, 21, whose only ambition, she light-heartedly insists, is to  be “a king’s mistress,” a la the women in Dumas books; Drew, 19, who is writing an Edwardian novel; and Merry, 14, an aspiring and very talented actress.

But a few days after Jane arrives,  Rupert flees the country because he is guilty of fraud, and Jane is left to cope with the household.  The novel is a fairy tale of work:  all  the Carringtons must cope with their work, and the story is fascinating.

You can read the rest of my post here.

3.  Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls.  Believe it or not, this is available in a Virago edition, but the cover of the 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition is more fun!  Susann’s pop classic proceeds along the lines of Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women and Mary McCarthy’s The Group: it is the story of three young women who move to New York, become friends at the beginning of their careers, and climb the ladder of the entertainment industry, not without much popping of pills.  Anne, the emotionally stable one from New England, works as a secretary and then becomes a model.  She doesn’t need pills (well, only very briefly).    But you can imagine what the pills do to Neely, the Broadway star who becomes a screaming home-wrecking harridan, and Jennifer, the lovely, sweet,  pill-dependent woman who decides to act in French art films because no one values her for anything except her body.

4.  Mary McCarthy’s A Charmed Life, a satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?  I loved every minute of it, and it is time to rediscover Mary McCarthy:  her complete works are now available in Library of America editions.  You can read my post here.

5.  Pushkin’s Eugene OneginIn this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate.  He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting  at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée.  The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky.  (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.)  And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.

You can read the rest of my post here.


Mary Wesley’s Jumping the Queue & A Teasing Mockery of Book Review Publications

Last week I had a Mary Wesley marathon.  I reread four of her witty, whimsical, often darkly comic novels.

mary wesley jumping the queue 720832As I mentioned, Wesley’s first novel Jumping the Queue was published in 1983 when she was 71.  She became an overnight sensation, a respected novelist whose work is reminiscent of the books of Elizabeth Jane Howard , Alice Thomas Ellis, and Barbara Pym.

Jumping the Queue is a rich, dark comedy that could not be possibly be categorized only as women’s fiction.

The heroine, Matilda/Mattie Poliport, a suicidal widow and mother of three neglectful adult children, rescues the suicidal Hugh, known in the press as the Matricide. (The alliteration of Mattie and Matricide is not coincidental.)  Matilda has planned her suicide precisely:  after a final picnic and pills, she intends to swim out to sea. Prevented by a group of young people who gather near her rock, she roams the town and finds Hugh getting ready to  jump off the bridge.  She is old enough to be his mother, as she says,, but she also pretends to make out with him so a slow-cruising police car won’t recognize the Matricide from his picture in the papers.

Slightly incestuous?

And no wonder:  Matilda’s husband, Tom,  had a long, incestuous affair with their daughter, Louise, which she carefully ignored. She thinks there are worse things than incest and matricide.  She says she, too, has murdered someone.

As we learn more about Matilda’s past, there is a sense of menace.  A few of the characters she knows are sinister, especially one old friend who briefly muses that he might have to stage her heart attack.  (Thank God she doesn’t know too much.)    Her  dog and cat are dead, and she only has her goose, Gus, the Matricide,  a stray dog they pick up, Folly, and a neighbor who is in love with her.  Everyone recognizes the Matricide, but no one wants to turn him in.  There are so many twists near the end of the novel that I won’t reveal them, but they are utterly logical.

By the way, her books are in print as e-books, and you can also find used copies at Amazon, Abebooks, etc.

Mocking the BOOK REVIEW PUBLICATIONS.  Much as I enjoy book reviews, I  am often flippant about the critics. After the recent debacle of Ayelet Waldman’s complaints on Twitter about not making the Notable 100 Books at the New York Times, I thought how very silly it is to give the book pages so much power.  I probably find at least half of my books browsing at bookstores , and read the reviews later.  The reviews may or may not be good, but my motto is Caveat Emptor.  The death of the book review pages WILL be the end of civilization, but meanwhile we can browse.

And so I have created mocking nicknames for some of the publications I read.

BOP:  The Boys’ Own Paper.  Though The Washington Post Book World is one of the best  review publications in the U.S,  it is very male-oriented, and the tenure of the three in-house male critics has seemed very old-fashioned indeed.  Though I’ll miss the great Jonathan Yardley, who  is retiring at 75, this is an opportunity for a female critic to step up.

GOP.  The Girls’ Own Paper.  The New York Times Book Review, now edited by Pamela Paul, is  the most equitable book review publication in the U.S., reviewing numerous women’s books and hiring many women reviewers.  I was exhilarated one week when  almost all of the books reviewed were written by women and reviewed by women.  What validation:  Is that how men feel all the time? But women are under a lot of pressure to succeed, and I think pop books like Jennifer Weiner’s should still be barred from The New York Times Book Review.  .A short review of Weiner’s latest book was sneaked into an article with several short reviews.  Couldn’t the space have  been better used for small-press books or university-press books?

SNOP.  The Snobzzz’ Own Paper.  The New York Review of Books is zzzzzzzzzzzz…snobbish and intellectual, very male-oriented, but…did I just fall alseep ?   zzzzzzzzzzz.

FREQ-COP:  The Frequently Controversial PaperThe Guardian has one of  the best and largest book pages, and is  well-known for its controversial, liberal slant on literary matters.  The creative essays are original and fun to read, the lists of oddball books are entertaining, and  I very much enjoy the columns on paperbacks, science fiction, and the book clubs.  My one criticism is that the book news is frequently rehashed from  other newspapers, with remarkably little original reporting.   Let’s get out of the tabloid mentality and send those writers into the field!

The Mary Wesley Marathon: In Which I Reread “Second Fiddle”

Mary Wesley

Mary Wesley

Mary Wesley’s first novel, Jumping the Queue, was published in 1983 when she was 71.  When a novelist is discovered at an advanced age and becomes a star,  the rest of us have hope for the future.

Do people still read Wesley?  In the ’80s and ’90s, she was very popular.  Women were and are starved for unconventional novels about women’s lives.

Her books are slightly reminiscent of the domestic comedies of Elizabeth Jane Howard, Alice Thomas Ellis, and Barbara Pym. Do women want romance?  Sex?  Marriage?  Independence?  Solitude?  Wesley’s quirky characters consider all of their options.

The other day, when I came across Wesley’s books on my shelves, I couldn’t resist rereading.  They are short, light, well-written, and witty, and, though her writing has a  bite, there is a fairy-tale spin.

Second Fiddle Mary Wesley nice cover 886161Second Fiddle, her sixth novel, is my favorite.  She paints a brilliant comic portrait of life in a market town.  When the unlikely hero, Claud Bannister, fails his university exams, he comes home to live with his mother.  At a concert, where he realizes sulkily that he knows nothing about music and can’t have an opinion unless he reads a review in the Times, he is infuriated by the old people in the audience.  When someone says his mother is witty, he wonders what the old can know about wit.

Grey, grey, grey, they are all grey, grey-haired and largely dressed in grey.  Claud’s eyes roamed disapprovingly over the audience, seeing grey even when the heads were tinted black, auburn, even blond.

Isn’t this exactly how we  feel when we’re young?

Then he meets Laura Thornby, a gorgeous 45-year-old friend of his mother’s who has accompanied a Roumanian composer to the concert in her hometown.  Claud charms her with his plans to write a novel, and very soon she has organized Claud’s life. She has sex with Claud, gives him antiques from her family’s attic (she lives in London but still has a flat in her family’s house), and  installs him in a neighbor’s loft so he can write.  Ann Kennedy is at first dubious about the new male lodger, but her daughter, Mavis, a waitress and an actress, finds the situation very funny, and persuades her it is all right.

second fiddle mary wesley 539102The characters behave unexpectedly.  Margaret Bannister is only too glad to get rid of her son, and, in fact, she sells the house so he can’t come back. Laura’s mother and uncle are mischievous book reviewers who decide what tone they will take before they read a book.  Laura is devoted to the eccentric couple, and when they have flu, she comes to take care of them, and is not shocked to find them in the same bed.  And, to her surprise, Claud turns out to be a talented writer, and she finds herself falling in love, which is strictly against her rules.

Although Laura, who restores missing parts of statues for a living (hands, etc.), is fond of Claud, she has doubts about playing second fiddle to the heroine of his novel.  And one wonders if part of this is because she is not an artist herself, but a restorer.

Although it may seem this is all about plot, Wesley’s dialogue is lively, the writing graceful, and it is the perfect length (184 pages) to read in an afternoon.

Lots of fun, and I’m so happy to find it has stood the test of time.