Wednesday, May 9, 2007
I read a few short books over the last few days, and when I was done, I was surprised to notice a theme. They are all concerned, to some degree, with disappointment in love. First I read Lucky Girls: Stories, Nell Freudenberger's debut, a book of five short stories that read like novellas. The negative reviews I read tended to focus on Freudenberger's choice of subject matter--young women with older men, dysfunctional families whose members seem unable to communicate with each other, the ennui of privileged young women, Americans feeling attracted to, yet lost in, Asia.
Her subject matter didn't bother me, and I found her writing self-assured rather than self-conscious. And I found myself liking each story because of her way with certain images and details, even if I didn't love or even relate to the characters. I liked the last story, "Letter from the Last Bastion". It's about the illegitimate daughter of a literary giant, who writes a letter to him--but the letter is disguised as a sort of anti-entrance essay to the admissions department of the college where he teaches. It felt especially ambitious in its scope, and I was drawn in, truly curious about how it might end.
I also read Barbara Pym's novel Jane and Prudence, because Iliana at bookgirl's nightstand mentioned it (thanks, Iliana!). I've read several of Pym's novels before and enjoyed them, so I immediately mooched this one. I always appreciate Pym's humor, but I noticed other things, this time, too. It was really the first time I noticed the juxtaposition of the stiffness and codes of proper behavior in the English society Pym describes, and her more modern sensibility, where the characters suffer from ennui, and demonstrate a matter-of-fact attitude about things like sex and infidelity.
It's very interesting that, not just in this book, but in Pym's work as a whole, her women are almost always unsatisfied. Domesticity and marriage are portrayed as unromantic, and bogged down in the boring details of life, and older spinsters are peevish and difficult, while the younger single women are slightly angry and a little lost, looking for love but not quite sure they want the reality of life with a man. There is a sort of unnamed feminist feeling of unease about women wasting their educations by not pursuing meaningful work at the same time that meaningful work isn't really open to them. It was really fascinating to look at English society through Pym's eyes again.
Then I decided to read a novel by the late Elizabeth Taylor, another English writer, called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (Virago Modern Classics). My mother wanted to read it because she had heard that the film version, starring Joan Plowright, was worth seeing. Most of the reviews of the film I read were positive--most mentioned the word "bittersweet"--so I thought I'd check out the book. Reviews of the book hail it as a forgotten classic, so I had to get it. It's the story of elderly Mrs. Palfrey, who moves to London's slightly run-down Claremont Hotel to live out the rest of her days, independent from her only daughter, who lives in Scotland, and doesn't seem to want her. The hotel has other elderly residents, and their lonely lives center on the few visitors they have, the outings they can manage, and the hotel's dinner menu. Mrs. Palfrey's life takes a different turn when she forges a friendship with a young writer, Ludo, who pretends to be her grandson for the benefit of the other hotel residents.
The book's power lies in Taylor's exposing the fear of aging in the society she lives in. She shows how middle class England in the late 1960s and early 1970s doesn't really allow for aging--it doesn't have a place for the breakdown of the body, and even seems to consider it embarrassing--and therefore that society marginalizes its elderly. (And by the way, I don't think only 1970s English society felt this way--we are guilty of it today) Taylor's portraits of the lonely elderly are keenly observed, sympathetic but unromantic. These characters are trapped in bodies that are betraying them, and they've been betrayed by their loved ones and even the society they live in. Though I loved the plucky Mrs. Palfrey, I found her fate and the fates of the rest of the inmates of the Claremont almost unbearably sad.