Monica Dickens, “Mariana”

When I started blogging a couple of years ago I had a vague resolution that I would review books naively. I wouldn’t read reviews, or even the introductions to books — I would just read the texts themselves and figure out what I thought of each book. I have to say that the results have been mixed. Sometimes I have missed fundamental literary strategies ( “Oh — it was a parody?”). Sometimes I’ve done rather well on my own.

But there are other times when a little bit of outside information makes all the difference to your judgment of a book, and this was the case with Monica Dickens’ Mariana. Mary Shannon is a thin, colorless shrimp of a girl, part of a small household in 1920s London. Her widowed mother works; the man in their household is Uncle Geoff, a very part-time actor. Mary’s idyllic family vacations at a country house in Somerset occupy nearly half of the book and this is the portion that had me wondering exactly why I kept turning the pages. Nannies, cousins, ponies, big family dinners, bickering aunts — where was it all going? I kept thinking of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s much-more-polished The Light Years, which featured similar components, but palpable narrative tension.

Then I finally looked at the back cover of Mariana and discovered that it was the work of a 24-year-old. All was forgiven. Briefly. Because ultimately, as I write, I’m trying to figure out how good the book is, whether I’d recommend it to a friend, whether I’d read it again, and Mariana just did not achieve lift-off. There are wonderful things about it. Dickens is a snappy humorist, clearly the quiet girl in the corner who never misses a trick and rarely reserves judgment. “To Mary, at the age of eleven, her Uncle Lionel was just rather a bore. In later years, she discovered that he was a crashing bore.” Our author also loves the English countryside and there is quite a bit of lyrical atmosphere. Or is it filler? That would depend on your mood. I loved the long fox-hunting scene but did it advance the plot/contribute to the conflict? Not so much.

And then, the structure of the novel is problematic. After the long pastorale of Mary’s youth, we accompany her to drama school, to Paris as an au pair, through several more or less disastrous love affairs. The big family earlier depicted in such detail falls away, though to be fair, Mary’s relationship with her peppy mother is an unusual, amicable power-sharing deal. In fact as I think of it, perhaps the through-line of the plot concerns Mary’s assumption of responsibility for her own life. (I am personally fond of one strategy: “‘Never tell anybody anything… It only makes one look such a fool if the thing that one’s planning doesn’t come off.'”) And since this book was written by an upper-middle-class girl in 1939, it’s all about the husband. Naturally the correct candidate finally appears and the first sentences he addresses directly to Mary are, “‘Look here… are you all right? I hate to interfere, because you obviously like to be left alone when you’re feeling like death. You are feeling like death, aren’t you?'” Quirky but intensely charming. While Mariana is quirky, charming, but not quite… quite.

Many thanks to Verity and Claire for hosting Persephone Reading Weekend! Now that I’m done I can’t wait to see what everyone else has read and to gather new ideas. One key characteristic of  book bloggers — they do tend to egg each other on!

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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19 Responses to Monica Dickens, “Mariana”

  1. We definitely do egg each other one!

    I haven’t read Mariana yet so can’t comment fully on your reservations but I know that you are not the only one to have felt this way – if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. For me, I’m wary, as it has been likened to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and I adore I Capture the Castle; on the Persephone website they also liken it to Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann an I didn’t altogether love that so Mariana worries me.

    Thank you for joining in during our Persephone Reading Weekend!

  2. Cristina says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful review. I’ve had my eye on this one as a possible read for the future and your review makes it all the more enticing. Will I like it or won’t I? I think I’ll give it a go and find out. It certainly seems as though the humour is there and there appears to be enough to recommend it. Thank you!

  3. carolwallace says:

    Thanks, Cristina — be sure to let me know what you think!

  4. bookssnob says:

    I often find ‘coming of age’ novels hit and miss. I’ve never read Mariana but I have read a lot of mixed reviews of it so like Claire says, you’re certainly not alone!

    Great review – nicely even handed. I hate it when people say they don’t like a book and don’t give a proper reason!!

    • carolwallace says:

      Thanks, Rachel. I think you’re right about the “coming of age” novel. The subject seems so momentous, until other aspects of life pile in on you. I did wonder if I would have liked “Mariana” better if I’d read it when I was much younger.

  5. Pingback: Persephone Round-Up #3 | Paperback Reader

  6. Ah now that’s interesting as this is one I love, though I can understand and appreciate your points. I would have loved more about her romance with the man who becomes her husband. Excellent review on your part, I love the way you tell us “why” you don’t like it!

    • carolwallace says:

      Yes, I was a little bit disappointed, too, not to get more of the divine Sam. It almost felt as if Dickens ran out of steam at the end — though if her point was to show that you know when you’ve got the right guy, I suppose the hurry-up approach was appropriate. I loved the way she said his face “dissolved into chaos” when he smile.

  7. Jo says:

    Persephone Weekend as egged a lot of us book bloggers along I think.

    Good job our bank managers don’t know what we are up to!

  8. Charlie says:

    I have a love/dislike thing for books that don’t go very far, a few are favourites and others I forget about soon after reading, it depends on the writing. It’s interesting that you quote the author’s age, I think it’s easy to forget that in some ways 24 would have been a younger age back then.

  9. carolwallace says:

    Good point, Charlie. You’re right that in some ways 24 would have been younger in 1939. Less worldly, maybe. But at the same time, I think it would have been older, really grown up in a way that most 24-year-olds today are not.

  10. motheretc says:

    I really liked your review – I have heard good things about it and my library has it on order so I will wind up giving it a try.

  11. kiss a cloud says:

    I felt exactly the same about Mariana. I thought I would get hit by tomatoes when I wrote about it. Your post is much more forgiving though. I did enjoy reading Mariana but there was something missing, you know the thing that makes you pour your heart over to a book, it wasn’t there. That said, in retrospect, I have begun to like it more than when I initially put it down.

  12. carolwallace says:

    Interesting that it’s retrospectively more powerful — I’ve kind of forgotten about it. And when I see some of the stuff you’ve recently read (Tender is the Night, Invisible Man), Mariana seems oddly insubstantial to have much traction.

    Love the illustrations on your blog. And glad to have the reminder about the Ellison which I keep meaning to get to. Thanks!

  13. Well, in retrospect, I see its flaws, but I found it charming and got caught up in the story. I guess it isn’t the best Persephones but I will always enjoy it as a comfort read. I’m due to reread I Capture the Castle for an April book group read so I’ll have to compare them.

  14. carolwallace says:

    A lot of Mariana is charming, Karen, I’d certainly agree with you there. And when Dickens brings Sam on at the end, it’s totally adorable so, yes – great comfort read!

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