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!