Saturday, May 07, 2016

What we're reading: Old favorites, part three

A continuation of a series on older works you might consider reading while you're on the waiting list for the newest bestseller...

Rosamunde Pilcher wrote nine or ten romance novels in the 1970s and '80s that rise above the mundane because of her well detailed settings, mostly in Scotland and Cornwall. They are charming, predictable, and perfect for when you want to submerge yourself in the adversities and eventual triumph of young love. But then, she wrote a few more books that took some of the innate charm in her romances and translated it into just one element of a more literary full-blown novel.

I think the best of the bunch is Coming Home, a story that begins in 1935 with the placement of Judith Dunbar in a boarding school in Cornwall; her parents and little sister are in Singapore, but she's been sent to Britain to get her education. She meets and becomes friends with a day student who takes Judith home to meet her family, and Judith soon becomes a fixture in their lives, spending her school holidays and summers with them while her own family is away. This is the basis for a lovely and poignant coming of age story, as we follow Judith through school, relationships, and war, and Pilcher chronicles in beautiful and sometimes harrowing detail the changes brought by World War II to individuals and to the nature of British country life.

My second favorite book of Pilcher's is The Shell Seekers, a book told alternately in past and present by Penelope Keeling. At the beginning of the book, she has checked herself out of the hospital after a health scare, and has returned home to her house in the Cotswolds against the advice of her doctor and her three adult children. Her children are determined to "solve" their elderly mother's solitary state in various ways, and she is just as determined not to let them, which leads to the introduction of two strangers into her life who enable her to keep her independence. The conflicts among the family members lead Penelope to reminisce about her childhood as the daughter of a famous Cornish painter, her sojourn as a Wren during World War II, and her struggles as a young wife and mother of three, with an irresponsible husband. The relationships are all complex and ring true, the lyrical descriptions of Cornwall and her father's paintings immerse you further into her story, and the conclusion is surprising and satisfying.

Mary Renault wrote from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, and is best known for her historical novels, primarily set in Greece. She wrote two books about Theseus (The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea), the first of which is frequently required or suggested reading in high school. She wrote three books about the life of Alexander, beginning in his youth with Fire From Heaven, continuing with his history after his conquest of Persia in The Persian Boy, and concluding with his successors in The Funeral Games. And she wrote three stand-alone novels in this setting as well: The Last of the Wine, which takes place during the Peloponnesian War, whose protagonist is a student of Socrates; The Mask of Apollo, narrated by an actor at the time of Plato; and The Praise Singer, about the poet Simonides of Ceos.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, enjoy a literary style, and also like a gripping, well-told story, Mary Renault could be a go-to author for you. And if you would love to immerse yourself in an exacting recreation of the ancient Greek world, there's no one better. My personal favorite is The Persian Boy.

Some contemporary novels that reminded me of Renault's style and subject matter are The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, and, weirdly, the first two books of a trilogy by speculative fiction writer Jo Walton: The Just City, which we just introduced to our 10-12 Book Club, and its sequel, The Philosopher Kings. I am eagerly awaiting Necessity, the third in the series!

Anne Rice is best known for her ongoing vampire saga that began in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire and continues, seemingly interminably, through the present day! But although I greatly enjoyed the first five of the books from that series, as well as the first three or four volumes of her Lives of the Mayfair Witches books, my two favorites of hers have nothing to do with either series!

Her second book, which she wrote in 1979, is The Feast of All Saints, set in Louisiana shortly before the Civil War. It details the lives of a people unique in Southern history, the free people of color. These were the descendants of African slaves and the French and Spanish who enslaved them. Freed by their owners, they were nonetheless social subordinates; but within their small, claustrophobic society, they were middle-class doctors, lawyers, artists, poets, craftsmen, and scientists striving to express themselves. Rice's novel follows four characters--the daughter of a plantation owner and his black mistress. whose curse (in her view) is to pass for white; her sensitive, scholarly brother whose curse is that he can't; their teacher, who returns from a free existence in France to set up a school for these children; and a stunning young friend of theirs, doomed by beauty and birth to forever be the mistress of white men.

The book is rich with the history of New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana, and deals sensitively but revealingly with the complexities of race, caste, status, and privilege at a time when degree of whiteness or blackness meant everything. It is a coming-of-age story with so much added drama, passion and romance, featuring compelling characters with mesmerizing backdrops--I think it's Rice's best book.

In a total switch-up of setting and characters, her book Cry to Heaven, published in 1982, is about the mysterious lives of eighteenth-century castrati singers, those men who as boys underwent horrific mutilation--some by choice, some not--to preserve the saintly, otherworldly quality of their glorious voices. They were the celebrities of the churches, courts and opera houses of Europe, particularly those of Italy, and were revered for their talent but simultaneously shunned for their status as half-men.

Although this book is rigorously researched, it is far from a typical (dry, pedantic?) historical novel. It's lush, vividly romantic, passionate, and sensual. If you are offended by frank sexuality, this is not the book for you. But the language, the details, the behind-the-scenes theater, the delicious plots of revenge...the book is riveting from beginning to end.

Mary Stewart was the best-selling author of 15 novels variously described as gothic romances, romantic mystery, or romantic suspense. I devoured them when I was a teenager in search of a skillfully told story with a beautiful setting and a happy ending. But what I discovered later, in my thirties, when I became a fan of science fiction and fantasy, was that she also wrote one of the best versions of the Arthurian legend that I would ever read.

It was originally conceived as a trilogy, and was written, uniquely, from Merlin's point of view, beginning when he was a small child who experienced strange fits, and following him as he grew into his powers and discovered his mission as the creator, promoter, and protector of Arthur Pendragon. The original trilogy--The Crystal CaveThe Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment--eventually added two more books (The Wicked Day, and The Prince and the Pilgrim), but in my opinion, the trilogy stands firmly on its own.

The books are written as a wonderful combination of history, legend, and fantasy, but without sacrificing the personal element. Stewart takes the previously enigmatic character of Merlin the elderly sorcerer and turns him into a flawed and vulnerable human being with depth and nuance. The books are definitely a leisurely read, since Stewart lingers on descriptive elements that engage all the reader's senses, but the experience is well worth it, if you are fascinated by the legend of King Arthur.

Parenthetically, another Arthur retelling by Parke Godwin, consisting of two books--Firelord, and Beloved Exile--is a completely different but equally enthralling read. Some include The Last Rainbow as number three in this series, but it is tangential, being about St. Patrick.

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