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World War II, Victorian Art…some highs and some lows

Recently I read two back to back works of historical fiction set during World War II. The period of 1900 1950 has always fascinated me and any work set in that era, predisposes me to like the book, even before I read it. It’s a kind of a blind spot with me. Therefore with some pleasant anticipation I set out to read –

Let me first tackle The Shell Seekers. Most of the circumstances were in favor and had me predisposed to really like this book – it seemed like one of those epic family saga, with a story interwoven between present and the World War II era, with a lot of emphasis on paintings and the Bohemian era of British artistry. Besides, it was in my Lecito List and is part of BBC Top 100- The Big Read, along with such noteworthy works like The Great Gatsby and Catch 22 etc. How could I not possibly like the book??

Well there is an old adage – never judge a book by its cover! I have invented a new one – never judge a book by reading its inlay cover: it’s completely misleading.

The Shell SeekersDon’t get me wrong, the book was all that the inlay cover claimed – it traces the life and times of the Keeling family as they plan to make their way in the world by selling the last remaining works of their grandfather – Lawerence Stern, a great Victorian artist, whose popularity was getting revived again. However standing between their grand ambitions and the works is their mother – Penelope Keeling, the only daughter of Lawerence Stern and the primary protagonist of the book. The book evolves through her memories, each chapter focusing on an important figure in her life, sweeping between past and present. The past takes the reader back to the bohemian childhood of hers and then through the war time romance and brings the reader back to present where she develops a strong bond with two young strangers over her avaricious children.  The book ends with Penelope’s death and the disclosure of her will which leaves her inheritors astounded.

The book has some absolutely marvelous description of Cornwall and like many before makes the reader go and settle there for good and never come back.  There are some very fine details of costumes and food of the bygone era. It’s an easy read and will not stress the reader out too much.

But that’s where all the good stuff of the book ends!

This book is singularly one of the most disappointing reads of my life. I started it off with such expectation, but it was a letdown. I am not sure how this book came to be termed as one of the big reads of all times!!

The novel had so much potential, simply because of the historical backdrop and the subject of Victorian paintings, but it all seemed wasted.  To begin with, the book had such a superficial narrative of World War II: the heroine joins the war effort because she is moved by the story of some Jewish refugees from Germany. But she promptly then meets a man, gets pregnant and marries him, only to discover, Alleluia, the marriage is a disaster! Her parents are supposed to be completely free-spirited and are ready to accept her and her unborn child, but she still goes ahead and marries this man, for no clear reason. Then of course, during the course of the war she has a clichéd love affair with the perfect man – a man who understands art and reads poetry and can play with her daughter and is a paragon of virtue! (Do such men really exist? Also would it not be boring to be constantly with a man who is so PERFECT!!!! Besides shouldn’t opposites attract?) Not only she has an affair, but the town seems to bless it and by then 18th page of this chapter, you know this affair is doomed and when you reach the end of the chapter – surprise surprise – it’s doomed!! She is supposed to be this strong independent character, but until she becomes an old woman, I do not see any independence in her – she is constantly dependent on her parents and friends! Then come her children who all are supposed to be greedy and materialistic, except one Olivia and she also does not seem completely human and is constantly reminding herself to be human! I mean Duh! The day I have to remind myself to be humane and kind, well then there is something wrong with mankind. Even the references to the Victorian arts are artificial and inconsequential – with such prodigious material available on the paintings of that time, a little more depth would have helped the book.

In the end, I do not think it’s a work to be handed down to posterity nor should it stand with the likes of The Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. It’s one of those novels that you read on a flight and leave it on the plane!

The only impressive thing was not related to the book, but the author – Rosamunde Pilcher. She had written since 1950’s in various Mills & Boon Romance publications, but it was at the age of 60 that she wrote The Shell Seekers and gained worldwide fame. It’s remarkable how she shed her comfort zone at a very late age in her life and of course the risk paid off – though I still do not like the book!

No review of mine can be short and I bid adieu on this blog with a faithful promise that I will inflict my readers again with my take on The Baker’s Daughter.

In the society of Friends and other such mortals…..

As a child I was very lonely and did not make too many friends; in fact I downright hated going out and the thought of party – any party whether my own or my parents filled me with foreboding. I absolutely hated the social gatherings that my parents organized or attended. I was bored out of my senses and the constant feeling of inferiority, did not help in my making friends with the very small number of kids from my age group.  As it is, I was born very late to my parents and most of their friends had kids who were more than 10 odd years older to me, making me feel even odder. I think I was the only kid who ever went to dinner parties with her books….my only get away from being forced into companionship of much older or much dumber companions. Anyway, I grew up hating socializing and swearing to become a misanthrope and never troubling with company of anyone!  That is what I though until I went away to college ……

And surprise surprise……I was suddenly a social butterfly, albeit an intellectual butterfly, who chose to go to only selective dance through the night parties, but hell, I had a choice to pick any I wanted and what’s more, I was always flooded with invitations! (I am not going to dwell on why this change happened!! I do not know and one day I have enough money, I will have a psychologist go over my case and post his diagnosis on the blog!)

rmon664lThings did not change as I got myself a job and moved in with my best friend. Despite her being a more or less confirmed and declared recluse, our house over the weekend bursts with friends and going outs etc etc. She does not per se like so many people coming over, including Mr Soulmate (she does not approve of him….like I do not approve of her men and we both think we can do much better and deserve so much better and all the nine yards! Sound familiar?), but she has developed a certain amount of tolerance from being forced to attend the gatherings that I organize and has even deigned to become friends with some of my friends.

As for me….I love it! I love being surrounded by people, especially friends who make me laugh and are completely crazy! I love surprise visits even at 4:00 am in the morning when I have read for hours and am about to drop off and suddenly the bell rings and I open the door to see some of my closest friends giggling and screaming surprise!! I love breaking out the drinks and cooking impromptu Spanish omelets (I defy you to find Spanish omelets of the type I make anywhere!!!!) and instant noodles for food and then settling down to talk for hours broken only by interludes for more food.

corp friends.It’s not like all my close friends have the same level of intellect or same literary interests.  I have one set that can talk about books, music and Renoir for hours and they have nothing in common with the other set who embody the very core of corporate life style – dining out, spas etc; but the thing is that each of these sets are such fun in their own way that the two parts of me – the writer and project manager is equally entertained and refreshed by these gatherings! And at the end of the day, all the conversations moves in the same order regardless of the set – intelligent, argumentative, food breaks, witty, silly and then just funny…..a testimony to friendship; in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

At-tempting Madam Bovary…….

It’s always difficult to start when you have come to a halting skating stop. But you have to start again, especially if it is important to you! No, I am not in for a philosophical debate, so do not stop reading as yet! What I referring to was the two weeks hiatus that I took from blogging and the lethargy that as result set in and prevented me from taking up the pen again….in  this case, typing keys again! I did plan the hiatus; come to think of it, I did not even want one, but what with another weekend spent being sick and the next weekend going away for a long-planned getaway and then coming back to work with three business reviews in a row….let’s just say, there has been no time for any writing. Unless you consider making PowerPoint presentation on business strategy as creative writing and considering some strategies, well truth is stranger than fiction!!

Anyway, I am back in driving seat and I am going to write about a subject that was long overdue. The Classic Club’s Spin April 1 deadline for a classic was completed by me well before the required deadline – I in fact finished reading it by about 15th March but for reasons aforementioned, could not get around to writing about the same. Some would argue about the futility of blogging about something well past its deadline, but then for me it’s always the journey that matters and not the end, though the end does decide the journey! (Don’t give up on me yet – I promise this is the last of prosaic philosophy for this day!)

After all the ado, I present to you my review of Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Flaubert published Madame Bovary was published as a serialized novel between October 1856 and December 1856. The plot was fairly simple, focusing on the adulterous affairs of Emma Bovary, who seeks romance and adventure away from the provincial life. Apparently, after the publishing of the last episode, Flaubert was brought to trial for the eroticism of the novel, but was acquitted soon after. The book became an instant bestseller and is considered one of the most influential literature of 19th century.

Now many are already aware that I was not particularly overjoyed on getting this book as my Spin read. I had read it in my late teens and quite disliked it. However many of you and my sister insisted that I give the book a second chance in my more “advanced” years and my sister had spent one good lunch explaining to me how the beauty of the novel lay in its details and descriptions.

madame-bovary-coverThus with such encouragement and support, I valiantly ventured forth in the Bovary land! I must admit that there was a lot of truth in what all discerning readers of the novel were trying to tell me – there is enormous beauty and poetry in the description. The French countryside comes alive under the word images of Gustav Flaubert – the land, the flora, the rivers and countryside are wonderfully captivated and described that in your mind eye, you can see this part of France come alive all over again.

There is again so much originality in life and habits of a provincial 18th century French town and its habitants. The book throbs and brings to life all the characters of a typical French town – Monsieur Homais, the self-aggrandizing town chemist, Leon Dupuis, the petty town clerk whose pretense for sophistication leads to endless ruin and Monsieur Lheureux, the sly merchant and moneylender. The descriptions are correct and bring to light the frailties of human nature. Towering above all of this are the characters of Emma Bovary and her ordinary husband, Dr Charles Bovary and it is around then that the novel really develops.

My only ire was that I could not once again warm up to Emma Bovary’s character. I could not bring myself to empathize with her nor could I relate to her feelings of misery and discontentment. True, it was stated in the novel, that she was a woman of great accomplishment and education, but there was no evidence of her accomplishment in the book, unless one counts playing piano, decorating the house and reading novels as great achievement. I could not understand how a woman who had apparently been so well-educated could be so vacuous or frivolous – so frivolous that she sees herself getting more and more entangled in emotional and financial quagmire , but is unable to manage or improve her state of being. I mean she just does not seem to get the point, despite being unceremoniously abandoned by Rodolphe Boulanger, she again engages in a disastrous affair with Leon Dupuis. And all this, because she had married what she believed was an ordinary man???? A man whom she choose to marry to get out of the daily grind of running her father’s farm…I mean this woman needed professional help and instead the reader is supposed to feel empathy for her through 300 pages!!!

Dr Charles Bovary was also difficult to digest – he starts off as competent doctor and seems to disintegrate into this mass of low self-esteem and ridiculousness. How can a man be so completely be oblivious in a small town of his wife’s adulterous propensities is beyond me! And on finally discovering her affair,  and giving oneself up to complete despondency, when you still have a daughter to care for is again something I could not fathom or understand.

In the end, it’s all so depressing – Emma Bovary’s painfully self-inflicted death; Charles Bovary dying and their daughter being left destitute! I need a glass of wine and couple of Saki stories to restore a more tranquil phase of mind!

I know there are some wonderful tragedies that have been written, but Madame Bovary is just plain painful. I do not like it….not even in my advanced years!

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