A few more Persephone reviews and a wrap-up

Oh my. Persephone Reading Week is over today and my eyes are sore from so much reading!

I finished Mariana by Monica Dickens yesterday and got It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst from the library today! It’s also been reprinted by Persephone, but I got it in a funny old edition published in 1970. Quick (hopefully) reviews of both will follow in a moment, but first, a few other things…

I started Every Good Deed by Dorothy Whipple last night and think I will definitely be reading more of her, she is my idea of an insightful yet not too difficult author. Persephone Books makes sure to reprint books that are neither too literary nor too commercial and that is exactly the type of book I have been looking for without knowing it! So many times I wander around in bookstores, hating most of the boring unknown new books that seem absolutely without the passion of Charlotte Bronte or the wit of Jane Austen (or the intelligence of either of them), wanting to enrich my soul with the classics, but knowing that they are a difficult diet to mentally digest exclusively. I want something interesting and moderately thought provoking, but also comforting. Dorothy Whipple is all of those things, hoorah! So come back on Tuesday and I will give you a few heapings of quotes from Every Good Deed, which is not yet published by Persephone… (on Monday I shall be busy resting my eyes)

Last night I began putting together the collection of links to reviews of Persephone Books that I’d talked about before, right here. I’ve only gotten to #5 of their books so far, but I’ll keep working at it! Maybe it can be ready in time for the next Persephone Reading Week. As I read the reviews for each of these books, I’m awed and interested by all of them. Hopefully this will help any and everyone find more great reading in the future.

I’ve also suddenly remembered today when I first came across Persephone Books. I thought it was since I’d started book blogging in the past month and had seen them being mentioned everywhere in connection with this reading week, but actually… earlier this year, I had been interested in the Greek goddess Persephone and when I looked her up in my library catalogue, all these books with lovely covers kept popping up as well! Except I started getting annoyed because it wasn’t what I was looking for! Now when I look up ‘Persephone Books’ I get stuff on the myth of  Persephone, but I don’t mind so much anymore. I like the name because it has meaning to me.

Now back to the reviews. I found the first half of Mariana to be quite nice, funny, nostalgic in the best way and very true to life, altogether everything everyone says it is. Mary doesn’t do well at school, she mouths off a teacher, has a crush on her cousin, she’s not even very pretty, she’s simply a regular girl with a quirky family caught up in the jumble of life. I especially enjoyed her interactions with her comedic actor uncle who takes her ‘on the razzle’ after she finishes writing her first deliciously melodramatic play. Eventually she heads off to Dramatic College herself, where she is, if not admired, at least remembered…

But then. Oh then to me the book began to take a turn for the worse. Mary goes to Paris to study dressmaking (nothing wrong with Paris, I like Paris) and a handsome, charming and rich Frenchie falls madly in love with her. I’m sorry but up to this point the only boy she’d managed to snog was her cousin (which is embarrassingly realistic), but suddenly and for no reason whatever the plot goes from a fairly faithful fictional rendition of Monica Dickens’ own life off into romantic daydreamland (who wouldn’t want to be charmed by a charming Frenchman who looks like Maurice Chevalier?) Monica Dickens herself studied acting, but not dressmaking in Paris (hence the lack of any funny stories about it), she instead worked as a cook, a nurse and a journalist instead of lounging around as a lazy debutant in London and eventually wrote about her experiences in those careers as well. Most of her life in fact, she wrote what she knew. But for some reason, the love story in Mariana is not. When Mary eventually meets someone who’s better suited to her, a perfectly perfectly casual Brit, both of them become mostly boring and saccharine. They pretty much decide to fall in love at first sight, for little reason.

The plot of Mariana is coming of age, not maturing into love, as Jane Austen writes about (so even though Jane Austen also writes about something that never happened to her, her stories ring clearly true to life), so they simply meet and are instantly perfect. No more conflict. Mary becomes far less interesting than she was as a child, she’s bland as a well adjusted adult. Even the first chapter of the novel, which shows her as an adult, bothered me somehow. Who she was as an adult didn’t seem to match up with the rambunctious child she had been. Monica Dickens seems to be writing about love and adulthood as she imagined it to be, but at 24 when she wrote it, she didn’t understand the continuing conflict at the heart of life (and a good story) itself. She herself didn’t marry until she was 35 and despite Mary’s idealistic refusal of anyone who will take her away from her beloved Britain, Dickens married an American and at his request, moved there with him and lived in Cape Cod for decades. If she could have written true love in a conflict like that, that would have been much more interesting to me. But Mary and her husband make no sacrifices for each other, no compromises. They don’t seem to change or grow, at least not as Elizabeth and Darcy do.

However, here are a few good quotes:

There was a window-seat too, looking out on to the drive, and a careless gathering of sofas and armchairs, whose springs were at the perfect stage of comfort — half-way between newness and decadence.

All along the gauntlet of armchairs, from behind the camouflage of knitting-needles and library books, peered the old eyes that never missed a thing.

In refreshing contrast to Mariana, It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty And Other Tragedies of Married Life offers, as you can guess from the title, a quite realistic view of marriage and love. Judith Viorst has obviously been there, done that in 1960s John Updike American suburbia and lived to write about it. The title alone made me laugh with recognition the first time I scrolled through the Persephone catalogue — I finally turned 30 last June, am also recently married (2 years tomorrow) and my husband and I will periodically talk about how it’s harder to relate to all our old indie bookstore hipster friends. Even though we don’t have kids and do still have a relatively downtown apartment with one fluffy black cat. I opened the book up today and immediately found a poem I could relate to:

Marriage and the Families

My mother was grateful
He wasn’t barefoot.
His mother was grateful
I wasn’t pregnant.

My father was grateful
He wasn’t a Negro or unemployed.
His father was grateful
I wasn’t tubercular or divorced.

My sister was grateful
Her husband was richer and taller.
His sister was grateful
She had a master’s degree and a better nose.

… I should be pleased.

But when I think of the catered wedding in Upper Montclair,
With the roast sirloin of beef dinner,
The souvenir photo album,
And the matches with our names in raised gold letters…
Then I wish
That they weren’t
So grateful.

A while later she writes about ‘The Other Woman’ with the gently repeating refrain of: “Because it’s easier to be a good sport /
When you’re not married” and “Because it’s easier to try harder / When you’re not married” and finally “Because it’s easier to want a husband / When you’re not married.”

When some friends get divorced, this line made me giggle: “He only likes women who’d rather make love than read Proust and / She only likes men who’d vice versa.”

Later she goes to France with her husband to have a dream romantic holiday, only that’s not perfect either:

I am (where else?) at the Deux Magots
Moodily drinking a pernod
And trying to think thoughts
Jean-Paul Sartre would respect
And trying to convey the impression
That I am someone with a rich full inner life
Instead of someone
Who gets palpitations
When the washer-dryer breaks down.

My honeymoon in Paris wasn’t so perfect either, I remember wild tears and much grumpiness our last day there on my part! Of course now it’s become just another funny story between my husband and I, so sharing the difficulties, as Viorsk writes in her last poem, True Love, does help.

In conclusion, here’s how I rate all of the Persephones I’ve read so far:

1. Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson is far and away the best

2. Mariana by Monica Dickens is, despite it’s faults, still quite readable and entertaining and funny and sweet

3. It’s Hard to Be Hip Over Thirty by Judith Viorst: short, cheeky and telling

4. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett just wasn’t quite what I was expecting… she seems to be experimenting with ways of telling a story that she hasn’t quite mastered yet

Altogether an enjoyable and enlightening week. I’ve loved meeting new people this week and talking about such delicious books and am already planning which Persephones to order for my birthday next month… I’ve got my eye on Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers and possibly the Classics edition of Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple since it’s such a nice cover!

11 thoughts on “A few more Persephone reviews and a wrap-up

    • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

      I’m certainly learning a lot about all of their books as I slowly go through the list, looking for reviews. Some books don’t seem to have that many, out of the first 10 published, William an Englishman and Few Eggs and No Oranges have been the least written about, while Mariana of course has lots of reviews and for Good Things in England I found a few people who had actually tried some of the recipes!

  1. Nymeth says:

    Mariana really appeals to me, flaws and all. As does It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty, and the Whipple, and most of them to be honest!

  2. Hannah Stoneham says:

    Hi Carolyn – I did really enjoy Mariana, but like you think that there was quite a major difference between the first and second halves. I really loved the childhood/teenage passages, but the end felt like the author had a deadline…
    Lovey to read your blog
    Happy reading!

  3. kiss a cloud says:

    You hit the nail on Mariana! I was groping for the reason why I didn’t like it so much, despite all the gushing reviews of other Persephone readers. What’s missing there is a climax. No rising action, no falling action; it lay very flat. The beginning was promising, but that’s all there was, the promise.

    That’s an amusing bit about Proust in the poem. Though Viorst’s poetry holds no interest for me..

    • Carolyn (afewofmyfavouritebooks) says:

      I felt a bit bad for not liking it more, but I guess even within the Persephone fan club, not everyone will like everything.

      I found out Viorst also wrote the kids book Alexander and the Terrible No Good Very Bad Day, so I guess she’s accessible for people who don’t normally like poetry. I tend to read a lot of poetry in spurts at various times of the year, last fall it was after seeing the movie Bright Star.

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