Miller’s Valley (2016) – Anna Quindlen
The Essex Serpent (2016) – Sarah Perry
Heroes of the Frontier (2016) – Dave Eggers
Keeping On Keeping On (2016) – Alan Bennett (collection of prose pieces)
(I’ve only just now noticed that all of my March books were published in 2016. Purely coincidental. I did not go on a nostalgic pre- Nov. 8, 2016, binge.)
Miller’s Valley is Quindlen’s eighth (of nine) novels and the fourth one that I have read. I read them because I am a big fan of her essays. (I wanted to grow up to be a columnist like Anna Quindlen or Fran Lebowitz, both of whom I started reading at the beginning of their careers in the late ’70s. Of course, we are all around the same age, but that hasn’t changed my aspirations.) I haven’t become a big fan of Quindlen’s novels. I can appreciate that they are well-written and well-constructed, but that’s it. Miller’s Valley did not change my impression.
And I am a big fan of Dave Eggers the person. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was great. He does good things with his publishing house McSweeney’s and with 826 National, his network of seven tutoring centers around the country. I met him a couple months ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where he was promoting The Monk of Mocha, his latest non-fiction book. I bought a copy and in it he wrote a lovely inscription to my daughter, who has volunteered at the Boston center of 826. However, I find his novels uneven: I liked A Hologram for the King (2012), but gave up on The Circle (2013). Heroes of the Frontier was just frustrating. In this book, described in a New York Times review as a “picaresque adventure and spiritual coming-of-age,” the “heroes” are Josie and her two young children and the frontier is Alaska. Running away from the mess that is her life in the lower 48, Josie has packed her kids into a rattle-trap RV and they go on one ill-conceived adventure after another. I get the “picaresque” because of the adventures without a real plot. But “coming of age” requires some narrative arc, and I detected none. She lacks judgment at the beginning of the novel and lacks judgment at the end, and she consistently puts her children at risk. I mostly just wanted to strangle her.
Now to the books I did like…!
The Essex Serpent is the second novel by British author Sarah Perry, but the first to be published in the U.S. Set at the very end of the 19th century, the story entwines two plots: (1) the growing hysteria among the populace of a small village on England’s eastern coast that a mythical murdering sea creature has returned as divine punishment on the village for some unknown corporate transgression and (2) the consequences of independence for a wealthy recently widowed London woman (Cora), an excellent amateur naturalist who relocates to the village with her son in her quest to find a scientific answer to the serpent mystery and in the process strikes up a close friendship with the village vicar. Perry is an elegant and engaging writer with a nice wit who can capture a moment with wry lines such as, her “father,…whose tenants liked him contemptuously,…had gone out of business” or, upon Cora having uttered an empty pleasantry, she and a cripple “both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass.” She also uses the word “livid” in its 19th century meaning (to describe a discoloration of the skin, not an emotional state) so that it would be contemporary with the time of the novel’s setting. That was pretty impressive. (I taught Wuthering Heights for a number of years in my schoolmarm days, and the word “livid” shows up all over the place in that book.)
Perry’s novel is a classic late Victorian novel, with Gothic overtones and several subplots, and is a fun read (if a little long). But Perry also brings a 21st-century sensibility to her portrait of the complicated relationship between the highly intelligent country pastor and the highly intelligent – and willful – woman not his wife. Perry examines friendship, irrational fear, and the literal and figurative serpent in our midst. No fairy tale ending here, but also no moralizing punishment meted out, as it might have been if written more than hundred years ago. It was a refreshing study of how passionate yet compassionate people manage to work things out. Since 2014, Sarah Perry has won or been short- and long-listed for more than a dozen awards in Britain for her two novels. I look forward to her next book.
As for the Alan Bennett collection, to be truthful, I am still reading it, have been reading it for a couple months, and expect to be reading it for another couple months as it is 700 pages long. It is a delight. Bennett has been one of England’s most charming men of letters and comic writers since “Beyond the Fringe” in the 1960s. He’s probably best known as a dramatist (“The History Boys,” “Lady in the Van”). He is also a wonderful diarist and his diaries from 2005 to 2015 make up the bulk of this collection. (I am up to 2011.) To read his diaries is to live vicariously an idyllic life (at least for an English major and Anglophile). He and his partner Rupert divide their time between their home in London and their home in Yorkshire. They plan outings to village churches far off the M roads. They have tea with their friend Debo (the Duchess of Devonshire to us). Bennett spends his “working” days at a writing desk in Gloucester Crescent or backstage with actors we’ve come to know from watching four decades of Masterpiece Theatre. He writes with gentle, yet sardonic, humor and a clear-eyed assessment of what has been lost as he ages and as Britain stumbles into the 21st century. If you’ve never read any Alan Bennett, you might not want to start with a 700-page tome. Try The Lady in the Van (non-fiction) or The Uncommon Reader (fiction). If you do know Bennett’s work, this collection is a treasure.