The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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Merivel: A Man of His Time by Rose Tremain

This long awaited sequel to the simply marvellous Restoration, picks up the story of the highly flawed and extremely personable, Robert Merivel, physician to King Charles II, only this time, it’s 25 years or thereabouts since we last met him.

18970894Well into his twilight years, Merivel, who in the first book enjoyed then lost the patronage of his king and went on a journey of self-discovery which saw him survive the Plague, the Great Fire and life in metal asylum run by a kind group of Quakers, is this time far more settled. His beloved daughter is now a woman; he has his well-managed estate to run and his ageing servants to consider and a life well-lived to reflect upon. Ever trying to find meaning in his life, Merivel, like the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, keeps a record of his daily activities, thoughts, mishaps, sexual encounters and triumphs, sparing the reader nothing. This is part of the joy of the man and the book.

Emulating the erratic syntax of the era, in that Tremain capitalises words mid-sentence, she also manages to plunge the reader into this wonderfully decadent and politically fraught time – stylistically, but also ideologically and emotionally. Whether it’s food, fashion, habits, religion, medical procedures or class structure, she recreates the late 1600s and the turmoil of monarchy and government as well as international relations and places masterfully.

Merivel may be older, but he doesn’t feel wiser. A sense that life is slipping him by pervades and so he makes the decision to travel to the court of Louis XIV, the King’s cousin, and see the great Versailles for himself. Always afraid of what he might be missing out on, Merivel embarks on a number of other adventures, and makes some rather interesting and, on reflection poor choices, in this book. In doing so, he learns his place in the greater world and the smaller one that is his estate and family. He discovers the real meaning of love and friendship and what’s important in life. The reader champions him on this erratic journey and our affection for this volatile but kind and very philosophical man deepens.

Including Merivel, a fictional character in real historical events and having him encounter actual personages of the time imbue the book with such immediacy and Merivel himself more relevance than he already has. He becomes our touchstone for both the macrocosmic historic events and the microcosmic ones we can all identify with.

As much as it evokes the period so beautifully, the novel is also contemporary in that the questions it poses about ageing and life are timeless.

Superbly written, with humour, pathos and such understanding, this is a gorgeous book and a fitting conclusion to Merivel’s marvellous life.

 

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Voices by Arnaldur Indridason

11283050The fifth book in the Inspector Erlendur series, Voices, is the second book featuring this rather glum but fascinating detective I’ve read and won’t be the last. The setting for this novel is an ostentatious Reykjavik hotel at Christmas time. Instead of being a joyous occasion, the planned festivities for the hotel guests, staff and children turn decidedly sour when the hotel’s Santa, Gulli, a rather simple but dedicated employee who was about to be sacked, is found naked and dead and in a very compromising position.

Enter Inspector Erlendur who, while investigating the murder, decides to book a cheerless room in the hotel rather than spend what remains of the season in his own house. What follows as peculiar guests are interviewed, Gulli’s colleagues, bosses and his dysfunctional family, is not for the feint of heart. So much for Christmas cheer. Ho bloody ho is what unfolds as the spirit of Christmas, juxtaposed as it is against the investigation and Erlendur’s attempts to improve his sorry personal life (which feature an ex-wife, drug-addicted daughter and son who all hate him), flails under the weight of what’s uncovered: a bizarre and creepy record collector, a cold, officious estranged family, corrupt hotel staff, and conflicting tales of just who and what Gulli was – and before he ever came to work and live in the hotel. Deception, brutality, searing malice and prejudice all rear their ugly heads and at a time of year when we so want to wish joy to the world. It’s a very clever setting of polar opposites, exposing and enhancing the awfulness of the crime and the facades families and people generally erect; how desperately we all want to at least appear happy. But when you can’t even do that at Christmas, what’s the point?

For those looking for a thoroughly gripping, page-turning read where the characters crackle and spit and the plot thickens, this is the book. But it’s not a fast read – everything simmers slowly, coming to boil towards the end when the twists come faster than Santa’s sleigh. Atmospheric and acerbic.

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A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration by Jenny Uglow.

imgres-5A Gambling Man, is a scholarly work by Jenny Uglow that covers the first ten years of Charles II’s return to the throne after the interregnum – but don’t let the fact it is rigorous and meticulous in its research put you off. This book is a simply marvellous read. Uglow is a wrier with a light touch and this is written in such a style it’s as if you’re reading an exciting novel. Uglow uses the motif of gambling, of hedging bets, risk-taking and the sort of nature required to succeed as a gambler to explore the impact the return of the king had on English society – specifically London – in the 1660s. It also explores the changes Charles’ return wrought upon English allies and enemies on the continent.

Greeted

with effusiveness by a repressed populace, who welcomed their thirty-year-old monarch with bonfires and dancing in the streets the day he arrived in London after 12 years absence, the city and, indeed, country (with few exceptions, of course) were filled with hope. Restoring the king meant that, surely, those who were secretly royalists or at least prepared to welcome the king, could be restored to their former lives, wealth, trades etc. Even Catholics and other non-conformists, clung to the promises Charles made while at Breda, that he would tolerate all religions providing it didn’t conflict with loyalty to the throne and so too welcomed him with prayers and blessings.

Ready to embrace his new life, gamble with the hearts and souls of his people, Charles’ good intentions were swiftly put to the test.

While Charles’ desire to welcome different religions in the realm was no doubt sincere (in his mind at least, just because one was Catholic or Quaker, these beliefs didn’t exclude loyalty to him), his parliament and the Commons had other ideas. Toleration was swiftly replaced by prejudice and non-conformists suffered.

Though the parliament were initially generous to the king, even before he stepped upon English shores they lavished him with the sort of things he’d been denied in exile: beautiful clothes, objects, food and anything his heart desired, it quickly became apparent that the treasury was broke. This didn’t stop Charles luxuriating in his new status. Women, jewels, ships, furniture, object d’ art, courtiers, games, sexual licence, debauchery, all of these became the hallmark of Charles and the Restoration court.

But this was also a time for fresh ideas in the sciences, innovations in the arts, with music and the theatre (and women players being permitted upon the stage) as well as painting all being patronised and enjoyed by the king. Trade was opened up, new lands discovered and conquered and exotic foodstuffs and people poured into London, bringing ideas that challenged the status quo.

Striding daily among his subjects in St James’ Park, bestowing his touch and “curing” scrofula, dining before them in the Banqueting House, Charles never seemed to forget what he owed his people and how quickly his status could alter. The people loved him for that at the same time they loathed him and those he surrounded himself with for “playing” while the country and city of London suffered: through wars, financial depression, plague and the Great Fire.

It was really the latter that went some way to salvaging Charles’ rapidly diminishing reputation as he worked side by side, along with his brother, James, the Duke of York, and the exhausted citizens of London, to contain the fire that threatened to level the entire city.

(c) Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Barbara Castlemaine. Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Unfortunately, the restored love of the people didn’t last long. All too soon gossip about the king and his reckless spending on his many mistresses and bastard children (whom he gifted titles like one does flowers) dominated, at the same time, the Dutch declared war and even sailed into the Thames, sailors were being suborned to serve and people were going hungry, wages unpaid. And all the while, the religious balance and the power the king held over those he governed hung in the balance.

But, as Uglow argues, for all that Charles is remembered as a bit of a wastrel, he was also a clever and astute man who managed those around him carefully. While attention was focussed on his sexual escapades and his spending, and the gossip in the coffee houses and on the streets was about this, his power remained mostly in tact. Gambling on his ability to control his people, Charles’ managed to continually prorogue parliament and (mostly) any attempts to seriously curtail his power. The face he presented to the world was one of loyalty and assuredness, yet behind the scenes, he negotiated with England’s enemy and his cousin, Louis XIV in France, making promises in exchange for much-needed coin, removing the dependency he had on parliament to extend him cash.

Alternately bold and sneaky, loving and cold, rash and contained, succumbing to his base desires, refusing to acknowledge them, Charles was, according to Uglow (and her argument is persuasive) a gambler par excellence, able to conceal his hand and play, despite what people thought, with a poker face, one that left very few prepared when he finally played his cards.

This is a simply marvellous book, full of wonderful and quirky facts, splendid descriptions of the leading and colourful figures of the time, from General Monck and the Earl of Clarendon, to Barbara Castlemaine, Frances Stuart and of course, the tall, swarthy skin, dark-eyed and lustful king himself, Charles II.

For lovers of history, the royal families of Britain, politics, and insights into what make people tick, this is the book for you.

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Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin

I’ve always been fascinated by Samuel Pepys, a man who virtually on a whim, decided to keep a detailed account of his daily life in London for almost ten years, starting, auspiciously, in the year 1660, the same year Charles the II was crowned and the English monarchy restored. In this biography of the ambitious, observant, egotistic but also incredibly forthright (often at his own expense) man, Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin offers the reader incredible insights into not just Pepys, who rose from very humble beginnings to wine and dine with as well as earn the trust of powerful men who appreciated his intellect and cunning, but the King and court as well. It was Samuel Pepys who not only sailed with Charles when he returned to English shores after his exile, but in September, 1666, took it upon himself to warn King Charles that London was burning.

333295From his marriage to the much put upon and very young Elizabeth, to his rise up the ranks as an efficient and knowledgeable navy administrator and, later, parliamentarian, we follow Pepys’s footsteps up the ladder of bureaucracy and social life but also through some of the great events of that century – from the civil wars to the execution of Charles I and the Interregnum, followed by the Restoration. Against the backdrop of war, religious turmoil, plague, fire and the rebuilding of London, Pepys records his thoughts, desires, actions and those of others he observes in delightful (coded) detail, using French (or a version thereof) when the specificities are a little too saucy. Pepys was a staunch supporter of Cromwell until practicality made him switch loyalties to first Charles and, later, his brother, King James, proving himself over and over as man worth having by your side.

Throughout the decade that the diary records and the fuller, rich life on either side of the volumes into which Tomalin gives us incredible insights, we learn of Pepys’ patronage of various people, his pleasure in good food, clothing, books, theatre and women – from barmaids, to actresses, to his maidservants – and even his obsession with the King’s mistress, Barbara Palmer, about whom he dreams. Proud, clever, and incredibly hardworking, Pepys was also brave and endured much, especially in terms of his physical health. He survived an early kidney stones operation and his recording and Tomalin’s recreation of the surgery (if you can call it that), is not for the feint of heart.

With an eye for scandal, a love of gossip and the ability to place the reader in the moment by recording the most intimate of moments – Pepys’ diary and the life Tomalin introduces us too are really quite exceptional. I felt a cease of bereavement when I finished the book because I so enjoyed getting to know Pepys. While there were times I felt a little repelled by some of what he shares (eg. when he masturbates and how readily he touches up other women and lusts after them – he is a lecherous soul), the man, for all his faults (which we only know of because he so readily reveals them), grew on me. Mellowing in old age, allowing his ready compassion for fellow humans to come to the fore, Tomalin continues to give us the same type of depth of understanding that Pepys’ own words did, and this is testimony to her fine research, ability to analyse her discoveries and effortless prose, that she keeps Pepys alive not just socially, but also emotionally and psychologically.

The final words in the book sum up both Pepys and, indeed, this wonderful book beautifully. Tomalin writes of the diary: “The achievement is astounding, but there is no show or pretension; and when you turn over the last page of the Diary you know you have been in the company of both the most ordinary and the most extraordinary writer you will ever meet.”

Tomalin is extraordinary rather than ordinary and her book on Pepys is a marvel. That we have the diaries at all (and thus, Tomalin’s work) is more accident than design and the story of how they were found after years languishing on dusty shelves, unread and unknown, is a terrific way to end Pepys’s tale.

Whether you’re a lover of history, are curious about this well-known figure who was, in essence, just another London gent, or enjoy the period about which Pepys and Tomalin write, or are a fan of biographies, then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

 

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