Part history, part society pages, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy describes dozens of young American women whose family’s lack of pedigree marooned them from fashionable society in New York but whose wealth was eminently attractive to impoverished British aristocrats. After marrying, their titles opened them, and their parents, a place in the surprisingly closed New York high society, which their mothers knew very well, and had worked to achieve, sometimes at the expense of the daughters.
It was not all fun and games. They often discovered that the wonderful castles of their new husbands were unheated hovels when it came to modern conveniences, and staffed by servants that nursed contempt for their naivete, while their new husbands were very free with their marital vows.
The book sometimes veers into a gossip column (and after a few chapters some of the women start to blend together) but it draws an interesting portrait of two elites in need of each other.
The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the latest Flavia De Luce mystery, in which she finds a corpse and proceeds to identify both the murderer and a wrongly-convicted one. The usual chemistry high jinks abound, accompanied here by copious literary quotes, maybe a little too precious? But fun, as fun as a book with a murdered young man could pretend to be.
Gaudy Night is simply the reunion at the first women’s college in Oxford, and it’s the start of a series of pranks and threatening letters that cause the dean to ask one of the alumnae, a mystery writer, to investigate. The action moves slowly along 523 pages, with minute descriptions of the various professors and students, the quaint customs and schedule of the college, and the 1935 sexism that characterizes the college system, town, and society as a whole. So slowly that I found the main pleasure of the book to lie in its descriptions of a time long past, when female college students were carefully watched after 11pm (not that they did not manage to work around it!) and only a handful would get to have a professional life. That said, the overall intrigue is marred by the fact that our fearless heroine is, in fact, obliged to bring her (male) lover to untangle the mystery. Is her brain too feeble for this?
Can I say that a book is hilarious when it talks about the lonely death of the author’s addicted sister? And his late mother, who seemed to have drunk herself to death? That’s part of the charm of David Sedaris’s latest collection of stories , strangely named Calypso (he has a track record of strange titles): he is not afraid to talk about the sad parts of life, and talk about them again. That’s not to say that there are not purely (or mostly) happy moments in the book: playing Sorry with his ruthless niece, feeding the neighborhood fox on the sly, or constructing a perfect couple for the benefits of house guests. The descriptions of the relationship with his boyfriend is indeed one of the pleasures of the book, with all the silly little wars that long-term partners can wage in between the realization that he is, actually, a very good person.
Do you think of Victorians as repressed and always perfectly proper individuals, Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum may change your mind. The author tells five stories that illuminate how they looked at out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the power of women to choose mates, the importance of social class, and child violence. What I liked the most about the book was the way the author could start talking, say, about a suspicion of pregnancy in one of young Queen Victoria’s lady attendants, and take us right into the shenanigans and intrigue of the court, including the very undignified behavior of Queen Victoria herself, who, it seemed, started quite wild before becoming o so proper.
That said, the book is a tad long and discursive.
I thought Inspector Dalgliesh was awfully young in Cover Her Face, not realizing until I sat down to write this review that it was the very first Dalgliesh mystery in the series. And young Dalgliesh operates, logically, in a post-WWII atmosphere peopled with country squires, parlor maids, and falling apart once-grand homes that feel like an Agatha Christie mystery. It’s quite interesting to see a different-time setting.
The story is also Christie-like, with the least-suspected person ending up as the murderer (now, did I give it away?). More interestingly, the victim is herself rather devious, so the inquest is as much about her as it is about finding the killer. Old-fashionedly delightful.
Ian Mc Ewan has written a book with a very clever premise of the narrator being an unborn baby. But beyond that unique perspective, the plot of Nutshell is entirely expected from the start, and the unique perspective of the baby seems to bring little new to the story, except from an altogether overly precious knowledge of wine (the mom drinks a lot) and very repetitive sex interludes (her lover is assiduous, if mercifully brief). It could be quite fun if the unexpected point of view was fleshed out (haha) in more detail.