The heroine of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal is a forty-year old single woman who is finally learning to drive, although it’s not clear that she will ever earn a driver’s license. She sustains an unending inner monologue on whether she is good enough at anything, not just driving, and pines for her childhood in rural Denmark. All that leads nowhere besides well-observed ruminations, so not enough action for my taste but might work for other readers.
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?
The heroine of This Mournable Body is a no-longer-young woman who, having left a dead-en job, finds herself living precariously at the mercy of various landlords, would-be bosses, and family members. The book is a long rumination on how humiliated she is by everyone around her — and indeed how women are treated harshly throughout society. It’s depressing and without escape, and moves so slowly that I almost gave up finishing it.
Clock Dance is the smoothly-told story of a woman, Willa, who grows up with a disturbed mother, marries young, loses her husband young, and then, inexplicably, gets drawn into helping her son’s ex girlfriend and her daughter (who is not, crucially, her granddaughter) when the girlfriend lands in the hospital. The author gently highlights Willa’s skill at taking care of people, her need to do so, even, and how she often loses herself in that effort. It’s beautifully observed.
Nur Jahan, the subject of Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan was the twentieth wife of a Mughal emperor who, despite behind cloistered, at least in theory, and not exactly high-ranking as a wife (although it seems that her husband had wanted to marry her for years), managed to share her husband power, have coins minted in her name, led troops into battle, and even shot a few tigers (with a monstrous-looking musket; the illustration is amazing!) The last quarter of the book, with the political intrigue surrounding the end of her husband’s life, is as tedious as one can imagine, but the rest of the story is vivid and full of details about the life of the Mughal sovereigns, from their amazing wealth to their herds of elephants, to their vast empire and their conflicts with their neighbors. Nur’s life was amazing, and I wish the book did not constantly try to make it more amazing than it was. It’s very clear that her power derived from the one she had on her husband (remarkable for the time, and considering the unlovely custom of the harem), but the minute he disappeared, she was out, too.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — albeit lonely, misunderstood, and an alcoholic. But she finds herself pushed into what is for her an active social life when she rescues a man who fell in the street, and through his family and a delightful friendship with a coworker she renounces her crazy crush on a bad popular singer, renounces vodka, and deals with her nightmarish childhood.
The book reminded me of Convenience Store Woman, but set in England and with a more uplifting ending. It’s funny but also sweet.
A cheesy title does not mean a cheesy story, but in the case of Give Me Your Hand, it’s truth in advertising. Despite the enticing research lab setting, headed by a woman no less, and the always-welcome main character of a female psychopath, the very dark story of murders and coverups had too many bated-breath chapter endings, not to mention a wholly improbable succession of events. If you want to try reading it anyway, prepare to relish a wonderful secondary character: the mouse house caretaker, who reigns on his domain and judges everyone. He is the best part of this forgettable story.