Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Friendship (page 1 of 3)

Something ‘that scares me’…

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

grasshopper-jungleOne of the few remaining squares on my summer(!) book bingo card has been crossed off with this novel. I find few ghost stories truly scary and own few horror novels of the type that would scare me. However, big creepy crawlies do make me squirm when confronted by them without glass in between us – at school we have several visits a year from various  bods with their boxes of huge beetles, stick insects and tarantulas – I keep resolutely behind the camera lens – those critters aren’t going to get on me!  So, come the day that we’re all forced to dine on insect protein, I will starve! The idea of the rise of insects is scary enough – but the thought that those insects could be dominated by six feet praying mantises which hatch from human hosts scares me sh*tless! This is what happens in this absolutely brilliant YA novel:

Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back and forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, …

Meet Austin Szerba, of Polish descent, and his best friend Robby Brees. Robby is gay, Austin has a girlfriend, Shann, but he loves Robby too. He’s your typical confused teenager.

They attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy and the boys from the public school, Herbert Hoover High, always bully them and slag them off. During the opening sections, Austin and Robby have an encounter with the bullies and Robby ends up with a dripping, bloody nose.  He starts to spell out a message on the tarmac in drips of blood – GRANT WALLACH MURDERED ME, but only gets as far as the Wa.

Austin works for Shann’s Dad at the weekends; he runs a used goods warehouse where there is a locked room in which Mr McKeon keeps his treasures that are not for sale. Many came from the labs his late brother ran before he died. There are pickled mutant animals in jars, a preserved human head, in other words – a ‘real life horror show.’ There are also sealed glass globes that pulsate with light and particles – one is labelled ‘McKeon Industries 1969 Contained MI Plague Strain 412E’.

One night Austin and Robby sneek in through the skylight to take a look – but sadly this coincides with the Herbert Hoover bullies deciding to break in, in search of booze and cigarettes. Austin and Robby hide and will escape. However, one of the bullies will take the globe and drop it on the tarmac outside near the bins where a tramp often lurked:

The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E said hello to Robby Bree’s blood on the asphalt in Grasshopper Jungle.

And the end of the world began at about 2.00 a.m., around three and a half feet away from a discarded floral print sleeper sofa infested with pubic lice in Ealing, Iowa. One time, Travis Pope unfolded the sofa and fucked his wife, Eileen, on it. (p72)

The blood will activate the bugs who will infest the seven people who accidentally come into contact with it. They will hatch out of these bodies into six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things – mate and eat. Yuck!

The blurb tells us about the giant insects as does the opening paragraph and, for once, knowing vaguely what’s to come raises the reader’s level of anticipation hugely and thus the macabre enjoyment from the horrific circumstances that have come about. Will anyone get out alive? Will it be the end of mankind? Will insects really rule the world? I’m not telling!

Yes, I know that in the real world those globes would have been safely destroyed (fingers crossed); they would not have been allowed to be inherited and stored in a simply locked office. A suspension of belief is required – but that was simple to do. This was because Austin and Robby were such brilliant characters and so easy to love.

Underneath the crazy horror story is the coming of age one, of Austin searching for his identity. Whether he’s straight or gay he’s not quite so certain, not being sure whether his love for Robby is fraternal or not. As a lad on the cusp of manhood, he is obsessed by sex and has a strong urge to lose his virginity one way or another soon! In between, he tells us how his Polish grandfather arrived in New York and how he worked to fit into his new world and how proud Austin is of his heritage, that’s one thing he’s not confused about.

Austin is delightfully forthright in his narration, feeling compelled to set down all the relevant facts for the record, making connections between them. He is a young man that strives to understand the big picture and where everyone fits in history. He’s a little geeky, a reader and diary-writer, whereas Robby is simply the best friend you could ever wish for. They were such good company. This being their story, their immediate families don’t feature much, but Austin gives us the bare details – for the record:

I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that. …

Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in the seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that. (p19)

This novel was entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure and told with great verve. Smith’s imagination runs riot but can go from gross-out to comedy to poignancy without faltering, making Grasshopper Jungle perfect for fans of Charlie Higson’s wonderful zombie novels for younger teens to graduate to. As an adult I adored it too. It has enough darkness and complexity to make a rewarding read for anyone from mid-teens upwards.  Grasshopper Jungle was actually Smith’s seventh novel, but the first to be published in the UK in 2014; I’ve ordered his latest from earlier this year The Alex Crow – can’t wait!  (10/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle. Electric Monkey (Egmont teens) 2014, paperback, 400 pages.

Girrrlfriends and Lovers…

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth

animals-pbFirstly congratulations once again to Emma who was one of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winners back in June.  I hadn’t read either of her novels, but she was so lovely, I bought Animals that night and she kindly signed it for me (crossing off the ‘By an author you’ve met’ box on my Book Bingo card too).

This novel took me right back to my student days, especially my first term at university where it I cultivated many friendships through the medium of gallons of beer/lager/cider (and a curry on a good night).  It was the late 1980s and beer was 34p a pint in the Union Bar, so we didn’t go out elsewhere very often, except for curry. Getting in with the rugby crowd, I didn’t do clubs or drugs either – it was all about the beer and I had a good time as a beer-swilling ladette – with lots of loo-breaks I imagine with all that volume!

Fast forward three decades – pre-loading with wine and vodka and whatever drugs are going before pubbing/clubbing/partying and more wine, more drugs and so on, followed by the most hellish hangovers is where it’s at these days (not for me though, I hasten to add). Meet Laura and Tyler. They’re not students however, they’re young women with jobs and they’re in the latter half of their twenties, but still living and behaving like students – most of the time. Laura is our narrator (please excuse the language):

What are you doing, you maniac? It’s Sunday!
It’s fucking Monday and I’m fucking late she said, batting a dimp out of her regulation baseball cap.
What’s that on your eye?

She turned to the mirror. Gasped and sighed. It’s a low-budget high-definition eyebrow.
It’s permanent marker.
It’s A Clockworkmotherfuckingorange Oh Lo Lo Lo, what am I going to do?  (p3)

A typical morning after the night before for the flatmates. Tyler is American and her parents bought the flat for her. She doesn’t really need to work, but does. Laura meanwhile is trying to write her first novel (provisionally called Bacon) and is always skint.

The two are best friends, but lately there is something, or rather, someone who is threatening their cameraderie. That someone looks like forcing Laura to make the decision to grow up and become a responsible adult. That someone is Jim, Laura’s fiancé. Jim, unexpectedly, is a concert pianist of growing reputation and he has recently become teetotal to help his focus on his playing. Predictably, Tyler can’t understand Laura over this:

‘So why marry Jim at all? Why this insistence on upheaval?’
I looked at her and kept looking at her as I brought my glass to my lips. I had to make light of it, had to. ‘I dunno, variety?’
‘You’re ruining my life for variety’s sake?
‘I’m not ruining your life! There’s more to your life than me! And I’m marrying Jim because I love him, I do, and this feels like…’ I couldn’t say ‘adventure’. ‘…progress.’ (p82)

It gets to us all eventually doesn’t it, reality finally sets in, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning when. This often coincides with finding that right person to settle down with. The big question remains though – Is Jim the right one for Laura? Is ‘progress’ enough? This dilemma is essentially the crux of the novel.

Although there are some very funny scenes, this is actually a rather dark novel – it’s Laura’s life, warts and all, so much more than just girls behaving badly.  The highs (some literally) and lows come one right after another. For instance, in one chapter she goes home to visit her parents – as it starts, she is in the loo:

I ducked as a jet of fine mist shot towards my face from the automatic air freshener on the medicine cabinet. I shook the remaining water off my hands and stepped to the other side of the bathroom. Pssssssshhhhhht! Another shot fired from a second air freshener on top of the toilet cistern.
I crouched and shielded my eyes, peered up through the gaps between my fingers. Above me a nimbostratus of ‘Cashmere Woods’ began to precipitate.
‘All right in there?’ My dad’s voice on the landing beyond the door.
I unlocked the door, opened it. There he was in his green plaid shirt, grinning, hunched, visibly thrilled he’d heard me swear.

I loved this encounter. However, just further down the page we read, ‘The effects of the chemo were showing.’ – taking us from the surreal perfumed world to the real one again.

Unsworth has plenty to say about the state of the nation for young women and what forms feminism takes today.  Tyler, being a brash foreigner is her own woman and appears at ease with herself; Laura is less sure about the choices that are winging her way.

This is a rather character driven novel – there isn’t a huge amount of plot – it rambles along, going from near drowning in pinot grigio to Laura waxing lyrical about Yeats. A cover quote from Caitlin Moran calls it ‘Withnail with girls’ and that fits rather well, especially as it ends up in the Lake District at one point.  It was funny, whimsical, filthy, moving, frequently frustrating – I often wanted to tell Laura to pull herself together, ha! but always an enjoyable read, although I breathed a sigh of relief at the end. Laura and Tyler were quite hard work, in a good way. (8/10)

I shall leave you with one of Laura’s dad’s jokes that she tells the vicar whilst having a fag-break in the graveyard after Tyler’s niece’s christening:

‘Higgs Boson walks into a church. Priest says. ‘Thank God you’re here! We can’t have Mass without you.’ ‘

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth. Pub by Canongate, paperback, 256 pages.

Capturing her memories…

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

shockaholicIn my review of Fisher’s previous slim volume of anecdotal memoir, Wishful Drinking, I wished she would write a full memoir a couple of years down the line. Instead, she has done more of the same, but you know what, I don’t care that it’s not the full memoir I previously craved, I loved being back in her company, however briefly.

In this volume she tells us about half a dozen episodes in her eventful life, all recounted with her characteristic tell-it-like-it-was wit, very self-deprecating humour and plenty of insight and true emotion too.

At the end of the introduction, she neatly paraphrases Proust to nail the flavour of the following pages:

So, before I forget, what follows is a sort of anecdotal memoir of a potentially more than partial amnesiac. Remembrances of things in the process of passing.

As you might guess from the title, she starts with an account of what it’s like to undergo ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), which is often seen as a treatment of last resort and portrayed in the media often as if it had never moved on from the original violent fitting effects when it was first devised.  Now carried out under mild anaesthesia, it takes just minutes. It blows away many of the effects of depression and mania, but at the cost of memory – mostly recent memory and an inability to form new memories for a short period.

Another thing is that I find myself forgetting movies and books, some of which I only recently enjoyed, which, if you think about it, is really not that bad, because now I can be entertained by them all over again. And grudges? How can you hold on to something you don’t remember having to begin with!

Having got the pretext of ECT out of the way, we dive into the episodes, starting with a story about briefly dating a senator in the mid-80s and holding her own at dinner against a usually dominating Ted Kennedy who continually tried to quiz her about sex – this was hilarious.

The next story tells of what you’d think of as an unlikely friendship with the ‘otherly’ Michael Jackson. However, both being addicts from dysfunctional families, they had a unique understanding and she personally witnessed him as a great father to his own children. Jackson had some redeeming features for her, despite his alleged inappropriate friendships with kids and the consequences; she gives her take on that, which is fascinating.

Another of Michael’s friends was of course, Elizabeth Taylor. She was Fisher’s step-mother for some years, Eddie Fisher having dumped Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, who later ran off with Richard Burton.  Taylor, famously loved to receive jewelry (Fisher’s spelling) and Michael Jackson obliged.  However Fisher recalls some other jewelry:

I remember coming into her dressing room one time and she was wearing this diamond as big as a doorknob that she always wore – the famous diamond Burton had given her. ‘What did you do to get that?’ I asked her. And she smiled sweetly and softly said, ‘I was loved.’

Presumably, this was Taylor’s ring containing the Krupp diamond (33+ carats) bought for her by Burton in 1968.

Taylor and Fisher had always had a distinctly frosty relationship until one day at an Easter Egg hunt at her ranch, Taylor pushed Fisher into the swimming pool for making fun of her in a speech at an AIDS benefit. This finally broke the ice, and Fisher has the photographs of the event to prove it.

Running through this collection of anecdotes though are memories of her father who died in 2010. Largely absent during her childhood, they would later get together when his star began to fade and she was turbulently married to Paul Simon:

Eventually (and/or after a year) my father moved to an apartment around the corner from Paul. And it was not too long after that that he began sneaking drugs to me.  This was when, like most fathers and daughters, we begain doing coke together. Our relationship had started with me longing for him to visit, eventually evolving into my being desperate for him to leave, setting finally and comfortably into us being drug buddies.

The final chapter is again about her father, but this time his last months, when addled by marijuana use and suffering dementia she became a carer, and she reflects how glad she was that they had managed to develop a relationship despite that difficult childhood.

Whereas Wishful Drinking was derived from her successful stageshow and sometimes came across as a performance on paper, Shockaholic is still just as wise-cracking but, tempered by the loss of her father, comes across as more thoughtful in tone. I do hope for more installments to read of Fisher’s fascinating life. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Shockaholicby Carrie Fisher (2011). Simon & Schuster 2013. Paperback, 176 pages.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008).


784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt


It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

When your best friends don't get on …

Gossip by Beth Gutcheon

gossip UK trade paperback cover

When the UK edition of Beth Gutcheon’s 2012 novel came out last year, I couldn’t resist the cover and oversized paperback format. However, that gorgeous cover is no more than a single snapshot in the lives of the three women it follows …

We start in 1960, when Loviah French is fifteen and enrolling at Miss Pratt’s – a boarding high school for girls in New York. Lovie’s family are from Maine, and she’s a country girl having a hard time at settling into this exclusive school that her folks can’t really afford.

Thank heavens for Dinah.  They met on their first day at school and will remain best of friends for life through thick and thin. Dinah’s father is a teacher at the school in an exclusive gated community in New England, so Dinah is outside that set, but a keen observer of how it all works, and she takes Lovie under her wing.

Lovie’s other real friend is Avis – the shy only daughter of a socialite couple. They also meet at Miss Pratt’s when Avis, three years older, is assigned to be a mentor to Lovie in the classes in etiquette and conversation leading up to coming out as debutantes. Although Avis and Dinah know of each other, at this stage they are individually friends with Lovie.

Lovie narrates their story and tells how they all came by their careers – Lovie being apprenticed to a dress designer, and eventually setting up an exclusive boutique of her own; Dinah becoming a journalist and having a successful gossip column; and Avis indulging her love of art being an expert at an auction house.

It’s 1983 and Dinah and Avis are/have been married/divorced and had children, Lovie is still single, but does have a devoted lover – shame he can’t leave his wife. Anyway, Lovie sets up a lunch for the three of them…

‘Doesn’t it seem a century ago that we were all locked up at Miss Pratt’s? To me it seemed like something out of Jane Eyre.’
‘Oh,’ said Avis gratefully, ‘that’s just what I thought! I was so homesick I wanted to weep, most of the time. …

… Avis and I were warming to our topic. She said, ‘I was used to having the city as my backyard. I missed the Met, I missed the symphony, I missed the art house cinema on weekends.’
‘I thought the whole thing was kind of a hoot,’ said Dinah.
I knew perfectly well she had hated every minute of it. Avis, caught up short, didn’t seem to know what to do.
‘You did not,’ I said.
‘I did. I decided to see if I could break every rule in their pompous little book without getting kicked out, and except for never having a boy in my roo, I think I did it.’
Avis look bewildered. …

… ‘Well,’ I said, ‘the world has changed so much, it all seems quaint now. Think of life before the Pill, or Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Ms. magazine. Before women could be doctors or lawyers-‘
Avis broke in, ‘Isn’t it true? And it’s not just women in professions … in our parents’ world, the professions themselves weren’t really acceptable, were they? Somehow gentlemen lawyers were all right, but when you were growing up, did your parents know doctors or schoolteachers socially?’
My heart had sunk into my shoes. I was saying to myself, Dinah, don’t say it, please don’t say it, when Dinah said, ‘My father is a schoolteacher.’

So Avis and Dinah could never be friends, and Lovie sees them separately through the decades. It is not until Avis’ daughter Grace meets Dinah’s son Nicky and marriage beckons, that they are forced to develop an arms-length relationship. There is a lot of drama along the way as families change over the decades, and it takes us up through 9/11 to a shocking climax that will shock all three to the core. Lovie tells it all.

gossip-pb-300As a result, this novel does rather meander through the years, but the author’s development of the three main characters is such that we do want to follow their lives. Avis may be rich, but she does have difficulties at home; Dinah comes unstuck as a gossip columnist when she uncovers unethical goings on; and Loviah is there throught thick and thin – their loyal supporter. Poor Lovie, she gets used by everyone including her best friends. You can sense that although she loves her gentleman friend, she misses having a family of her own, so makes sure that she is the best Godmother her friends’ children could have.

Beth Gutcheon’s narrator, Lovie, is a wonderful character. She has an eye for detail, setting the scene as the years go by through the fashions and styles of the day.  Dinah is the loud and confident friend that all quieter girls need to bring them out of their shells – but she is rather apt to shoot her mouth off. It was shy and sad Avis I felt for – despite being rich, she proves that money isn’t everything.

The blurb suggests that this novel is ‘in the tradition of Mary McCarthy’s classic The Group, however I (still) haven’t read that yet.  The Group is set much earlier, during the 1930s, but I could compare this book with other New York stories – Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. Gossip holds up well to the former, but I did like the Towles more.

Once we got past the schooldays, I really enjoyed reading this novel, absorbing myself in the lives of these three women.  Lovie dispenses her secrets gradually and the slowburn was worth staying with making this a satisfying read. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gossip by Beth Gutcheon. Atlantic Books 2013, Trade paperback, 288 pages. Std paperback now available too.
Valley Of The Dolls (VMC) by Jacqueline Susann
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
The Group (VMC) by Mary McCarthy

The loneliness of genteel old age…

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs Palfrey

This is only the second novel by Elizabeth Taylor that I have read, the first was In a Summer Season (reviewed here), but thanks to her popularity amongst many of my blogging friends I feel as if I know her works better than I do in reality.

The edition of Mrs Palfrey I read was the film tie-in one with the same introduction, given to me by a secret Santa a couple of years ago; I have only now got around to reading it! Last month Virago Modern Classics gave it a new livery adding it to their hardback collection (below).

For those unfamiliar with the story, a few lines of introduction:

Laura Palfrey is recently widowed, and as the book opens she is moving into the Claremont Hotel on the Brompton Road in Kensington. She will be a long-term resident of this affordable establishment, but doesn’t plan to stay there forever. One day out for a walk, she takes a tumble and is rescued by a young man who ekes out an existence while he writes his magnum opus. Mrs Palfrey and Ludovic strike up a friendship. He appears genuinely interested in old people, and when Mrs Palfrey is shamed by her grandson Desmond not coming to visit her at the hotel, she persuades Ludo to be a stand-in, and indeed she becomes a bit of a surrogate granny to him. Eventually the real Desmond will turn up to complicate matters.

Mrs P VMC Hdbk

The novel also follows the other older inhabitants of the Claremont, a collection of old ladies and one gent who have nothing better to do than gossip about each other until it’s gin o’clock, when they repair to dinner, each at their own table.

Mrs Palfrey’s urge to ask Ludo to pretend to be her grandson gives her a frisson of excitement. He comes to dinner at the Claremont, and Ludo is eyeing up the other residents as they in turn are watching him…

Ludo leaned back easily, but his eyes were darting to and fro, noting everything, noting Mrs Arbuthnot noting him, and Mrs Post, in her sad pot-pourri colours, fussing over her knitting.
‘Over there is Mrs Arbuthnot,’ Mrs Palfrey said, in a low voice to Ludo. ‘With the sticks.’
‘I thought so. I shouldn’t be afraid of her, you know. Although you seem very much the new girl around here.’
‘Of course. Mrs Arbuthnot has been at the Claremont for years.’
‘It has entered her soul.’
‘But we aren’t allowed to die here.’
He threw back his head and laughed.
‘But isn’t that sad?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘I don’t see anything sad about you,’ he said. He thought, I mayn’t write it down; but please God may I remember it. We Aren’t Allowed to Die Here. By Ludovic Myers.

The residents at the Claremont don’t get much excitement – so a new face is subjected to much speculation and scrutiny, and each piece of information extracted over sherry before dinner, is devoured and saved up for use another day. They don’t seem to really make friends with each other though – all being rather set in their ways.

Of course, eventually, they reach a state of such decrepitude that they must leave one way or another, something Mrs Arbuthnot is having to consider …

The time was coming, she knew, when she would no longer be able to manage for herself, with her locked and swollen joints, and so much pain. The Claremont was the last freedom she had left, and she wanted it for as long as she could have it. She knew the sequence, had foreseen it. Her total incapacity: a nursing-home then, at more expense than the Claremont, and being kept in bed all the time for the convenience of the nursing staff. Or going to stay with one of her sisters, who did not want her. Or – in the end – the geriatric ward of some hospital.
Can’t die here, she thought, in the middle of this night. And there might be years and years until that. Arthritis did not kill. One might go on and on, hopelessly being a nuisance to other people; in the end, lowering standards because of rising prices. For her, the Claremont was only just achieved. Down the ladder she obviously would have to go.

The other residents are also well-drawn, but it wasn’t until I read Dovegreyreader’s post here that I got the joke about one of them – Mrs Burton, who likes a tipple – and turns out to be a little parody of the author’s more famous namesake, and is growing old slightly disgracefully. I loved reading about the residents of the Claremont.

Now to Ludo, being young and easily distracted, he on one hand is less interesting, but he is also unusual in his concern for Mrs Palfrey. Of course she becomes a bit of a project for him, but his motives don’t (on a first reading at least) appear mercenary – indeed it is touching that he works as a waiter to replay a loan which Mrs P gives him to help out his mother. It was such a shame that Mrs P’s own family didn’t show any of Ludo’s concern.

Despite the central theme of the sadness of growing old on one’s own, Taylor adds so many humorous touches, she seems to combine the two extremes perfectly to make a whole that is a joy to read. This novel isn’t as grim as Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn (reviewed here), another 1970s novel of old folk, but Taylor’s keen eye sees all – and I will look forward to re-reading this book in due course to spot other nuances that I’ve missed on my first reading. (9.5/10)

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Source: Gift. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Elizabeth Taylor, new Hdbk edition from VMC – other formats available, 208 pages.

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