Monday, January 19, 2009

Two novels and a bit of lit crit

7. Fraud, by Anita Brookner

I was not familiar with Ms. Brookner's work until I received a copy of this book at a Bookcrossing Meet-up. When the book begins, we learn that Anna Durrant, a middle-aged spinster, has disappeared from her London flat. Her life, and the events leading up to her disappearance, unfold through her eyes and those of other characters in the novel.

Having spent her entire life living with, and caring for, her recently-deceased mother, Anna at first seems to be one of those women without independent social and intellectual resources, who depend upon others lives to make their own interesting. But we gradually learn that that is not the case, just as we learn about the fa├žades her friends and acquaintances have erected in order to live up to the expectations of society, family and themselves. Brookner slowly and realistically reveals the truth behind these "frauds", alternately dashing and reinforcing our stereotypes of spinster daughter, devoted grandmother, and the like. A well-written, complex novel.

8. Jan & Catharina, by Michael Tobias

To begin, a confession. I bought this book primarily because of its design and illustrations. It is graced with black-and-white photographs by Rocky Schenk, images which in their intended blurriness are reminscent of watercolors. Interspersed throughout the book are full-page translucent sheets with details from paintings of Vermeer.

I wish the text had been has compelling. The protagonist is an FBI agent who is sent to the Netherlands to try to locate and recover a Vermeer painting that has been stolen from a Boston museum. There seems to be no reason for this. He is not an art expert, not a part of the art squad. For the flimsiest of reasons, he is also himself suspected of the theft. This assignment thus beggars belief. How someone with a few weeks training in Dutch art is expected to realistically set up as an antiques dealer in order to lure the thief to him is, frankly, beyond me.

In Delft, our hero wanders into a bakery, and immediately falls for a young woman who works there, an infatuation that he later realizes connects to her resemblance to Vermeer's wife, whose name, you will not be surprised to learn, is the same as the young woman's. Throughout the book, imagined scenes from Vermeer's life are juxtaposed with the activities of the protagonist (who has taken the alias "Jan" for his assignment). Connections and coincidences abound. Logic and common sense, so necessary to any detective story, do not.

9. The Maniac in the Cellar: Sensation Novels of the 1860s, by Winifred Brooks

Any lover of the Victorian triple-decker should find this book a treat. Hughes shows how the sensation novels of M.E. Braddon, Charles Reade, Wilkie Collins and their fellows developed from the Gothic works that preceded them. But rather than ruined abbeys and other exotic settings, these books are set prosaically in Victorian home and hearth. These ordinary places, familiar to the books' readers, are juxtaposed with bigamy, adventuresses and murder, threatening and endangering the Victorian ideas of domesticity and femininity. And yet, Brooks makes clear that, at the same time, a close reading of these works reveals that they are reinforcing these ideals. If the hearth is threatened, it is nevertheless true that an adulterous Lady Isabel (East Lynne) is severely punished, ending unrecognized as a governess to her own child in the home her husband now shares with his new wife.

If there was any danger to one's morals in reading sensation novels, there is also danger to one's pocketbook in reading this book, as one scribbles down the names of authors and novels mentioned by Brooks, ready for the next visit to one's local bookstore!

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