Friday, December 25, 2009

Lit Crit at Christmas

Merry Christmas bibliophiles!

I finished two books yesterday, "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant and "The French Gardener" by Santa Montefiore.

I picked up a copy of Dunant's "Birth of Venus" and "In the Company of the Courtesan" before Thanksgiving, and was going to just add them to my TBR stack and get to them later, when I happened upon the Queen of the Seattle book scene, Nancy Pearl, interviewing Dunant at University (of Washington) Bookstore, and I was glued to my seat for the next 30 minutes. Dunant is a fascinating British woman who does extensive research and has a unique POV in all her novels, particularly the four book set that she began with "Birth of Venus." Apparently she wanted to have her novels speak not only from a woman's point of view, but also from the inside of convents in Italy and France that were stuffed full of women and girls who were required to be there because they were unmarriagable, poor, widowed or disgraced.
Once I began reading Birth of Venus I realized I'd read it before, and I don't recall if I liked it or not, but this time, I really enjoyed the story, the setting of Medici Florence (in the 15th century)and the protagonist, willful artistic genius Alessandra Cecchi. Alessandra is a child of the Renaissance, and loves to draw and paint, but though she is educated and the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant, she is still proscribed in what is allowed of her, and painting/artistry as a career is only allowed for men and boys. She is expected to marry and produce children and run a household. Unfortunately, Alessandra has two brothers, one a cruel and vituperative gay man, and the other a dolt who loves to fight and kill. When a former monk turned painter is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated by him,and tries to get him to help her learn to be an artist.
Her brother, noticing that his sister strains at her bonds of staying virginal and in the household at all times, sets her up with his lover, and after the two marry Alessandra realizes that she is being used to keep her brothers lover from being arrested by the religious fanatics and tortured into confession of his 'sin' of being a homosexual. Christoforo, her husband, only has sex with her to procure an heir, and Alessandra soon finds herself in need of something more in her relationship. After rescuing her family's painter from a deep depression, she has sex with him and becomes pregnant, but isn't sure if her child is the painters or her husbands.
Soon after her evil brother is arrested, her husband pays to rescue him, fakes his own death and runs away with her brother (who now has a kind of plague)and Alessandra is forced to move into a convent with her slave Erila and her daughter. The painter finds her, makes love to her many more times and tattoos her body with a large serpent which winds down from her shoulder to her pubic area. She has her servant Erila brew her a concoction to allow her death, and she fakes using a pigs bladder full of offal as a breast cancer tumor to help others believe that this is why she died.
I found the book riveting reading, staying up until 1 am to finish it. Dunant's prose is complex and rich with images that make you feel like you are right there in Florence, watching them burn paintings and gowns and other items believed to be too showy and not pious enough for the current political/social climate. Like most British authors, she can go overboard on the details, but Dunant only strays into the minutia a few times, thankfully.
I would recommend this book to anyone who finds stories of women in art, women in history and women in religious communities interesting. It certainly beats the skirts off of most "chick lit" novels.
This brings us to The French Gardener, which was an impulse buy from the library book cart. The author is also British, but is not of the same calibre as Dunant.
Miranda and David Claybourne are successful Londoners, with two children, Gus and Storm, who purchase a country estate that is in near ruins. Miranda is a freelance writer who yearns to be a novelist (she constantly complains that writing articles is soulless and unworthy of her talent as a writer, because we all know that writing for magazines and newspapers doesn't make you a real writer, only a fictional novel can do that, right?) and doesn't see much of her lawyer/banker husband, because he's got a mistress (her best friend, but she doesn't know that) that he's keeping on the side while both parents ignore their children, who are in turn sullen bullies due to lack of parental guidance or attention.
The first 80 pages of this novel goes into detail of the lives of these awful people, who are all shallow, cruel and stupid. I was ready to throw the book against the wall and call it a day, when the author introduced the character of the French gardener, a man named Jean Paul, who came to work for the Claybournes because of his history with the estate, and his illicit relationship with the previous owner's wife, Ava. We learn, though Miranda's reading of Ava's journal and scrapbook, that Jean Paul had come to their estate at the behest of his father, who wanted him to gain wisdom and maturity, as well as gardening skills, so that one day he might take over his family's vineyard in France. Ava, who is happily married to a man much older than she is, (and who has three children) teaches Jean Paul about the magic of gardening and helping things to grow, and in so doing, Jean Paul falls in love with her and eventually wears down her resistance to a physical relationship. Ava realizes she can never give JP what he really wants, which is a full marriage, because she still loves her husband and children, and when her husband has a stroke, she moves away with her family and leaves JP unsuspecting that she is pregnant with his child (whom she names Peach, which borders on the precious and silly). Miranda learns of all this, eventually weaning herself away from her expensive and glamorous London lifestyle, and after befriending some of the locals, embarks on her novel, telling the story of Ava and JP. She also comes to realize how neglected her children are, once she sees how carefully and lovingly JP takes them in hand, building them a tree house, teaching them to plant and grow a garden and generally giving them the time and attention they seem to crave. Once the children begin to turn around in their attitudes, so does Miranda, and once she realizes her husband is having an affair, she bans him and her vulgar best friend from the estate. David Claybourne is mortified when he realizes he's lost his family for a cheap and sleazy affair that meant nothing to him, and he begs to be given a second chance.
Here is where the novel veers off into extreme fantasy, in my opinion. I find it hard to believe that a wealthy snob like David who thoroughly enjoyed having his cake and eating it too would give a rats rump about his wife and children, when he's been virtually ignoring them for years. Just because he has been exposed as a jerk and a cheating heel of a guy doesn't mean he will change his nature overnight, and suddenly become a loving husband and father. Nor does it mean his wife and children will just accept him as that, when they've all been shown what an asshat the man is over the years. I felt that Miranda and her children were much better off without David, who I really though deserved to wither and die alone somewhere after making such a mess of his life. However, with that kind of shallow person, it seems doubtful that is what he'd do...more likely he'd mess around with dozens of women and enjoy the life of a sleazy divorced businessman. He didn't seem to see women as anything but possessions anyway, something he felt he 'deserved' as part of his success. So the ending when they're all back together as a family and happy seemed far fetched to me. Poor old JP learns that the love of his life, whom he's waited for, died without telling him about his daughter, but he meets her and is enchanted by her in the end, and takes her back to his estate in France. Still, it seemed like JP got the short end of the stick there. There is a nice secondary storyline with a pudgy townswoman named Henrietta who learns to love herself just as she is, and gets the local farmer falling for her in the bargain, which is charming, but all too brief.
I'd give this novel a solid B grade, though I am tempted to add a minus for those first onerous 80 pages.
Fortunately, for Christmas I got a copy of Jennie Shortridge's "When She Flew" which I plan on delving into immediately, along with Dunant's second novel, "In the Company of the Courtesan."

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