Review: In This House of Brede

I finished this book on the flight from Seattle to Raleigh.  To my left was a dad watching a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.  To my right, across the aisle, was an Unaccompanied Minor who was too cool for school, or for playing peekaboo with the adorable toddler who kept popping over the seat in front of him.  The toddler gave up eventually, turned to me, and waved with that jellyfish finger wiggle of small children.  I smiled and waved back, but he looked quizzically at the tears in my eyes.  I was, yet again, having A Moment, courtesy of a book, in a public place.

Bird had recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede to me after she read it – part of her reading had, in fact, overlapped with us sharing a room at our nana’s house, and she kept me awake with her exclamations over the Benedictine monastery at Brede.  It’s a novel about nuns (Bird loves nuns) and a high-powered businesswoman, Philippa Talbot, who refuses a career-making promotion in order to go and follow the (unexpected) call to become a nun.  The book follows Philippa on her journey from preparing to enter the monastery to her Solemn Profession and beyond as she finds her place in the community in the years before Vatican II.

“What do you ask?”

“To try my vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Brede.”

At first, I found Godden’s narration a bit difficult to get used to.  It’s not quite like the third person omniscient one usually reads; there’s too much interjection from various characters, as though you’re dropping in on multiple overlapping conversations held in some sort of nondescript space, because it doesn’t matter where they said it, or even when (many of the side characters’ observations about events are followed by, “Dame So-and-so said afterwards“).  But, much like protagonist Philippa Talbot, once I grew accustomed to the rhythms of the story, I felt right at home.

The hop-around narration fit the community of the nuns, the self-effacement they were meant to seek, and the way each in turn affected all the others.  It is a book about relationships and communities of faith, and about relationships with people who understand neither community nor faith.  In one instance, Philippa’s former secretary is near death following complications from an abortion.  Her formerly shallow husband is shocked when Philippa says the sisters will pray for the secretary – “But they don’t even know her!” he says.  Nevertheless, all the sisters, even those with conflict between them, participate in a vigil praying fiercely for the life of this girl they do not know.

Another nun, Sister Cecily, struggles against her mother’s worldly expectations.  At her Clothing (when the postulant receives her novice’s habit to wear), Cecily’s mother calls the ceremony, which resembles a wedding, a mockery because there is no “real” bridegroom.  Cecily’s pain is palpable, for what could be more real to her than faith?  Godden gets vocation absolutely right – how some people are called to secular life, others to missionary work, and still others to contemplative lives, enclosed in a world of prayer that still touches and works for the world outside.

And meanwhile, the nuns are all too human.  Dame Veronica struggles with weakness of will and pride.  Abbess Hester leaves behind an enormous, secret debt from circumventing her advisers to achieve a pet project.  Philippa herself must unlearn all the things that made her so successful in the business world, realign her values, and learn to lean on the community.

Now, I don’t know how non-Catholics or non-Christians might like or dislike this novel, but I do think it could at least provide a genuine look at what religious communities strive to accomplish and how faith motivates everything they do.  Godden’s amazing portrayal of these characters as they navigate their personal relationships and their relationships with God struck me as so emotionally accurate that, yes, I found myself holding back tears on an airplane when I had to close the back cover and leave this house of Brede.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

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Review: The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

We bought this because of the nonfiction link to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Bird, Mom, and I passed it around.  This short memoir chronicles the childhood of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, who was born in the Metropol but spends little time there throughout her wild, chaotic upbringing.  Told in vignette-style chapters that seem to overlap and occasionally go out of order, Petrushevskaya shares her experiences alternating between near-homelessness and schools/camps with rigid expectations.  Sometimes I was cringing at the feral society she found on the streets, beyond the reach of her aunt and grandmother.  Sometimes I was sympathetic toward the unreasonable strictness of the structures that attempted to socialize her.

But Petrushevskaya’s language is the stuff of fairy tales (in fact, now I want to go read her other books, including There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby).  So the rhythm of the sentences and the pretty diction make the horrible things she writes about seem bearable.  It’s presented in the way of children – this is just how things are.  Her faith that her mother would return someday was a little heartbreaking from an adult perspective, but little Lyudmila is just so sure.  Mama will come back.  No one else will do.

It was the writing itself, presenting uncomfortable realities in such a pleasant way, that made me like the book.

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads